The Hidden Dangers of Following Your Passion
By 2009, “follow your passion” had become a dominant cultural narrative about success. Books like The Four Hour Workweek proliferated the zeitgeist. Bloggers were getting book deals, and people were turning side hustles into full-time jobs. The advice to follow your passion was echoed in self-help books, blog posts, and commencement speeches. But people never talked about the hidden dangers of following your passion.
After this gold rush, the internet was a digital graveyard of abandoned passion projects. And even some of the most famous bloggers of the time eventually faded into obscurity.
Why did this happen?
The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem of course is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt — Cal Newport
Outliers make the news. Successful people end up on the covers of magazines, have stories written about them in the New York Times, and make appearances on Oprah, the world’s most successful life advice merchant.
As outliers became our role models for what is possible, people fell victim to confirmation and survival biases. They quit their jobs, hired coaches, and enrolled in programs they couldn’t afford.
The choices they made did more harm than good to their careers. They didn’t consider the advice they received in the context of their lives. And they forgot that outliers are bad role models for most of us.
No one writes stories about people who follow their passion only to end up dead and broke. These stories are more common than we want to admit.
Follow your passion is a platitude, not a strategy for discovering what you were born to do. And for many people, this advice leads them to sit on their butts because they don’t have a passion to follow. It is possible to find and do work that you are passionate about.
But you can’t overlook the hidden dangers of following your passion.
The Short Road from Passion to Poverty
Let’s say you’re reading a book and the author’s story inspires you. You think, “If she can do it, so can I.” So you quit your job, start your side business, and a month later you can’t pay your rent.
It’s a short road from passion to poverty. People who jump without a parachute and try to build one on the way down usually plummet to their death. And you can’t pay rent or utilities with passion if it doesn’t earn you an income.
Passion is not something you follow.
It’s something you discover by paying attention to what you find engaging. As Tina Seelig says, “Passion follows engagement.” Mastery follows excitement and meaning follows mastery. Passion is an emotional response or reaction to our work. Mastery is the process of doing the work to become so good that you can no longer be overlooked.
Conventional wisdom says to follow your passion and this will lead to a rewarding career. But if you follow your passion in an area where you have no skill, it’s unlikely.
Copywriter Dan Kennedy said in one of his seminars, “Businesses need to be market-driven. My passion is lying in a hammock eating pizza and betting on horses. My passion for these things could multiply and no one will pay me for it.
In an article on the Copyblogger website, Sonia Simone describes what she calls “the naked mole-rat problem.” She says “if you start a blog on naked mole rats it had better be for passion rather than profit. The audience that wants more information on insect-like rodents is going to be limited.”
You could have the most popular blog, a successful podcast, and host an annual conference for naked molerat enthusiasts. But you’re unlikely to turn your passion for naked molerats into a successful career.
The way we’ve been taught to think about passion is wrong. Blind passion without any evidence to support it is a path to poverty, dissatisfaction and disillusionment for many people. Passion is an emotion, not a business model.
When successful people talk about following their passion, they give this advice after the fact. “Compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that you just have to follow your passion,” says Cal Newport.
I started my podcast in 2009, long before podcasting became a massive cultural trend. But I wasn’t passionate about podcasts. When people asked me what I wanted to do after business school, I’d say “something unrelated to the internet.”
I wasn’t following a passion, I was discovering it by
- Exploring what I was curious about
- Becoming aware of what I found engaging
- Developing skills
- Striving for mastery.
And for me, this approach is a more viable and realistic alternative to following your passion.
4 Keys to Avoiding the Hidden Dangers of Following your Passion
Follow your passion isn’t just bad advice. It’s vague. Maybe you’re passionate about something, but you have no idea what to do about it. Discovering your passion, on the other hand, allows you to be more strategic and intentional.
Insatiable curiosity is a hallmark of almost all successful people who are passionate about what they do. Curiosity is the number one criteria I use to select podcast guests, work on creative projects, and more.
It’s also why I can’t tell people what we’re looking for in our podcast guests. As I like to say, if there was a formula, it wouldn’t be distinctive.
Curiosity is a powerful source of intrinsic motivation. Genuine curiosity makes work feel like play. When you’re truly curious about something, hours feel like minutes and you get lost in the work and in the moment.
But people underestimate the power of curiosity and overvalue trends and advice from internet celebrities and authors. And they overlook the glaringly obvious variable that almost guarantees they won’t get the same results: themselves.
Students in courses on how to start a blog, record a podcast, or build a business often become pale imitations of their predecessors. They focus on recipes instead of principles. Instead of creating something original, they imitate their role models and teachers.
Standing out in a sea of noise is not just a matter of success. It’s a matter of survival for every brand, business, and creative in today’s world. If you try to become the next version of someone else, you will drown.
Following your curiosity will always lead to more interesting work than following the advice of someone who says everyone should do something. Even if your curiosity doesn’t lead anywhere, at least you’ll learn something.
In college, I was the technical director for the Indian Student organization in Berkeley. I was responsible for taking photos, maintaining our website, and creating a slideshow for the annual banquet.
