CEO at Lensa, Inc. Passionate advocate for recruiting and human resources technology that puts people first.
We raised a generation on this simple piece of career advice: Do what you love. “Just follow your passion,” we said, “and success will find you.” Were we wrong? According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, today’s college graduates aged 22 to 27 had, just before the Covid-19 pandemic, a higher unemployment rate (3.8%) than the general population (3.5%), and 43.5% of recent grads work in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Do those numbers look like success to you? Or is it time to offer those starting a career in today’s job market more pragmatic advice about pursuing their passions?
Not All Passions Are Created Equal
Our advice was well intentioned. But, in doling it out, we made a mistake. We forgot that not all passions are profitable — and that life’s financial responsibilities can make it hard to follow your true passion. Things like repaying student loans, paying rent or a mortgage, and putting food on the table have a way of reminding you that they come first. Ignore them at your own peril.
Passion drives success, no doubt. But passion can’t drive a car that’s out of gas, nor can it drive every career.
Think about it: There are many deep passions that do not, and will not, deliver profit right away. Take someone who’s starting an acting career. This is a passion that can take years to develop into a job that can pay the bills. Or community radio. It’s the same with founding a startup. It’s also the case that not all passions are equally profitable. Does that make them any less valuable? Of course not!
The Case For Passionate Pragmatism
My point is that people also have to be pragmatic — i.e., learn to earn a living through a practical (or complementary) trade or job while developing and ramping up their passion project as a side hustle.
The problem for young people is that “follow your passion” is often packaged as an all-or-nothing approach that leaves out steps along the way that may be necessary to earn one’s living from one’s passion in the long term.
A further concern of mine: By mandating passion as the sole path to professional fulfillment, we leave out occupations that many people actually prefer to work as a way to make a living so they can pursue their true passions in their free time. Take the arts. One powerful example of someone who worked a day job as a bank clerk while pursuing his true passion on the side without the aim of making a living from it: Franz Kafka. By no means was this famous – and passionate – Czech writer an outlier. History is rife with examples of artists who held a day job while dedicating their off hours to their craft.
Which brings me to two main points that are missing from a “just follow your passion” career approach:
• Self-satisfaction is not the only path to achieving a sense of meaning from one’s work. What about the millions of jobs that aren’t intended to be passions, but nonetheless keep society functioning and provide a decent living? Isn’t that something one can derive meaning from? Surely not everyone has to, or even should, monetize their passion. Isn’t there room for both points of view?
• While it’s nice to enjoy your job, there is life (and passion) outside of work. Just because your passion doesn’t put bread on the table doesn’t make it less real.
Make no mistake: I am a passionate advocate of doing what one loves and loving what one does. The main problem with “just do what you love” as career advice is that, like so many truisms, it lacks the nuance to really be applicable in most situations.
Paths To Passion
The good news is that you don’t have to choose between either blindly chasing a flight of fancy or perpetually punching the clock to get a paycheck for a job you despise. I see two practical alternative paths.
The first path: Find a job that pays the most and that you can tolerate. Doing this will take care of your bills for now. On the side, figure out how to monetize your passion — whether it’s acting or developing an app. Either you will have the privilege of pursuing your passion as a career, or your passion will pay for itself while your job pays the bills. In the worst-case scenario, your bills will be paid and you will be able to enjoy your passion. Also a good deal, right?
The second path: Go ahead and follow your dream, if you have one, on two conditions. First, that dream must be viable (don’t follow your passion blindly — do your research). Second, you have to be able to cover your downside and survive if things don’t go as planned.
Where Coaching Comes In
None of this advice is a substitute for actual coaching, though. For a young person or anyone navigating the start of a career, mentoring can bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Parents, teachers, career coaches and senior colleagues alike owe it to job seekers to push back: “I appreciate that this is your passion, but how do you plan to sustain yourself?”
A true passion will survive and perhaps even intensify if someone takes a part-time job while they figure out how to earn a sustainable living from that passion. Some of the most passionate people I know have done exactly that. Chances are you know someone like this, too. Let’s take some inspiration from these powerful examples of passion in pragmatic practice!
So, in response to the question broached in this article’s title: Is “follow your passion” bad career advice? Not necessarily. However, it’s only part of the story. Hence my impassioned plea: Follow your pragmatism — passionately!
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