We’ve all heard people preach to follow your passion, but this is often the worst advice you can give someone.

Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, believes that you should not follow your passion but that “passion is something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world” as “telling someone to follow their passion can be disastrous”. If this is true, why do people keep talking about following your passion.

Why Do People Say It

Newport puts it best by saying

It’s appealing because it’s both simple and daring. It tells you that you have a calling, and if you can discover it and muster the courage to follow it, your working life will be fantastic. A big, bold move that changes everything: this is a powerful storyline.

Additionally, we love listening to successful people. The quirks and advice of famous people get put on a pedestal.

This is Survivorship Bias at its finest. To paraphrase Wikipedia, it’s when you focus on a group of people that made it past the selection process while ignoring those that don’t, probably because the ones that didn’t make it do not have the visibility or platform like the ones that did.

Why It Doesn’t Work

According to a paper by three Stanford researchers, popular mantras like follow your passion give the notion that it will be easy.

Oh if only I could find my passion, then life will make sense and become easy for me, for this is what I was meant to be doing all along

That does not exist. A central idea in the paper is the difference between a growth and fixed mindset, a concept coined by Carol Dweck, one of the authors. A growth mindset is the understand that abilities can be developed, while a fixed mindset is the belief that our abilities are static. This difference is easily seen when people talk about intelligence. “I’m not smart enough for that” or “I could never do that” betray a fixed mindset.

In their research, they identified a few reasons why follow your passion is so harmful.

  1. Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.
  2. A fixed mindset was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people’s existing interests.
  3. Those endorsing a fixed theory were also more likely to anticipate boundless motivation when passions were found, not anticipating possible difficulties.

This revolves around the fallacy that equates passion and ease. Whatever you choose to do on the earth, it most definitely will not be easy. You’re going to need to find a way to stick with it through thick and thin. To quote Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. Why do you do what you do. If an activity is your passion because it is fun and you enjoy doing it, will that get you through the rough times? Can you find a higher purpose or meaning in it? A friend of mine once said that follow your passion is the worst advice because it frustrates people that aren’t, and those that can are already doing it so they don’t need the advice.

While reading Radical Candor by Kim Scott, I came across a paragraph titled The Problem with “Passion”. In it she elaborates that there is nothing wrong with working hard to earn a paycheck that supports the life you want to live. That has plenty of meaning in and of itself.

A wise man once told me, “Only about five percent of people have a real vocation in life, and they confuse the hell out of the rest of us” ~Radical Candor

Not only do I think the 5% confuse the hell out of us, but the continued preaching of follow your passion by the masses makes the 95% feel like they are doing something wrong. It’s the career version of FOMO.

The Fuck Am I Supposed To Do?

Life your life, do what you want to do. It is your life and you should live it how you want to live it.

In my personal experience, life is not lived through motivation quotes. At the end of the day you have to find a thing that someone is willing to pay you for. If you feel stuck where you are, trust me there are better blogs to read than mine. If you are up in arms against me, remember that the message here isn’t to not be passionate about what you are doing.

Passion is great. I just don’t see a lot of evidence that passion is something existing naturally, waiting to be discovered. It takes hard work and planning to develop ~Cal Newport

I fully believe in following your gut and doing what feels right, however don’t believe for a second that this article topic is new. A quick Google Search will reveal that there are many, many, many, many, many articles out there that illustrate this point better than I have. These articles also helpfully provide advice on how to change how you view your passion and how this is better advice.

At the end of the day, I really like this quote from Ben Horowitz’s commencement speech:

Following your passion is a very “me”-centered view of the world. When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you’ve put into the world. So my recommendation would be follow your contribution. Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow.

Don’t follow your passion: follow your contribution. Help the world be better.