Is Following Your Passions Over-Rated?

IsFollowingYourPassionsOverRatedEvery Friday my “Reality Check” column appears in a number of newspapers in Alberta and Ontario. Here’s this week’s, on following your passions!

I inadvertently dashed the hopes of several high school seniors recently. I was invited to speak to an English class about being a writer, and I told them one of the worst mistakes people make is thinking, “I’ll just write/do/create what I’m passionate about, and then I’ll be successful.”

People don’t care what you’re passionate about. They care what they are passionate about.

If you want to create a career for yourself, you have to first think, “what is my audience thirsty for?” Then fill that void.

One student protested, “But we’ve been told our whole lives that we should follow our passions. And now you’re telling us that doesn’t matter?”

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Here’s why: When we say “follow your passions”, what we really mean is that when someone is enthusiastic, and genuine, and authentic, success will come to them. When you’re true to yourself, you will find other people so blown away by your insights that they will want to pay you for them. In that line of thinking, success is something that just happens to you. It’s the “If you build it they will come” mentality.

Personally, I prefer Cal Newport’s “So good they can’t ignore you” mentality. Newport sums it up in his new book by the same name:

The key to success is not following your passions; it’s to get really, really excellent at a skill that other people will pay for.

It’s an active mentality. First, you have to figure out what skills people want that you can actually master; and then you have to put in a ton of effort at doing exactly that. Success doesn’t fall out of the sky randomly; it follows those who are already chasing it.

Not all of the students appreciated that line of thinking. They argued, “but what about Bill Gates? Or Steve Jobs? Or J.K. Rowling? They were following their passions!”

No, not exactly. J.K. Rowling didn’t just sit down one day and have Harry Potter flow out of her; she spent years honing her writing skills. And Steve Jobs and Bill Gates surveyed the world and saw that computers were the future. They worked incredibly hard at developing products that people would actually want to buy. Yes, this dovetailed with something they enjoyed. But they weren’t waiting for success while being true to themselves. They hunkered down, put in the effort, and became excellent.

There’s another side to this, too. We’ve told people that if they don’t follow their passions in their work, they’ve somehow sold out.

But why is it that we need to find ultimate fulfillment in our work?

Sometimes we can fulfill our passions best in our downtime, and our work can be the place where we earn money to pursue those passions. If you love travel, get good at something so you have the money to travel. If you love cooking, you don’t need to work in a restaurant. Pursue skills that give you a flexible schedule so you can make dinner into a rejuvenating experience every night.

A friend of mine worked for several decades at a well-paying, highly skilled but boring job. Her salary helped her fund her passion for knitting. And then, in her mid-50s, she accepted a buy-out package and took a job in a yarn store, finally having her job match her passion. But those years in a high paying job allowed her to save enough money that she was able to take the pay cut at a job she loved.

Passions are wonderful, but let’s give them their proper place. Success comes to those who work hard at something in demand, not to those who wait for people to find them. That’s not selling out; that’s investing in yourself. And isn’t that what you should ultimately be passionate about?

Take a look at Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You!

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Great post! Exactly what people need to hear and understand. Thank you

  2. I agree with most of it, except for those last lines. I’m guessing you didn’t mean it this way but I don’t believe investing in ourselves should be what we are ultimately passionate for…Thats sounds quite empty considering we bring nothing with us. But when work hard, investing our time and energy into serving God in whatever space He has placed us, than we can focus on the One we can truly be passionate about. And then secondly we work towards the other smaller passions that He has gifted us with.
    “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:23,24
    Thanks so much for your blog Sheila, I appreciate what you do!

  3. When I was headed into college with no idea what I wanted to do, my dad gave me some great advice. He told me he would support me if I studied something I was passionate about, no matter how much or little money I made, but if I didn’t know what I was passionate about, I should study something where I could get a job and make money. I am passionate to one day be a stay at home mom, so I studied accounting, was able to get a great job right out of school that allowed me and my husband to get married while he was still in college, and for now I make money that we can save until we have kids, and then will hopefully get to fulfill my passion of being a stay at home wife and mom. I enjoy my job enough, but mostly for the salary, not for the fact that I want a great career for the rest of my life. I love in this post how you acknowledged that sometimes a job can provide the means to accomplish our passions in our free time, its ok if it’s not our passion.

  4. Amen, Shiela. I think the whole “follow your passions” mentality is part of a bigger issue – the expectation that life is supposed to be all fun and exciting. That we are entitled to a job that is fulfilling.

    Sometimes it works out that way. Great 😀 But not always. I guess I’m kind of “old school”. Do you think all those plumbers are finding their personal worth and fulfillment by unclogging the drains? Or the receptionist, answering phones and making appointments? I knew a guy who had a business cleaning parking lots! Where would we all be without the people who make toilet paper? (Did that for three summers, getting through college.)

    I’m not belittling people in those professions at all! I’m trying to point out that often we expect to get something from a job that a job was never meant to provide. Lots of times a job (even a career!) is a means to an end. I think the vast majority of us “follow our passions” in our free time. We work hard (as to the Lord) at our jobs, and there is great satisfaction in being obedient and pleasing the Lord, and in supporting ourselves and our families.


    • SO TRUE, Julie! In fact I’m working on a part two of this column where I’m going to talk about just that. Here’s what I’m musing so far: perhaps the one of the reasons that we’ve put so much emphasis on a career fulfilling us is because the things that traditionally fulfilled us–church, family, community–have lost their importance or influence. So career is the main thing we have. And it’s what all the schools preach, as if it’s the main part of your life. But it isn’t. And perhaps if we put it back in its proper place, we’d stop obsessing over it so much.

      Still working through it….

  5. I’ve worked at a lot of jobs that I didn’t like or outright hated. The only field that I really ever wanted to work (horses) doesn’t pay well enough for most people to support themselves, let alone their families. I eventually took the attitude that my job supports my life, but my job isn’t my life.

  6. This is good advice. In today’s economic climate, you have to be smart and think ahead. In many cases, you can follow your passions and end up with 6-figure school loans and a job at McDonald’s. Or, you can go into a field where there are jobs available and thus make a decent living right out of college. And not everyone needs to go to college. If you’re good at academics, great. Go for it. But if not, there is actually a shortage of skilled manual labor in this country. We need plumbers, electricians, and many other jobs that do not require a college degree. Those jobs may not sound as exciting or impressive, but they pay a decent wage, they’re available, and they aren’t going anywhere (unlike many jobs that are being outsourced overseas). It’s time we got back to an appreciation for hard work rather than just snazzy-sounding degrees and high-status jobs. Maybe you aren’t passionate about your job, but your job isn’t supposed to be your life. You are supposed to have a life and pay for it by working hard at a job.
    Lindsay Harold recently posted…Sour Cream Pound CakeMy Profile

    • Amen to that, Lindsay. My dad worked forty + years in a pulp and paper mill as an electrician. Steady work, good benefits, but not fun! Trust me, his passion in life is not repairing machines that make toilet paper 😀 But his years of faithful hard work supported his family.
      Julie recently posted…All That and a Bag of ChipsMy Profile

  7. Ellie Ray says:

    So very true. Unfortunately, this is true in churches,too. They, today, find out what people want and cater to them.

  8. Love the article!!

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