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 to follow your passion; 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?
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