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Friday, April 12, 2013

Please, DON'T Follow Your Passion!

For the past twenty years or so, the mantra of most of the so-called “experts” in career guidance has been to “follow your passion.” With the result that by now, just about everyone assumes the answer to what you should do when you grow up is “follow your passion.”

Well I’d like to offer some alternative advice: whatever you do, don’t just follow your passion!

I say that having spent my career helping people think through their life and career directions. When I first heard about “following your passion,” it sounded like a good idea.  I mean, it has the feel of doing what you love, doing something you can put your heart into. Who wouldn’t want to work at a job like that? 

One person even wrote a book along these lines entitled, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (ah, every Baby Boomer’s dream!).

But since I was working all day, every day with real, live people trying to figure out what to actually do with their lives, it didn’t take me long to see that this notion of “following your passion” is nothing but a red herring

Going Down a Rabbit Trail
Let me use a rather graphic analogy to explain what I mean. Work with me on this!

People who have terminal cancer will sometimes go to extreme lengths to find a cure (I’m speaking from personal experience). As a result, there’s a whole underground economy in this world comprised of “doctors” offering alternative forms of cancer treatments. I’ve heard of approaches involving apricot pits, wheat grass, mistletoe, shark cartilage, acupuncture, magnets, pomegranate juice, marijuana, even urine. 

The irony of virtually any approach is that if a hundred people try it, at least some of them will show improvement. Their fortunate turn of health may have nothing to do with the treatment. They just spontaneously get better. One or two may even end up “cured.” For whatever reason, their cancer just goes away! Thus the treatment is declared to “work.” 

But the other patients end up dying. Naturally, the practitioners never mention them.

Well the same principle applies with “following your passion.” A handful of people who have just gone out and “followed their passion” by doing what they loved have ended up making some decent money. But the majority are still waiting for the check to arrive.

Passionate By Nature—Or Not
Look, some people are just passionate by nature. They’re passionate about their work. They’re passionate about their family. They’re passionate about their faith. They’re just passionate people! Golf, chocolate, barbecue, C&W music, hot rods, sports teams, yoga, sex, you name it, they’re passionate about it!

However, the vast majority of the rest of us are not particularly passionate about anything. It’s not like we don’t care (although, unfortunately, some people don’t). But we rarely exhibit our likes or dislikes with the kind of energy and expressivism that rises to the level of “passion.”

For this reason, I get a phone call almost every week from someone who says, “Bill, I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. Everyone keeps telling me to follow my passion. The problem is, I don’t know what my passion is! Can you help me find it?” (Curiously, more men than women express this thought; maybe it’s a guy thing.)

The person is always relieved when I tell them that they don’t have to have one, giant, over-riding “passion” to figure out what to do with their life. Some people have that. But most people don’t.

And it’s a good thing. I don’t want my bank tellers to be passionate! Friendly, yes. Professional, yes. But passionate? C’mon! 

I am not joking: I walked into the branch of a major, brand-name bank near my office not long ago and was accosted by four different people who said loudly, energetically, and I daresay robotically, one right after after the other, “HELLO! WELCOME TO ________ BANK. HOW CAN WE HELP YOU TODAY?” 

When I left, one by one they said (with the same energy level), “THANK YOU FOR STOPPING BY! HAVE A GREAT DAY!” (special emphasis on “great”).

I’ve never gone back to that branch again.

Passion is an emotional response to something that moves you deeply. Some people have a pretty wide emotional bandwidth. So they feel things deeply all the time. Most other people have a much narrower experience of emotionality. So even if something moves them, it is rare that they feel much passion about it. (I’ve noticed that alcohol can help to loosen things up, though. So does violence. And so does competition. Put them all together, and you have hockey or football.)

The Perils of Passion
I don’t work with people’s passions. For one thing, it’s impractical. I mean, if everyone followed their passion, the world would be over-run with golf pros. And how many Godiva chocolate shops do we really need, anyway? 

Another reason passion is usually not a good guide to career decisions is that one of the main reasons you go to work is to earn a living. Do you really want to subject the thing you love and feel passionate about to market forces? 

Here’s a lady who loves to bake pies. And boy, is she gifted to the task! Makes THE most amazing pies. They’re the hit of any dinner where they’re served. So she takes the advice to “follow your passion” and opens up a pie shop. Yep, those pies fly out of the store. Everyone tells her she’s the next Debbie Fields (Mrs. Fields Cookies).

But it doesn’t take the pie lady long to realize that putting love and care into making one pie is no longer an option when you’re making twenty or thirty pies a day. When you have to make pies to make money, whether you feel like making pies that day or not. Now you’ve got an operation on your hands. You’re no longer making pies, you’re making commodities. You’re running a business.

And business itself is dispassionate. Because markets are dispassionate. As I heard an exceptionally wise business advisor I know in San Antonio put it, “The market doesn’t love you or hate you. It just doesn’t care.”

Can your passion stand up to that brutal reality?

A Better Guide Is Motivation
For all these reasons and more, I don’t work with people’s passion. I even tend to avoid using the word “passion” when I’m doing my work.

Instead, I prefer the term “motivation.” Because everyone has some form of motivation. In fact, it turns out that each person actually has their own unique motivational profile—what we at The Giftedness Center call their giftedness.

I can demonstrate the phenomenon of giftedness. I can show any person what their giftedness is all about. And then I can use it to help them see what sort of work they naturally and instinctively incline to (along with a whole lot more about how they’re wired to function).

And you can take your giftedness to the bank. You can use it to find a job that fits you, which really means finding a customer for your unique value proposition (every person has something of value to contribute to the world).

Ironically, you can also use your giftedness quite apart from work to discover some activity that you may turn out to feel rather passionate about!

Will that turn you into one of those people who runs around shouting in everyone’s face, “I feel so PASSIONATE about what I’m doing!!!”? I hope not.

But if it does, I especially hope you won’t turn your newfound “passion” into an excuse to become one of these motivational speakers (who invariably turn out to be among those incurably passionate people I mentioned) and get on the speaking circuit and tell people, ”Folks, if you really want to live a fulfilling life and make a lot of money, you need to follow your passion (like me).”

If you do, and if I’m in the audience someplace where you’re pitching this canard, don’t be surprised if somewhere along the way the sound of a duck quacking interrupts your message.

QUESTION: What’s been your experience with “following your passion”?

NEXT POST ON The Hard Truth About the “Soft Stuff”


  1. That is true, no point following your passion!
    In other news its also true that heroin is bloody awesome...

  2. My 'passions' end up fizzling out. Once I accomplish something that had my attention....I'm done. I need something else to capture my attention.

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