Why following your passion is bad career advice


For all my fellow humans of transition who live with the question, “What am I going to do with my life?” and for everyone else who makes them think they are hopeless if they don’t know.

& also

For everyone who was told they were entering the “real world” and thought, “Wait, you mean my whole life up until this point hasn’t been real?”

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice – – –

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

‘Mend my life!’

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations – – –

though their melancholy

was terrible. It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.


But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice,

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do –  determined to save

the only life you could save.


I, as many young people do, grew up with the narrative that I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life.  Where should I go to college? What should I study?  Which career path should I choose?  These questions followed me everywhere and popped up at the beginning of every new conversation I participated in.  Naturally, I assumed I had to have an answer. So I chose one.  “I’m going to Penn State, majoring in Psychology, so I can go to grad school and become a clinical psychologist.” Answer = check.  Now when my teachers, friends, and family posed those questions I would have a response.  As a result, I told myself I was responsible, on top of it all, and motivated.

Then I arrived at college, and one day was asked, “What’s your passion?” I froze.  There is another question I should have the answer to? My passion?  I initially thought I should respond with my chosen career path, but then realized that didn’t feel quite right.  In my own quest to find my passion, I became fascinated by the question. Disillusioned by the go-to “What’s your major?,” I substituted the passion inquiry into my conversations with new faces.

The varied responses I received were always enjoyable.  Many, utter confusion and hesitation – exactly what I looked like the first time I was asked that question.  Some would respond with their major, in a manner that sounded like a rehearsed response to an interview question.  Others let this inquiry open up doors to their authentic selves, as they excitedly explained to me what made them feel alive.

American culture has become obsessed with the idea that we need to follow our passions to be happy.  On any given day, my newsfeed is churning with all the advice I need to find happiness, as if the secrets to life are hiding in the eight easy steps described. “Do what you love and the money will follow” has become a common mantra for approaching career choices.

Yet I have come to believe that “following your passion” is bad advice.

Given my track record, that may be a surprising statement.  Had we met several years ago, you may have been the recipient of my passion question.  Had you interned with me, you would have had to answer that question in your application. I used to truly believe not following your passion compensates who you are and what you can give to the world.  I have changed my mind.

The Passion Hypothesis

For the purposes of this context, let’s define passion as: a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.

Cal Newport, author and Georgetown University professor, has made it his mission to debunk the passion hypothesis: The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.

Often citing Steve Jobs as an example, Newport explains how Jobs supported the hypothesis in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, urging students, “You’ve got to find what you love…. [T]he only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”

However, Jobs himself was not particularly enthralled by technology and business early on.  He essentially stumbled upon electronics and entrepreneurship after he dropped out of college, where he studied Western history and dance, and dabbled in Eastern mysticism.  When Newport cites Jobs’ story, he suggests, “Do what Steve Jobs did, not what he said.”

Newport has nothing against the goal of ending up passionate about what you do.  In fact, the essence of his research relates to how individuals end up feeling fulfilled in the careers they choose.  Yet he argues that following your passion to lead to career satisfaction is a bad strategy, so much so that he created his own Law (genius).

Newport’s Law: Telling a young person to follow their passion reduces the probability that they will end up passionate.

Why? First of all, this method presupposes we have a passion to follow.  Yet when faced with no passion to follow, manifesting one out of thin air becomes the default route.  With a chosen passion, those lost feelings of uncertainty and lack of direction disguise themselves as motivated feelings of purpose and drive.


Meet Brooks.  Brooks really loves riding horses.  When he arrives at college, Brooks doesn’t know what he wants to study.  His parents push the business route, insisting he will make good money, because that’s where all the jobs are now.  Brooks did well in math in high school and figured his parents were right, at least he would find a job.  So he decides to major in Accounting.*  Nearing graduation, Brooks finds himself increasingly unenthused about accounting.  Simultaneously, he is surrounded with Buzzfeed articles, Instagram pictures, and Facebook shares about following his passion instead of money.  This strategy resonates with Brooks, as he ultimately just wants to feel like his life has a purpose.  The idea of crunching numbers all day becomes more and more bleakly daunting.  So much so, that when he graduates, Brooks decides to follow his passion to Colorado, where he will work for an outfitter and lead horseback riding trips through the Rockies.  Brooks feels optimistic about following his passion instead of selling out and working at a job he hates.

