Should You Follow Your Passion? (Nope – You Should Grow It)


Whether you’re a parent or a coach, an athlete or a musician or a kid, there’s one piece of advice that you’ve heard a zillion times: follow your passion. It’s a beautifully tempting idea, because it implies each of us has a calling, a destiny.

It’s also crummy advice.

Here’s why: follow your passion (FYP) is based on the notion that our passions are fixed and unchangeable, and that our main job is to hunt after that passion as if it were so much buried Spanish treasure. The idea is, once we discover it, we’ll find happiness.

The problem is, that’s not true. Yes, there are a lucky few who are seized by a desire in childhood and spend the rest of their lives happily following that narrow road. But for the vast majority of us, life is more complicated: we are faced with tough choices, branching pathways. And when we base our happiness on FYP’s treasure-hunt logic, we create a cascade of frustration (Why aren’t I happy? Should I switch paths? What’s wrong with me?).

The key fact to realize is that passions aren’t fixed — they’re flexible and alive. They grow and change in connection with our abilities and accomplishments. For a useful insight into this, check out this piece by Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and author of the new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, who devastatingly debunks the Myth of FYP. His argument is based on two basic truths:

  • Point #1: the thing that people love about their lives — that X factor that gives them the feeling of passion — usually has less to do with the specifics of a pursuit, and more to do with the bigger factors: the feeling of self-efficacy, accomplishment, and the joy of having a mission that impacts the world in a positive way.
  • Point #2: The early years of any pursuit are filled with struggle and difficulty. The love of a craft grows alongside our skills.

I’m Exhibit A. Though I loved books, I didn’t grow up burning to be a writer; I turned to it after college, after I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. My early years working at a magazine were fun, but also hard and frustrating. If I’d been constantly asking myself, “Is this truly my passion?” I would have been frustrated. But as I got better, I started to enjoy it more and more. I wrote short articles, then longer articles. Then decided to try writing a book. It worked — not because I’d followed my passion, but because my passion grew alongside my skills.

To be clear: this is not to say you shouldn’t do what you love. You absolutely should. But you should do so with the right expectations. As Newport points out: don’t follow your passion. Let your passion follow you, by cultivating it through hard work.

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6 Responses to “Should You Follow Your Passion? (Nope – You Should Grow It)”

  1. eduardo says:

    I greatly appreciate someone taking the time to debunk this all-too-ubiquitous shred of rather useless advice.

    I’ve seen way too many people become passionate about dance, progressively, as their skill grew. Prior to this many were lukewarm about the whole affair, though if you looked hard enough, and carefully enough, you could catch a glimmer of something in their eye when watching an instructor demonstrate a movement.

    I think that something, is what Daniel calls ‘Ignition’. If you asked me, passion is ignited.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Good points. When people say “passion,” I think a lot of people (esp kids) mistake it for “interest” or “enjoyment” or “excitement.” Not their fault, really, but that means it’s the adults’ responsibility to communicate that it’s something a lot bigger and more powerful.

  3. Jason Maxwell says:

    I like this because it speaks to the element I am starting to become more focused on…hard work. After 8 years of dealing with elementary school students, teachers and parents, combined with 10 years prior in the business world I have concluded that people no longer understand the concept of work. I think the Oprahs of the world have convinced people that if they just relax and breathe, success and accomplishment will come to them. One of my teachers was complaining the other day that she just couldn’t get everything done. I asked her what time she showed up to work (her answer was 8:00) and what time she left (her answer was 4:00). I then suggested that maybe she should show up at 7:30 and work until 4:30. Seemed logical to me. If I’m not getting stuff done I need to spend more time doing it. The look on her face was priceless. The idea that she should just work more hadn’t even crossed her mind. Imagine how much bettter things would be if people regularly turned off the TV, radio, and phone, sat down, and put in a good solid 3 or 4 hours of work.

  4. Joe M says:

    I agree passion grows with accomplishment and work. However, based on observing people, it looks like this is a case where there is an array of possible paths.

    Some people, as you mention, do find a specific area to explore, which they pursue through life, and which doesn’t seem to change much. It looks like this holds for a small percentage of people.

    Some people enjoy using a set of talents, and the specific job is less important. For these people, a talent like creativity may be fulfilling to use, and they could apply it equally to forming business models as an entrepreneur, as they could in graphic design, or cooking.

    For most people, I think their time is best spent trying to see patterns of which skills and talents they enjoy using, and then looking for appealing opportunities to grow them.

    For everyone, your principles hold though – determined experience in, and development of skills leads to expertise and fulfillment.

    I think one reason people propose the idea of passion as being fixed, is that we are also taught to be goal-oriented, and so the idea of a fixed passion presents something tangible to strive for.

    I am finding that it’s better to adopt principles similar to Lean Startup and similar business development models, where the emphasis is on deciding what I want to learn next, and focusing my work on ho to use time and resources to achieve what I want to learn, while pursuing personal excellence.

  5. Jack Crawford says:

    The big divide here seems to be between following and finding your passion. You can’t follow it until you find it, but how do you find it until you actually do something to make you aware of it?

  6. Pat says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. Passion, like love, isn’t simply something that you find or follow; it’s something that you do. Great post. Keeep it up.

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