Career · Misconceptions

Why “follow your passion” can be bad advice

When did the “follow your passion” advice come up in the English language? It first figured in the 1940s. As a career advice, it came in during the 1980s and 90s. Four books were published based on this theory, after which every author who wrote about career advice assumed his/her readers to know about the importance and veracity of the “follow your passion” theory. This post might come across as a contradiction to my previous post on the lizard brain ( However, careful perusal will let you know how the two posts answer two different questions. I thank a senior of mine who gifted me a book- “So good they can’t ignore you (By Cal Newport)” at a brain storming workshop that I helped him organize. The inputs on this post are largely borrowed from the book.

  1. Follow your passion is bad advice:

Before the hate mails start rolling in, I am not saying passion isn’t important. I am saying that you need to focus on cultivating a sustainable career – not merely engaging in a hobby. Recognize that activities you enjoy often have nothing to do with how you’re naturally wired to excel. Frequently, people confuse what they’re passionate about with the true gifts they’ve been given.

For example, I love to sing (especially in the car when I’m alone) and when I do, I’m passionate about it. When my favorite song of the moment plays on the radio, I’ll sing along at the top of my lungs. For me, a successful singing career is highly unlikely unless there’s a sudden demand for a shrill annoying goat like voice.

  1. Do what Steve Jobs did, not what he said :

    Steve Jobs' speech at Stanford University
    Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford University

When Steve Jobs took the podium at Stanford University as the chief guest to the graduating class of 2005 , he said two things. Do what you love. Don’t settle till you find it. Let’s rewind the clock back to a young Steve jobs. You would have found the young man to be certainly interested in electronics. He grew up in the Silicon Valley’s wire head culture. But if you asked him what he was passionate about, he wouldn’t say electronics nor would he have mentioned about setting up a business that would take over the world. This we know, because, he didn’t go to Berkley to study electric engineering. Which is what you would have done in that time and that place if you were passionate about electronics. He didn’t go to Standord which is what you would have done in that time and that place if you were passionate about business. Instead he  went to a Liberal arts college and studied western history and eastern mysticism that had made its way to the west coast around that time. Soon, he dropped out, wandered around the campus barefoot, ate meals at the Hare Krishna temple and gained the title of a campus celebrity. Eventually, he came back to California and got a night shift job at Atari and saved up for his trip to India.

All this apart, where did Apple computers come from? He and his friend Steve Wozniack (who he reconnected with) had started launching a series of schemes in his backyard, where they would cobble things up and sell the finished electronic product in the market nearby to keep the vehicle running. A series of such schemes and experiments led him to break a big deal and incorporate Apple computers. He definitely did grow passionate about electronics. It is worth to note that the passion wasn’t a pre-existing one. He did not sit in advance and decide about setting up Apple computers. He was not passionate about it right since college is what is noteworthy here.

  1. Career Capital and using it as leverage:

It is really hard to get good at something. Most of us are sitting in our rooms and trying to figure out what we will be good at. We need to stop doing that. We need to stop looking for that perfect job so early in our lives. I personally don’t know anyone at 22 who wakes up everyday for their job with a compelling enthusiasm. Pick a field.  Obviously it does not mean that you pick a field that you despise/ have no knowledge of. Pick a field that is interesting to you and has career options to diversify later. Go out there and start developing and honing your skills. This is what Cal calls career capital. Acquiring skills that are rare and valuable. Being the best at what you do is what makes you valuable. Once you have enough career capital and are valuable enough to the organization you are working for, you can leverage these skills to gain things that matter to you. Acquiring career capital for a good number of years and later using the same, as leverage  is exactly what Bill McKibben did.leverage

An undergraduate student at Harvard University, Bill Mckibben wrote for the Harvard Crimson.The Harvard Crimson is the daily student newspaper at Harvard University, run entirely by Harvard College undergraduates. Bill worked his way up as the editor of the Crimson in the final year of his college thereby securing himself a job at the New Yorker after graduation. Surrounded by the best editors, he started making a name for himself. And now the twist. After working for 5 years at the New Yorker and just when he starts establishing himself, he quits. He takes a loan and an apartment at Vermont to write a book about man’s impact on the environment and ecosystem and comes out with his bestselling book till date- “The end of Nature(1989)” This was an important book in the environment movement. It established him as a thinker and writer in this space.  He used his career capital(The Harvard Crimson and The New Yorker) as a leverage to gain things that mattered to him.

  1. Simplicity(Cabin at Vermont)
  2. Autonomy (Writing non fiction books)
  3. Impact on the world(Environmentalist)
  1. Be wary of pitfalls:

If you try to make the jump early to get what you want from life without having enough to offer the world, chances of succeeding go way down. If Bill quit Harvard to write “The end of Nature”, it probably would have been the end of him. It was important that he got good at writing so he could offer something valuable.

Let passion be side effect, not the motivator. If you could match your pre-existing passion with a job that pays you well, career crisis wouldn’t be a thing.



2 thoughts on “Why “follow your passion” can be bad advice

  1. It felt great to read a your perspective about following one’s passion. Personally I would be more willing to follow a similar path to achieve what I want in life simply because I am not very clear as to what I want to pursue. However, there definitely will be opposing views from people who feel that they can only achieve their goals if their focus is solely on their passion right from the beginning. Also the aspect of missing the opportunity of ‘today’ over something that can happen tomorrow will also come to light in order to argue with this perspective. Nevertheless, I feel it is at least worth debating about as in todays world where a vast number of the younger generation either have no idea about what they want to do or they have an idea but do not know how to pursue it .


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