*The use of accounting in my example is not meant to mock the field. I happen to know many lovely accountants like my own, Poincia Lockcuff.  She comes highly referred and I don’t know what we would do without her.


Second, Newport suggests that following your passion presupposes if you have a passion and match it to your job, you will naturally have a very fulfilling career. This theory is quite simplistic and does not take into account contributing factors such as workplace culture, mental health, sense of autonomy, connection, and purpose, or the effects of work on leisure and family time.


Back to Brooks.  He is hanging out in the Rockies, doing his horse thing, but something just doesn’t feel right.  He expected, since he was riding his passion (pun intended), he would be happy.  But his boss is a jerk, he works terrible hours, and it is really challenging for him to navigate interactions with pushy tourists.  Eventually the horses are not enough to fulfill him because there are so many other factors he doesn’t enjoy about his situation.

Brooks, like many young people (actually, make that people of all ages), has one heck of a question on his plate: What should I do with my life?

When faced with this question, there are three components that we often consider: people, place, and profession.  Often in environments like college, those three are aligned.  We don’t have to think about fulfilling them.  Our friends, activities, and studies are all in one place.  When we transition from college, those three can quickly become out of sync, presenting some difficult decisions.

Life isn’t always linear

Professionally, our culture does not celebrate experimentation.  It has traditionally celebrated ladders.  I was educated in a culture that conditioned me to think I was hopeless if I did not know what I wanted to do with my life at 18 years old.  One of the most commonly asked questions in interviews is “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I recall going through Career Services interview training that taught me how to answer that question “properly.”  But life isn’t always linear and it’s okay if we don’t know where we will end up.

Pause and think of all the interesting people you have ever met.   For me, they are the ones who did a million different things before they found their niche.  They iterated, pivoted, experimented, knocked down what they didn’t like and chased opportunities they did.  They built a toolbox of experiences that allowed them to be more versatile, more malleable, more prepared for changes. They are not stuck in boxes that are suffocating them.  They learned how to pop the lid off and breathe a little.

We have a choice.  We can choose to be conditioned by the culture that has influenced us during our youth and created narratives about what we are supposed to do. We can choose the paths that have infected a nation with depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Or we can choose to create our own story.  We can turn ladders into jungle gyms.

How? Choose the skills you want to cultivate instead of the linear path you want to follow.

Back to Cal.  In an interview on The Minimalists blog, Newport elaborates on the difference he sees between following and cultivating your passion.

“Follow” implies that you discover the passion in advance then go match it to a job. At which point, you’re done. “Cultivate” implies that you work toward building passion for your job. This is a longer process but it’s way more likely to pay dividends. It requires you to approach your work like a craftsman. Honing your ability, and then leveraging your value, once good, to shape your working life toward the type of lifestyle that resonates with you.

Here’s the key: there is no special passion waiting for you to discover. Passion is something that is cultivated. It can be cultivated in many, many different fields. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to say, “I don’t know what my passion is.” What does make sense is to say, “I haven’t yet cultivated a passion, I should really focus down on a small number of things and start this process.”

However, cultivation requires delayed gratification.  In such a fast paced society in which we can get practically anything with the click of a button, we expect quick results.  Good things take time.  Patience is essential.  Not having a path eliminates the mile markers we can check off along the way.  For some, this lack of structure can be frightening.  That’s okay.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with linear paths if they are chosen consciously.  For others, no structure is liberating. Identifying your relationship with goals and decisions will help you better understand what you need to feel productive and fulfilled.

Listening to my own advice

I don’t have many grand life goals.  As you may have gathered, predetermined paths intimidate me.  When I make decisions, I seek to let my gut do the work.  I’m guided by questions. Is this work inherently good? Does it line up with my values? Will this opportunity challenge me to grow, learn, and reflect on what I want? Yea? Okay, let’s do it.

To be honest, I am trying really hard to listen to my own advice.  Months ago when I started fleshing out my thoughts for this post, much of my reflection came through conversations I had with other people about their lives.  Yet now these words resonate with my own life more than ever, offering my story as a pretty relevant case study.

