“Follow your passion” is the worst career advice ever.

I heart my careerIt’s rare that I consider a book life changing, but this one comes close. Not because of any great epiphany that changed the course of my life, but because it validates my skepticism for the “follow your passion” maxim I hear so often.

deep work

Seeking passion in a career path is like searching for depth and wisdom in a Kardashian. You’re looking for something that isn’t a natural part of the package and if you hit upon it, it’s probably artificial or likely to fade. Rather, if you approach your career path with a craftsman’s (or craftswoman’s) perspective,  and consider what skill can you develop that will add meaning to your life while adding value to others, over time you’re going to become pretty remarkable at what you do, and that will make you feel good about doing it.

Bingo.

The pursuit of passion left me jobless and wondering “WTF what just happened”?

After years of resenting my marketing career because it didn’t give me the ability to “express myself”, I quit my corporate job in 2008 and moved to India to learn to teach yoga in an ashram. (Zero jokes here, I seriously did this.) In doing so, I broke rule number 2 and 3 of Cal’s book by not building career capital in the field of yoga over time and by rejecting the idea of making small strategic decisions rather than large sweeping risks (which is what I did). Cal explicitly calls out my career faux pas by referencing a woman who literally did the same thing I did, and ended up on food stamps.

Fortunately, my situation never got that drastic, but I did take a huge step back in my career trajectory, losing years of growth and wages. I don’t regret a moment of my adventure because it gave me something else that’s equally valuable – self-awareness and a great story to tell. That said, I didn’t need to jump off a career cliff to achieve those things, either.

The passion strategy won’t serve you in the long run…

Passion is fleeting. What I am interested now (employee engagement, The Walking Dead, and trying to fit exercise into a 2+ hour daily commute), probably won’t consume me in 5 years. Humans are dynamic and ever changing in their interests, unlike my pug who has been interested in nothing but food and tennis balls since we rescued her 8 years ago. If you follow your career passions today, where will that leave you in 5 years? Chasing the passion of the moment, no doubt.

I will say that Cal’s approach to building a craft and experimenting with different ways to apply it has a far greater payoff. As a writer, I’m currently focusing my craft on business communications and executive messaging. But I’m also taking “small risks” with blogging because it’s an expansion (not a departure) from my core skill of writing. By experimenting with different applications of my craft, I’m adding to my paint brush collection rather than tossing all my paints away in favor of a new medium.

Passion for Potty

There’s one more fundamental flaw with the “follow your passion” mindset. Consider what the world would be like if everyone took this advice literally. We’d be a universe of life coaches and pop stars with no one to empty Port-a-Potties or maintain public washrooms. I double dog dare you to find someone who’s passionate about cleaning toilets. And yet, we need that.  Passion driven careers are typically saturated with too many people jockeying for the same opportunities.  A career focused on craft and improved with small strategic decisions allows for specialization and expertise that’s coveted, not commodified.

In my career right now (post yoga debacle), I’m always looking for ways to build on my craft, while tweaking the context of where I do it.  I enjoy writing and as a result, I’m pretty good at it, but it took me a while to back into that skill as I experimented with building businesses and working in different roles and companies.  I didn’t always love the work, but when I dissected what I really did love, content creation was always on the list.

The piece I continue to refine is where and what I’m writing.  Am I better off with a corporate job, or taking my chances at freelancing?  Web copy or corporate messaging? I doubt I’ll ever stop experimenting with the who and how. In my current role, rarely a week goes by that I don’t hear a colleague admit to me that they’re not great communicators or it’s not their strength.  I think they’re wrong, but I don’t fight them on it too much as their perceived weakness is my job security.  So in the end, I’ve cultivated a craft that others find value in and that I feel confident that I’m pretty good at.  And guess what – because I have confidence in my craft, I like doing it.  No passion required.

Back to Cal’s book, I think it should be a required reading for all senior high school students, ready to embark on a working career. Before they pick a college major, before they declare their lifelong career goals (which I think is ridiculous at that age), they should read Cal’s book and consider what they might have to offer the world that the world might actually value. Then go from there.

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