Is 'Follow Your Passion' Bad Career Advice?

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I’m a big fan of Sir Ken Robinson (particularly the TED talk he did on how schools kill creativity which is the most watched of all time). His book The Element is a powerful evocation of how finding the point where your natural talent meets your personal passion can lead to high achievement and personal fulfillment in work and in life. It all feels perfectly tidy and logical.

Yet do we all really know from the start what that talent and what that passion is? I’m not sure I did. I’ve always looked upon those who apparently had a clear vocational direction in their careers with envy. And yet I seem to have ended up doing something I get a lot from and fortunately seem to be passably good at.

This piece by Cal Newport (drawing on his new book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love) makes the case that instead of matching a work environment to a pre-existing passion, the kind of traits that make most of us happy and motivated in our work are agnostic to the specific type of job and more akin to the kind of thing that Dan Pink talked about in Drive – the very human need for autonomy, to create and learn new things, and act in support of a purpose bigger than ourselves.

The other key point he makes is that possessing a pre-existing passion is actually quite rare and that most people who end up happy in their work “follow much more complicated paths on which passion emerges slowly over time”. In other words, it’s very possible to end up feeling passionate about your work without having followed a particular passion to begin with. In the absence of an overriding calling or mission to give direction to our careers, pursuing the kind of traits that Dan Pink talked about requires the development of valuable skills to offer in return, which takes time and effort. Once attained however, these skills can be used to take more control of your career, taking you on a course that may be far from an expected or standard direction, and so requiring courage but offering great potential rewards:

“Don’t set out to discover passion. Instead, set out to develop it. This path might be longer and more complicated than what most upbeat career guides might preach, but it’s a path much more likely to lead you somewhere worth going”.

There is something here about the power of belief in yourself and what you’re interested in, and the need to actively explore and nurture that. In this blunt (and pretty quirky) TEDx talk, Larry Smith (a Professor of Economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada) talks about the kind of excuse-traps it’s so easy to fall into, and how important it is to look for your passion.

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This excellent and comprehensive round-up from Eric Barker on what principles should guide your career (drawing on another Dan Pink work The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need) makes some similar points and is worth reading, and reading again. But to pick out his six concepts:

1. There is no plan – it’s impossible to predict what will happen in our careers so embrace uncertainty and make decisions for fundamental (that which we care about or believe in) rather than instrumental (things that get us from one point to another regardless of whether we enjoy it or not) reasons.

2. Strengths not weaknesses. Rather than working on fixing your weaknesses, focus on capitalising on your strengths

3. It’s not about you – improve your own life by improving the lives of others. Helping others helps us to be happy and we become more successful when we’re happier.

4. Persistence trumps talent. In the vast majority of cases, it is not natural talent that controls what we achieve in life (a point well made by Matthew Syed in Bounce). Rather, it is determination and hard work (and what Syed calls ‘deliberate practice’).

5. Make excellent mistakes. Most successful people it seems, make big mistakes along the way (and as Stephen Johnson says “error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions”)

6. Leave an imprint. Barker quotes from psychologist Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Change Your LIfe in Under a Minute:

“Asking people to spend just a minute imagining a close friend standing up at their funeral and reflecting on their personal and professional legacy helps them to identify their long-term goals and assess the degree to which they are progressing toward making those goals a reality.”

Remember that top 5 regrets of the dying thing? One of them was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”. If you’re fortunate enough to have a burning passion to pursue I wish you good luck in doing just that. If (like most of us) you’re not, stop giving yourself a hard time and start questioning, exploring, and experimenting with what interests you. The more you push, and the more you learn, the more likely you are to find what you’re really good at and what will give you a fulfilling and enjoyable way to pay the mortgage. As Cal Newport says, if you’re unfulfilled in your current position, start by asking how you can become more valuable. Something else I’d also add – if your thinking and skills are not valued where you are now, it’s never been more achievable to get out there and find somewhere where they are.

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