One of the most common tips given when it comes to success and fulfillment is “follow your passion.” Such sentiment has especially been echoed by those publicly considered successful—whether by celebrities, entrepreneurs, or even motivational speakers.
However, on the flip side, you can find plenty of advice to the contrary. There are a number of expert columns and articles on why the idea of pursuing your passion is really not a good one. One of the biggest voices against the widespread “follow your passion” model of career choice is Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, in which he argues that “follow your passion” is bad advice. He believes that the popular idea of following your passion is based on the assumption that everyone has a pre-existing passion that must be found and decided upon before pursuing work or a career that matches said passion. The highlighted downside of the idea of following an apparent passion is anxiety and chronic job-hopping. According to Newport and others that share views similar to his, a better approach would be to cultivate passion by building a rare and valuable talent and allowing it to take control of your career. This is based on a simple premise: What you specifically do is not as important as it may seem. The traits that lead people to be passionate about their work are actually very general. In this post I’ll cover more of this premise and the different views of the concept of passion and its role in success.
The True Value of Passion
The concept of passion or even a “life calling” is often pitted against the pursuit of things like financial gain. When people give advice such as “follow your passion” or “do what you love,” what I tend to hear in the statement is “go for fulfillment and not just safety, or money.” This can make sense in some contexts, such as the ideal scenario of perhaps a young lady with a lifelong love for singing and dancing being inspired to pursue a career in music rather than going to law school or taking some other path. The music route may involve risks and hoping for a fortunate break, as nothing is guaranteed and many factors come into play.
Does her passion for music or performance guarantee that she’ll be a superstar, or even achieve whatever she personally considers a successful career? No, but it will factor into her approach and performance of activities related to the career path. Studies by social psychologist Robert J. Vallerand and others have examined passion and the role it plays in people’s activities and personal identities. One of the articles resulting from the studies defines passion as “a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy.” Vallerand goes on to propose two types of passion: obsessive and harmonious.
Harmonious passion is the result of an autonomous internalization of the activity into the person’s identity. This occurs when someone has freely accepted the activity as important for them, without any attachment of contingencies to it. Simply put, individuals are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to do it and it’s in harmony with other aspects of their lives. In contrast, obsessive passion is the result of a controlled internalization of the activity into an individual’s identity. The origin of this internalization involves pressure because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of self-esteem or social acceptance. As a result, although the person may like the activity, they feel compelled to engage in it because of the internal circumstances that come to control them. Engaging in the line of work or activity is beyond their control and eventually becomes overpowering in their identity, causing conflict with other activities in their life. From this proposed dualistic approach, we can be consider that the type of passion one develops really makes a difference in terms of overall success and fulfillment. Passion can be a positive or negative thing.
There are many people struggling to make ends meet while they pursue their passions or dreams. The concept of grinding it out to someday achieve a greater goal has been somewhat romanticized with some of the struggle-to-glory tales of success for prominent people. There are those who hold a 9-5 job to get by while they pursue entrepreneurial endeavors or other paths as well as those who try to make a living off what they consider their passion and struggle in doing so. While hard work and sacrifice may be a valuable part of the road to success, many end up in a position where they can’t really profit from what they think they are passionate about.
This is not to say that money should be the sole aim of one’s career choice and activities, but the notion of pursuing a passion and letting everything work out can be a faulty one if you consider that some things that people are passionate about or simply love to do are just not economically in-demand. Even with the inspiring unusual success stories out there, you’re not promised success based on the sole fact that you’re doing something you love. With that being said, it ultimately comes down to what is truly sought after, as there are people who seek spiritual fulfillment more than anything else. Everyone has their own values and concepts that they cherish and hold dear.
A Pragmatic Approach
For those that are simply trying to decide what to path to take in life—such as a high school senior trying to decide what to study in college, or a recent graduate seeking a career—a more pragmatic approach such as the one suggested by Cal Newport may be suitable. Many of us have questioned what exactly we should do with our lives, even trying to find the “passion” we should pursue, based on common advice and career guides. Personally, I can easily express what my likes, interests, and even long-term aspirations are, but it’s a little more complex to think of a particular “passion” that I have. Most people really can’t identify a pre-existing passion. Some even mistake excitement they hold for a particular activity, idea, or interest as passion, but excitement can come and go.
The best route may be to seek traits such as autonomy, creativity, respect, and/or a sense of impact, rather than the “perfect job.” You may be able to find such traits in the job you already have. However, you have to offer some key valuable skills in return for a career with such fulfilling traits. Developing passion may be a long and complicated path but its more likely to lead to somewhere worthwhile. There are people who love what they do and actually developed their passion slowly rather than pursuing a pre-existing one and coming upon a perfect job or career path in which they love their work from the start. The journey to a compelling career and life should involve building skills and experience, which in turn can lead to passion and fulfillment. In the end, everyone has a different story and experience, with some stumbling into careers and opportunities. This post shouldn’t be taken as ultimate advice, but conversation that can challenge prevalent notions about success and life in general. Keep these ideas in mind when you hear preaching on the pursuit of passion.
Guest Author Flen Mobley is a South Florida native and a college graduate who is focused on living a fulfilled life and making major moves. You can catch him on his blog at VanguardAve.com or reading, writing, and going for drives down country roads.
spring start in track and field in blurred motion image courtesy of Shutterstock