Why "Follow Your Passion" is Pretty Bad Advice
There are volumes of writing to be found online and in self-help circles that advises folks who are stuck to “follow your bliss,” or “do what you’re passionate about.”
This advice probably comes from a good place—a desire for people to feel a sense of permission or encouragement to go after things that will bring fulfillment to their lives.
But the passion mantra is actually not so helpful for two reasons.
First, it’s very unclear how to actually do it.
These instructions are essential pieces, but far from the complete puzzle—it’s like being told that if you want to become a movie star, you should move to Hollywood (and believe in yourself!). Even if you know what your “passion” is (as if there is just one thing you can be passionate about), there are so many other factors that matter. For example:
Can you earn a living doing it?
Would it still be your passion if you had to do it every day to make money?
Is the thing you’re passionate about related to a skill that you have, that you want to develop, and that’s needed in the market?
The point here is not that you need to have firm answers to all of these questions before you even get started. But in a world where bills must be paid, vast sums of student loans must be paid off, and competition is fierce, to neglect the more subtle nuances and practical implications of setting out to get paid to do what you love is dangerous advice.
Secondly, and more importantly, “follow your passion” is not helpful because it makes it sound so easy. And that is a very insidious thing, because finding meaningful work is anything but easy.
It’s hard, it takes time, and it takes serious dedication to the cause.
It means many late nights battling fear and anxiety, doubting yourself, and wondering if you’re crazy or naive or unrealistic for pursuing the path you’ve chosen.
It often means having dangerously low bank accounts for much longer than you’d hoped, until you figure out how to get the income piece to work. (Related: 3 financial mistakes to avoid when you are changing careers.)
The truth is that finding and holding onto meaningful work is a more complicated endeavor than most career coaches and bloggers will articulate. So, beyond following your passion, what does it really take?
Here is some elaboration on what the pieces of the puzzle are, based on our experience and research building a business that was founded on the desire to help people find meaningful work.
First, you have to understand legacy: what you care about, what you are driven by, and what change you want to create in the world, for others and for future generations.
This goes far beyond locking yourself in a room with a journal and pen. It involves deep introspection to be sure, but also a lot of conversations, fact-finding, and systematically testing your assumptions about what will allow you to work with a deep and personal sense of purpose.
Understanding your legacy starts with the understanding that you will probably never arrive at a singular answer as to what is meaningful to you (if you do, it won’t last forever).
But you can reach progressive levels of clarity that will lead you to more fulfilling opportunities—which will in turn influence and alter your vision of meaningful work. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-discovery and self-creation.
Second, you need to seek mastery by understanding what skills are valued by the market you want to be working in, what skills you can and want to become excellent at relative to your competition, and how you can align the two.
Third, you need to seek freedom: cultivating and exchanging the value your mastery provides in such a way that you progressively gain the ability to do work that is in alignment with your legacy, on your own terms.
Freedom can mean working less, working remotely, working with influencers and leaders, or working on projects with greater creativity and autonomy and impact. What freedom (or impact, for that matter) means to you is for you to discover and decide.
All told, finding meaningful work is a complicated and continually unfolding process; not an event or a box you can check off and not have to think about again.
It’s also not all fun and games. Because in the midst of it all, you’re also dealing with the inevitable conflicts and messiness of life—co-workers you don’t get along with, terrible bosses, the usual hardships in life, love, family, and career.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you won’t have days where you can’t seem to get yourself to do your work, or that you won’t have doubts and confusion about your next steps, or that you can avoid the human conflicts that drive people crazy in any work environment. In real life, meaningful work is not as sexy as your Facebook feed makes it out to be. It doesn’t (necessarily) mean working from bed, or working only two hours a day, or making easy money.
But despite the obstacles, it is absolutely worth it.
It is worth it to not have to divide yourself into a 9-to-5 self and a nights-and-weekends self—to be someone who shows up to work as if showing up to play, and to experience profound personal growth (not just professional growth) consistently through your work.
It is worth it to have your Mondays and Tuesdays feel as exciting and worthwhile and freeing as your Saturdays.
It is worth it to have new projects and jobs feel more like excursions to new foreign countries than assignments.
Pursuing meaningful work means knowing that your daily struggles, highs, and lows, are not in vain—that they are contributing to a worthwhile cause, something deserving of your time and efforts.
These are the reasons that ReWork exists. We spend too much time at our jobs and working on our careers to not have those precious hours be a source of joy, growth, and fulfillment.
It may not be as easy as quitting your job one day and living in eternal bliss the next—but the things we value most in life tend to be the things we fought hardest for anyway. So, let’s drop the “follow your passion!” mindset and get to work.
About The Author
Nathaniel is co-founder and CEO of ReWork, a mission-driven talent firm that connects professionals to hiring managers at companies making social, environmental, and cultural progress. Nathaniel is a 2011 Unreasonable fellow.