Choosing a Career? Don’t Just “Follow Your Passion”

Natalie Thomas
A man stands alone on a forest path, facing away.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

A Stanford psychological study

 found that the culturally prevalent concept of “following your passion” may ultimately be more discouraging than encouraging. Advocating the long-term pursuit of a singular, cardinal passion may cause people to narrow the scope of their efforts and ambitions to a harmful degree. Placing all-or-nothing stakes on one static long-term goal, while also ignoring other potential avenues of interest or achievement, is not a combination that is likely to breed confidence.

The advice to “follow your passion” is short-sighted, along with many other obsolete job hunting tips. Passions are often based on romanticized pursuits, like competitive sports or the arts. These are very realistic and fulfilling hobbies, but they are not necessarily realistic lifetime goals.

The advice to “follow your passion” overlooks the fact that, without a multi-faceted framework of life experience, personal life goals will often lack nuance. This is a lesson many college students learn the hard way; they are so focused on an educational goal that they forget to consider whether they are benefitting from said education. Despite what your parents may say, investing time and money into a degree isn’t always a good idea.

What Is Your Passion? 

Not only is a singular passion intimidating but it can also stunt the cultivation of a healthy range of skills and interests. Psychological experts and modern philosophers alike often agree that healthy passions are well-balanced endeavors that an individual has the opportunity to explore and develop.

Developing multiple skills can also have the benefit of giving a multi-talented person the edge over those who only focus on one skill in the job market. At the very least, being multi-talented could allow one to launch a profitable side hustle.

It stands to reason that since humans are complex creatures, they need to nurture complex interests in order to receive a healthy amount of mental stimulation. Stubborn focus on only one goal may cause a person to ignore other paths that they might have otherwise taken a liking to — perhaps even enough to knock the previous, primary goal off of its pedestal.

Furthermore, the “follow your passion” mindset may even inhibit the primary goal from developing in a healthy or profitable way, despite and because of the individual’s fixation on it. When someone has put all of their eggs in the basket of a single pass-or-fail undertaking, it is no surprise that they may become hesitant to fully approach the goal for fear of failure or find themselves incredibly demoralized by normal obstacles.

What Does It Mean to “Follow Your Passion”?

The maxim “follow your passion” serves as encouragement to follow-up on your dreams. In a career context, this would ideally result in the attainment of work that is fulfilling. How to find a career that is both lucrative and enjoyable is a perennial debate, and following your passion may not be the resolution to it.

Applying the “follow your passion” advice to one’s work life could actually result in missed opportunities and job burnout. When one doggedly pursues one path, regardless of whatever other intriguing avenues appear, they tend to overlook job opportunities. Furthermore, ignoring interesting side ventures to toil after a single goal may eventually result in resentment toward the original goal. This would completely defeat the purpose of the “follow your passion” philosophy, which aims to encourage a gratifying career.

Choosing a Career

There is nothing wrong with searching for work that you enjoy. However, it may be more rewarding in the long run to interpret the advice of “following your passion” through a broad scope. First of all, maybe you like a niche field. With time, however, you might find another niche in the same field that you enjoy even more. It may be beneficial to closely evaluate why you enjoy an activity.

Maybe, for example, you enjoy landscaping because of the opportunities for outdoor activity —  not because you are deeply invested in lawn care. Or maybe you like building model cars because the delicate work is satisfying, not because the automotive industry is particularly appealing. When you identify what you are truly looking for in a career, you’ll be able to more accurately find a path to fulfillment.

Is Following Your Passion Profitable?

Scott Galloway, a self-made millionaire, is outspoken on this topic. However, his advice is not simply “don’t follow your passion.” He goes on to posit an alternative strategy which revolves around following up on talent. According to this theory, it is more profitable to bolster one’s existing talents rather than to pursue a dream career.

Commonplace passions like acting or painting are rarely lucrative, and success in such fields often involves a strong element of luck. Moreover, Galloway theorizes that what hugely successful individuals are often most passionate about is success itself. It may seem shallow to pursue success and profit foremost as a career goal, but the end result is not the only benefit.

The process of success can be fulfilling. Strategizing, setting, and achieving goals creates a set of challenges that invest the human mind in a positive way — perhaps even more than the exasperating pursuit of a dream career seen through rose-colored glasses.

In fact, the results of many studies contradict the “follow your passion” philosophy as well as the even more common admonition that “money can’t buy happiness.” Some research suggests that the factors that make people feel the happiest in the workplace are job security, a comfortable work-life balance, and a high degree of independence on the job. Additionally, higher income and happiness demonstrates a positive correlation. Striving for happiness and striving for a well-paying job are not contradictory efforts, despite common cultural assumptions.

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