The Problem With Following Your Passion

By Chad Hamilton, CFP

For a lot of people – especially younger people – their single biggest asset is one they don’t really think about: human capital or all of their future earning potential. Because it’s intangible, it can be easy to overlook but the value of future earnings. However, this asset can easily eclipse the average value of tangible assets like a home or a car as shown in the chart below (estimated for a 35-year-old).

But even if the value of human capital is not fully appreciated, the role of work in our lives in central to many of us. According to a study by Riedel Strategy, when people are asked about their “financial life story,” the answers revolve around work more than any other single financial topic. The implication is that there is a big need for career advice.

So what is the most likely bit of career advice young people are likely to receive? If you need a hint, look at the chart below from google.

 

Follow your passion. You can see just how much this advice has gained prominence over the past several decades. The next logical question to ask is how all this passion-chasing has worked out.  Job satisfaction has either declined or stayed flat over the same time period depending on which study you consider. Job hopping has drastically increased across the board and particularly among millennials. Workplace stress and burnout are increasing while sustainable careers are increasingly rare. Fully 64% of young people now say they don’t like their jobs.

The more we seek what we love, the less we tend to love what we do. What gives? Monique Valcour from Harvard Business Review puts it this way:

“The ‘follow your passion’ self-help industry tends to under-emphasize this key point: all of the self-awareness in the world is of little use if you can’t pitch your passion to a buyer… A sustainable career is built upon the ability to show that you can fill a need that someone is willing to pay for.”

Researchers have found that there’s little overlap between common passions of those in high school or college and the type of work that is most in demand.

We probably don’t need research to tell us this. We know intuitively that there are only so many opportunities to prosper from being a professional musician, artist, or athlete; the types of dreams and aspirations we tend to have before actually beginning a career. Instead of a passion mindset, Carl Newport advocates for what he calls the “craftsman mindset.” In a nutshell, this means working at becoming great at what you do. By first adopting the craftsman mindset, the passion – and money – will follow. Or, as Newport puts it, “don’t set out to discover your passion, set out to develop your passion.” Instead of focusing on passion, look deeply at what energizes you, what you find rewarding, what you’re good at and what comes to you easily. Valcour advises examining your high and low points at work, and identifying the times that you felt more energized, engaged and fulfilled — and why you felt this way.

I’ll share with you a bit of my personal story to illustrate the point. As an introvert, I used to be terrified of public speaking. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I was the worst student in my college speech class. Fast forward 20+ years, and now I really enjoy giving presentations (assuming it’s on a topic I understand). I don’t enjoy it because it’s an innate passion. I enjoy it because it is the most effective way to share ideas and I am energized by ideas, especially ones that help other people in some tangible way. I’ve learned how to effectively communicate ideas publicly and, in the process, developed a passion for doing it.

Here’s the point. Passion is a by-product of mastering certain skills. It involves a lot of patience and struggles along the way, but it is very rewarding for those who stick with it. The problem with the conventional wisdom to follow your passion is that it is self-defeating. Passion-chasing discourages the type of patience needed to cultivate passion in the first place.  It often leads to discontent and anxiety. By creating an impossible standard that is rarely achieved at the onset, it is a recipe for career disillusionment. The fact is many of us do not need to look elsewhere to find our passion. We just need to look at the position we are in with an attitude of what Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale calls “job crafting”.

In her research, Wrzesniewski observed that the most engaged employees in all types of jobs tend to be the ones who didn’t change their work, but changed the way they thought about their work. She had detailed conversations with the custodial staff at a hospital about their jobs, and she discovered a subset of people who didn’t see themselves as part of the janitorial staff. Instead, they viewed themselves as part of the professional staff and as a crucial part of the healing team.  

In his book, Great Work, David Sturt puts it this way:

“To reframe one’s job is to make a mental connection with a grander purpose: Its social benefit. Its worth to society. Its potential to benefit others. Thinking of the good our work can do, beyond our daily to-do list, helps us change how we relate to our work.”

It’s not that passion is irrelevant. It just should not be the starting point. The fundamental problem with the passion mindset is that it is driven by a quest for “what the world can do for me?” The proper posture, instead, should be “what can I do for the world?” Embark on that quest and the passion will follow.

 

1 Forbes, “Average New Vehicle Cost is $36,000+ and Loan Delinquencies Are Up,” 5/30/2018.

2 National Median Home Value in U.S. according to Zillow as of 12/31/18 (zillow.com/home-values)

3 Net present value of future earnings for a 35-year-old earning $5,000/month assuming a 3% annual increase to age 65 and a 5% discount rate.