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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

There's So Much More to a Fulfilling Career Than Following Your Passion

“Follow Your Passion!” “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” “Go after your dreams and the money will follow!”

These kinds of statements have been passed down as advice for years. Leaders in a variety of industries have been telling people to pursue their dreams and follow their passions if they want to lead a fulfilling and successful life. And, anyone who’s ever felt stuck in a job has probably heard some version of this from well-meaning family and friends.

But, I’ve never bought into this. And fortunately, others (with more powerful voices) are starting to openly agree with me. Take top Silicon Valley investor Ben Horowitz’s speech to Columbia’s graduating class last year; he said that following a passion won’t necessary lead to happiness. Cal Newport, author and professor at Georgetown, argues against the “passion thesis” in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, telling dreamers that their devotions may be setting them up for failure.

The truth is that when wildly successful people tell us to do what we love, it represents an idealized image of the world where pursuing hobbies leads directly and easily to success. Most people who simply “follow their dreams” will not end up like J.K. Rowling.

Now, this isn’t to say that passion doesn’t matter. But you shouldn’t blindly follow your zeal wherever it leads, nor should you necessarily make career moves based on the things you love most. Here’s why:

Passions Fade and Change

If I were doing today what I was enthusiastic about a decade ago, I would probably be a party planner. I didn’t have a strong direction right after college, and hosting soirees was a hobby that I truly loved. If we go back a little further, say 15 or 20 years ago, I’d probably be in an all-female rock band, flaunting heavy eyeliner. Both of those things still sound pretty great to me, to be honest, but that’s not where my life led, and for good reason. As I gained experience, the things that I was committed to, and the things that I valued changed a great deal.

I can confidently say that no amount of fervor would make me a great musical talent. Planning parties for other people sounds pretty stressful—I’ll happily host a great theme party a couple of times a year instead. It’s unfair to yourself to try to keep one passion strong for the rest of your life and to make a career out of that. Your interests are bound to change, and how you define success and contentment are likely to evolve as well.

What you can do instead is build something slowly over time, whether that’s an interest with connections to other things that can open doors, a skill that’s transferable across many industries, or an influential network that can encourage you to think simultaneously about things you care about and your ability to contribute something to the world.

Passion Is Limiting

This is true for two reasons. First of all, not everyone can truly say that they have a single burning desire. That’s OK of course, but this message inaccurately insists that an undying vigor for one thing is the most important thing in life. And if you can’t identify what gets you excited, you may feel as though your work lacks meaning, or even that your life lacks meaning, which is totally untrue.

Because our interests can change over time, and because meaning can be found in so many ways and in so many places, when we glorify a “passionate calling,” it leaves too many people out. Because of responsibilities that may outweigh their absolute freedom to choose something else, not everyone has the luxury of going after their dreams. Those people are not “failing to live up to their potential,” but are instead choosing to prioritize the other things that matter in their life.

Secondly, if you buy into the idea that the only work worth doing is the kind that thrills you, you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities to learn and grow. In any job, there’s going to be important work that you don’t love—even if you generally like the position. That doesn’t make the less-exciting tasks beneath you or not worth your time.

Not to mention, this advice tells us that the only work worth doing is work that fulfills us on a deep level. But what about work that pays the bills so you can spend time with your family? What about work that is painfully boring but lays the foundation for developing skills? What about an opportunity that allows you to pursue the interests you have outside of work? While work is an important part of the equation of life, it’s not the only thing that can drive and fulfill us. So, what can you do?

Build a Mission Instead

When we spend so much time talking about our personal desires, we inevitably ignore other things. Developing useful skills, making a meaningful impact through our work, producing something of value, understanding and shaping our place in society—none of these things are as glamorous or romantic as chasing our innermost interests. But reality rarely measures up to expectation, and for the majority of the population, these less attractive (on the surface, anyway) things lead to a far better quality of life.

You can be really good at what you do and derive satisfaction in that—even if you don’t absolutely adore it. You may find yourself on a team of inspirational leaders, and though your work is something you gladly leave at the office at the end of the day, you’re thriving because you understand balance. Try not to let overrated advice guide your decisions as you strive to find contentment in your current role or seek to uncover it in the next. In fact, if you really want a successful and fulfilling future, you shouldn’t follow anything. You don’t need to be boiling over with enthusiasm to feel good about what you’re doing with your life.

You may find that at various points in your life, your drive, skills, and job title may all coalesce into a perfect trifecta. But to expect that to always be the norm is to set yourself up for disappointment. So while you needn’t ignore your instincts or interests, you shouldn’t let yourself be controlled by them, and you definitely shouldn’t feel like a failure if your career doesn’t feel like your dream job.

Still want a mantra? Grab a notebook and pen and jot down the first things that come to mind when you think of what it means to be fulfilled. I bet “Follow your passion” doesn't make it onto the page.

Photo of man pursuing hobby courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.