There are a number of authors and bloggers selling books and their points of view that "follow your passions" is the worst career and life advice. They argue that focusing on the development of your expertise, skills, and competencies is a much surer way to "success". Is this a great debate? Not to me. I believe it is folly to argue, either or, in matters of the heart and the mind.
Cal Newport (So Good They Can't Ignore You), Bassam Tarazi, Ramit Sethi, and most recently Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) have jumped on the anti-passion bandwagon.
Scott Adams: "For most people, it’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. Success caused passion more than passion caused success. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded. But the ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed.”
Scott, that's not passion. That's rationalization and self-justification. And that's how you deal with failure?! How about trying to cure cancer, solve poverty, bringing education to the inner city? Wow if we could all just dispose of things we were not good at. Imagine if we could all accept the "drain of passion" because things did not work out! Such a selfish and narrow view of passion.
Cal Newport: "Passion is a side effect of mastery."
Really Cal? Passion only comes from what you are good at? So passion can't drive mastery? I guess Cal has not met the hundreds of non-profit leaders I have. Or spent time with artists. Or with immigrant entrepreneurs who don't have anything but the burning desire to survive and flourish. Nor with foster youth who have been abused and now in college repairing their lives. These types of passion do not exist in the ivory tower, they thrive in the community of need. These people use their passion like fuel. Yes, their passion propels their mastery. It is the expression of who they are.
Of course, telling people to just Follow your passions! Blind to who they are. Deaf to what their heart says. Dumb to their education and expertise–Yes of course this is foolish advice to chase rainbows without a toolbox of skills and expertise.
As Daniel Pink asserts in his book Drive, true motivation comes from Autonomy, Mastery AND Purpose. These intertwined concepts engage people in fulfilling lives and work.
Many people approach love and even mentoring in this way. "Love will conquer all." That if they find the love of their lives it will make everything in their lives better. Love does not pay the bills or complete your degree. People approach me in search of mentors as if the "right" mentor will magically guide them to the promised land. Are you prepared for a serious relationship and commitment? Are you mentorable? Are you ready for guidance and direction? Follow your passion(s) is relevant for those who, like all successful people, are working on their whole selves–on their mastery and their purpose. You have to be prepared to do what you love, be who you want to be, and follow your passions. And live passionately.
If I didn't know better, I would accuse these passion naysayers of wanting us to just suck it up and work for the man. To accept the tenets of the industrial/educational complex that all promotions and success are based on meeting and exceeding the job descriptions. We know that is absurd. To not bring our hearts to work, just our lunchpails. There is a conspiracy to tell you just to bear down and do your jobs and avoid the distractions of your inner calls for purpose and meaning from the quarterly goals of shareholders. I spent several careers making others wealthy. I know this philosophy of the owners and the holders of the equity—"Do your job and make it your life! And you will gain some valuable experiences!"
Living a passionless life and career is a waste and empty.
Even these writers who want to sell books and gain attention would agree that passion makes a difference in the success of individuals and organizations. But their perspective only helps the extremely naive and confuse the sophisticated.
Consider these thoughts:
Follow your bliss. Joseph Campbell
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. Bertrand Russell
Passion and expertise are siamese twins. They feed each other. Success is tied to both.
Passion is what animates, energizes, and actualizes our skills, talents, abilities and expertise.
Passion is the suffering we endure in trying to become the best we can, the way we interpret our purpose in life, and the focus on the needs of others. Passion drives our best work.
Yes we all need to hone our hard skills but we have to nurture our soft skills as well. For those of us who aspire to lead and make a difference, it will be the soft skills that will enhance careers. And at the core needs to be a fire of passion that stokes our desire to do something that matters to ourselves and others.
If you do not build a life, not just your job, around your passions, you will wither from the quicksand of settling for what comes to you and not pursuing what you care about.
It is true that a "follow your passion(s)" advice to the uneducated/unskilled is unadvised and dangerous. But to condemn this advice for those of us searching for meaning and purpose is criminal.