Back then, creating a slideshow set to music was much more difficult than it is today. It took me and the person I was working with almost 60 hours to create a 10-minute slideshow. But it never felt like work because I found the experience so compelling.
After I graduated, I kept tinkering with new tools and trying to make something with them. It’s a habit I’ve kept up to this day. The question I ask myself every time I discover a new tool is, “What could I do with it?”
Somewhere along the way, I realized that using technology to express my creativity is what captivates me the most. Writing and podcasting are just one expression of that.
- How do you know what you’re attracted to? Think back to a project you’ve done before, whether it was for work, school, or church. You probably enjoyed those projects so much that they didn’t feel like work. You had so much fun with the process that the outcome was irrelevant.
- Don’t focus on the projects. Pay attention to the aspects of the projects that made them compelling. While you may not be able to make a career out of such projects, you can transfer those skills to other endeavors and you won’t fall prey to the hidden dangers of following your passion.
Creating a slideshow in college taught me that I love using technology to create things. After writing two books for a publisher, I realized I had developed an invaluable skill that could be applied to anything: the ability to turn a vague idea into reality.
In our culture, we overvalue passion and underestimate the importance of skill. You need both if you want to become a person who is able to turn ideas into reality and master their craft. And it takes time to develop skills so valuable that someone will pay you for them.
Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life. — Twlya Tharp
When you’re passionate about something, intrinsic motivation kicks in. It’s much easier to develop your skills when you’re intrinsically motivated to do something. There are four phases to skill development.
Phase 1: Suck
Phase 2: Suck Less
Phase 3: Do not suck
Phase 4: First good, then great
Phase 1: Suck
When you start learning something new, you’re going to suck. There’s no way around that. All you have to do is look at the earliest work of people you admire. This work is often lousy, ridiculous, and looks nothing like it did when you heard about them.
Read the first blog post someone writes. Then read one they wrote after 10 years of work. You’ll find it hard to believe that the person you think is so good at what they do was once so bad at it. This is the case with the first version of a product and the first draft of a book.
This applies to the first version of a product and the first draft of a book. Reid Hoffman says, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late. The same goes for creative work.
Getting through that first phase requires patience. You must resist the temptation to stop creating more and compare less. As Sam Altman tells founders, “Your biggest competitive advantage is a long-term view,” which he defines as 10 years.
Phase 2: Suck Less
When it comes to any skill, there is a concept I share with aspiring creatives that will accelerate your progress faster than almost anything else. In his book, Adam Grant says the following about many successful creatives.
In any field, even the most distinguished creators typically produce a large amount of work that is technically sound but considered unremarkable by the audience.
Strive for quantity over quality and focus on process over the prize. Do this for a long time and you will stop being bad. You will gradually get better at what you do.
Phase: 3 Don’t Suck
When you stop being bad, people will start paying more attention to you. Your work will get the attention it deserves. But don’t get distracted by your press or rest on your laurels. The myth of the “I’ve made it moment” is often the beginning of the end and leads to people becoming one-hit wonders.
Phase 4: Good then Great
What follows skill development is the accumulation of what Cal Newport calls career capital. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal says, “The craft mindset, with its relentless focus on becoming “so good they can’t ignore you,” is a strategy well-suited to the acquisition of career capital.” That’s why it trumps the Passion Mindset if your goal is to “create work you love.”
Now your skills are actually worth something. And you can use them to open doors that were previously closed.
The road to mastery requires patience. You will have to keep your focus on five or ten years down the road, when you will reap the rewards of your efforts. The process of getting there however is full of challenges and pleasures… In the end money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals ,but rather those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their life’s task. — Robert Greene
The journey from skill to mastery is the longest stage for any person who wants to discover their passion. Mastery is not a destination, it is a journey that takes a lifetime.
Becoming a master of one’s craft requires a combination of choosing the right passion, reliable mentors, and deliberate practice. Mastery is a process of showing up day after day, year after year, and decade after decade. Eternal masters are lifelong students.
AR Raman is one of my favorite artists in the world. I don’t understand a word of his music, but I love it. If there is one thing that characterizes Rahman, it is his commitment to learning.
“He is constantly asking himself how to do things better, how to do things differently. And when he talks about the films he wants to make, it quickly becomes clear that he wants to make films that are different from anything that has been made in India so far,” says Krishna Trilok in his book Notes on a Dream.
Even if you don’t know who AR Rahman is, you’ve probably heard his music in films like Slum Dog Millionaire. And he has sold more albums than Madonna and Britney Spears combined. He is a true master of his craft.
I’ve written about mastery, read books about it, and even implemented those concepts in my work. But I’m far from mastering my craft because I’ll be trying to master my craft for the rest of my life.
Passion is a Byproduct
The gold rush of passion is alive and well. You can find a dozen books and online courses on how to monetize your passion. But in reality, you’ll get much further by monetizing your skills and discovering your passion.
Passion is the starting point for people who follow it, and most of the time it’s a road to nowhere or poverty. But for people who have successful and rewarding careers, passion is the end result of curiosity, commitment, skill, and mastery.
If you don’t want to become a victim of the hidden dangers of following your passion, don’t follow it. Discover it.