Since I graduated in May 2013, I have been working on growing New Leaf Initiative, a coworking office and community hub in State College, PA.  When I became involved with New Leaf during my undergrad, I found purpose and meaning in the work I was doing supporting people with ideas and fostering community.  This drive ignited me more than the counseling route I was considering, so I said peace to grad school and decided to stay in my college town (something I never anticipated) to transition the Leaf to the next level.

Fast forward two years later.  Growing New Leaf has been quite challenging, but also extremely rewarding work.  I have learned about business planning, economic development, community building, and how much printers can suck.  I have also become a better listener, teacher, facilitator, and public speaker.

But I’ve realized I still have a lot of growing to do.  There are other lessons I wish to learn and skills I want to cultivate.  As a director, I have been responsible for the depth and breadth of my skill development.  I’m curious to experience what working for someone is like.  Who will I be in such an environment? Maybe I’ll dislike having a boss and immediately want to go back to doing my own thing.  Perhaps I’ll love it.  But I won’t know until I try.

Through New Leaf, I have been able to explore many of my interest areas, including coworking, entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystems, community development, local agriculture, and personal development programs.  Yet I ultimately have no idea which field I want to work in.  Over the next several years, my hope is to find opportunities that allow me to dig deeper into each area, helping me to better understand what type of work I want to do.

For these reasons and others, I’ve decided to step down from my role as Membership Director at New Leaf.  This summer, I’ll be returning to Longacre Leadership, a summer camp for teenagers on a working farm in Perry County, PA.  Come August, I really don’t know what will come next and I’m okay with that.

Asking the right questions

I don’t have the answers and it isn’t the answers I’m focused on.  I just want to make sure I’m asking the right questions.  Our society conditions us to believe we need to find all the answers right now.  That’s an unrealistic, unhealthy expectation that will only lead us to discontent.

I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.  Right now I know I want peace.  Peace of mind, peace of heart, and peace in the world.  That means three things – I constantly work on myself, my relationships, and my career.  I strive for balance, so they can all operate in sync.  I can’t expect satisfaction at work to fulfill me completely, just as much as I can’t anticipate strong relationships to be enough.

Ultimately, there is no right way to go about determining what you want to do with your life. Everyone will be different.  We will also all change our perspectives at different stages of our lives.  Perhaps it’s moving to a new place, raising a family, or caring for an aging parent.  I imagine experiences like these can change our perspectives.  What is most important to you? Place, people, profession. Having all three is not unrealistic, it’s actually quite possible.  But can we expect them to synchronize immediately after a transition occurs?  Maybe not.  We have to explore possibilities.  To do that, we need to embrace experimentation.

There are many ways to think about the points I am making.  For some of you, this may be a call to action, maybe a reflection for the future, or perhaps an evaluation of past decisions.  Ultimately, this writing is a call to be vulnerable with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Upon reflecting on the included poem by Mary Oliver, Roger Housden offers,

Any authentic movement usually requires a break with the past – not because the past is bad, but because it is so difficult for a deeper truth to make itself known among the accretions of habit and conformity.

To me, action is rooted in reflection.  I’m not expecting upon reading this you will make decisions about your life tomorrow because now you have all the information you need to know.  My point is to be aware of the culture that is influencing your personal and professional lives and how it affects the manner in which you make decisions.  Let’s think critically about the past Housden mentions, so we can make informed holistic decisions about how we engage with our present and future.

The beauty lies in acceptance.  Accept what depletes you and what fills you up. Find order in the chaos that manifests itself at your doorstep and dance in its light. I encourage you to stumble, to not know, to explore, to knock down your wrongs and build up your rights, to not stress when you don’t have the answers, to be excited by ambiguity, and be open to opportunity.

As my good friend Lisa Marshall says, don’t follow your passion, but be passionate.  The path will only be clear in retrospect. Be open to the lessons, good and bad, along the way.  You may just learn something.

It is not enough to know; you have to begin.

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One thought on “Why following your passion is bad career advice

  1. So passion is important, but we have to cultivate passions, not expect that they are already fully developed. So dabbling in different things might be a good idea for that. What if we are in a job that does not fulfill us, should we cultivate our passion within it?

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