The Myth of Following Our Passion

For over twenty years as a coach, I was lucky to work with a ton of exceptional teenagers.

They were uber-intelligent, eye-poppingly athletic, startlingly creative, and about 43% of them were certifiably insane. In short, I've seen a lot.

But one thing I noticed over and over again was that it seemed like something was leading them astray. Some of these extraordinary teenagers (heck, most of them) had some cockamamie ideas about what their 18-year-old lives should be focusing on.

And one topic I heard repeatedly centered around passion. Many didn't know what they were supposed to be passionate about, whether that be their college choice, college major, their career, or even their lives. They felt lost and left out because it was their understanding that they should know their passion by now--and they didn't. I saw a lot of sadness because of this.

No wonder they were sad. They were focusing on a myth rather than the solution to their problem. It turns out, it's not just teenagers who think this way.

"Finding your passion" is a dangerously misleading concept. As Cal Newport talks about in his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, there are real problems with following your passion.

Here's a hypothetical example. 

Let's say my passion revolves around reading comic books in a bean bag chair while sipping tea with a dash of cayenne pepper. It brings me peace; it fuels my creative process; it brings me non-stop feelings of elation. It's my passion!

So I go to my mom, dad, or significant other and tell them, "I'm following my passion. I'm opening a comic book store!"

I don't have any research on if that will work. I don't have anyone beating down my door begging for a comfortable place to read graphic novels. I don't know if anyone else in the world likes tea with cayenne pepper (which will be served exclusively at my comic book drink bar). I don't know any of this, but I do know I have passion!

Now compare that to the hypothetical job offer I got from the graphic design firm downtown. They offered me a $75k base salary with benefits, raises every year, and the opportunity to work from home a few days a week. How does that sound?

Well, the hypothetical me turned it down. Why? Because it wasn't my passion. If I take that job, I'm turning my back on a passionate, fulfilling life. I'm a sell-out (or so I'm told).

Wait a second, though. Why does that make me a sell-out? What if I take that job with the idea that I'm still going to open a comic book store? But, in the meantime, I'm going to learn about graphic design, learn about marketing, and also have money in my pocket. With that money, I can start looking into possible leases for my store or start researching comic book store success rates. 

Or I may find out I don't want to open a store at all. By diving in and working my butt off, maybe I meet some really great people. And maybe those really great people tell some other really great people about the excellent work I do. And then maybe I get a call from Pixar to come work on one of their development teams.

In that scenario, instead of being the owner of a small comic book store, I now help create billion dollar major motion pictures. In the first scenario, I have passion and a store no one comes to.

Let's tally it up.

Example 1: I get to read comic books for six months alone in my store until I'm forced to close shop. My savings account is depleted, and I have no prospects for what comes next. 

Example 2: I have seven figures in the bank, and I do work I learned to love deeply.

The difference? I didn't follow my passion. Instead, I did the work.

Doing the work, as well as we possibly can, always allows us to end up in the right place. On the other hand, if we blindly follow our passion, maybe 1 idea out of 100 will break out. And that's awesome. It's awesome when a blind, passionate shot in the dark pans out. We've all been riveted by those stories.

But we don't hear much about the other 99 times that following their passion ended up devastatingly bad, like me and my failed comic book store.

So if I could offer just one small bit of advice: Don't follow your passion. Follow your work ethic. Work hard. Be so useful your job can't contain you. Totally immerse yourself in what you're doing. If you do that, you'll end up in a very good place.

And most likely, you will have found that ever-elusive passion along the way. Putting hard work in front of passion usually ends up in a passionate place anyway.

Funny how that works.