On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
As a millennial, I am no stranger to the idea of following your passion.
Many of us are focused on following a passion, not satisfied settling on a career for the sole sake of making money.
So what does it mean to follow your passion?
Following your passion means exploring areas that spark your interest, developing your skills in a specific area, and using those skills to contribute to something beyond yourself.
This article explores the idea of what it means to follow your passion and considers a better path to achieving satisfaction in your career and in life.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
Table of Contents
What is the Meaning of ‘Passion’?
Passion means sacrificial suffering as well as strong sexual desire. Referring to both sex and death, passion encompasses the cycle of life in one word.
The Latin origin of passion is “pati,” meaning “suffer,” and the word gained popularity in Christian theology referring to the sacrificial suffering of martyrs.
In the sixteenth century, passion began to refer to sexual love and a sense of strong liking or enthusiasm, seemingly the opposite of its original use. Although passion can still refer to pain and suffering – as seen in The Passion of the Christ – today, the word mainly conjures up strong connotations of pleasure and desire.
Although seemingly contradictory, the paradoxical nature of passion needs to be understood before applying it to practical issues.
The word has lost its depth in the popular personal development genre whose gurus overemphasize states of blissful contentment. In this sense, “follow your passion” becomes a difficult piece of advice to follow since it turns one’s passion into a fleeting emotional state.
Ask Canadian teenaged boys about their passion and most of them will tell you that it’s hockey – based on a study by Robert J. Vallerand. The problem is that almost all of them will eventually need to give up the dream of playing for the NHL.
But this does not mean they failed to pursue their passion; it just means they need to realize passions are developed, not simply found. This development takes hard word.
As Cal Newport states:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
Both passionate martyrs and passionate lovers share the ability to lose themselves in an act. One suffers the cost of great pain, while the other derives pleasure. The martyr and the lover are the archetypes of passion and we need them both when developing a passion.
Losing oneself in one’s work is not an eternal bliss. The pain and pleasure of passion are intertwined, rewarding those on the journey who persevere.
Should you Follow Your Passion?
“‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice.” – Cal Newport
So why is “follow your passion” bad advice?
First of all, it assumes your “passion” is a specific thing inside of you, waiting to be uncovered. In fact, it is the other way around: our passion is a byproduct of doing great work. In Drive, Daniel H. Pink makes the case that career happiness comes from having a position that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
This means we need to have a level of control over our work, feel that we are advancing our skills, and have a sense that we are contributing to a larger purpose outside ourselves.
Therefore, our passion develops with an activity, not uncovered beforehand. Defining your passion beforehand can limit potential opportunities to attain work that offers these three characteristics that facilitate career happiness.
Your passion may not be what you think…
Take the example of Gary Vaynerchuk who has been a successful entrepreneur since he could ride his bike around the block to collect cash from his various lemonade stands.
Growing up, his first passion was baseball cards. As an adolescent he learned everything there was to know about baseball cards, turning his passion into a very profitable vending business. He had dreams of opening up enough baseball card shops one day to buy the New York Jets.
Gary relentlessly pursued this passion until one day his father forced him to work a dull inventory job in the basement of his family’s liquor store.
Although this looks like a cruel injustice, it was the very thing that opened up a world of opportunities for him to peruse his passion at a larger scale than he had ever conceived.
Noticing customers in the store collected wine, he saw an opportunity and applied the entrepreneurial sense he developed through baseball cards to wine. Becoming a wine expert, he eventually turned his small family shop into a sixty-million-dollar business. But was wine his “true” passion? Far from it.
Just like the baseball cards and the lemonade, wine was merely a vehicle to execute his relentless entrepreneurial passion. Gary Vaynerchuck has now taken the business skills to his digital marketing startup and is a strong advocate for loving what you do.
The lesson is to not define your passion too narrowly, since you might mistake the vehicle for the engine – in other words, don’t mistake the passion’s present exterior form for the passion itself.
The same can be said about defining your passion too broadly, since almost everyone can identify with a passion for “helping people.” The question then becomes the particular form your passion takes: how are you helping people?
Let your passion follow you, instead.
Getting your passion to follow you requires developing skills that offer as much value as possible.
Progressing on one’s path to mastery, based on one’s innate or developed strengths is the best way to achieve a passionate work-life. Passion is earned.
Vocations are not handed to the amateur, they are achieved by walking the path and doing the work. Vocations can be shape-shifters, outlets for one’s craft that don’t necessarily take on a stable or specified form.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport urges us to be like craftsmen of our skills. The craftsman mindset allows passion to serendipitously emerge through one’s work, distinct from the passion-centered mindset which fixates on a pre-existing set of ideal conditions. He gives the example of Steve Jobs’ “messy” career path, stating:
“Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.”
He became passionate in the tech business only after developing his skills in this area and walking the path to mastery.
One cannot create the spark of passion without first striking the flint. Rather than going on a passion treasure-hunt, we need to become craftsmen of our skills, as Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
To become craftsmen of our skills, we need to engage in deliberate practice and let go of the idea that it’s going to all be an eternal state of blissful contentment. As Cal states:
“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
Giving up at the first sign of strife is a surefire way to stifle a spark of passion. Instead, kindling the spark of passion into a burning desire requires remembering that the root of the word means to suffer, and building anything of significance comes at a cost.
This advice is also useful during times of transition. Rather than having your passion depend on your social role, take your passion with you to the new role and find ways to apply your unique skills to the new situation.
Like Gary’s sequence of business ventures, your vocation can take on several different external forms. The key is that you find a way to bring your unique skills to the situation and be “so good they can’t ignore you,” as Cal Newport says. This means you must understand your strengths, understand the market, and craft your strengths to align with the market.
What I Learned Developing my Passion
Here are three things I’ve learned throughout my twenties as I developed a passion for a sociological perspective on mental health and addiction.
1. Gain insight into your strengths
I didn’t realize I was going in the wrong career direction until I started looking at my strengths and seriously listening to feedback from those around me.
My strengths are slowly processing abstract information, writing, and a strong interest in highly niche philosophical areas. Becoming an academic researcher and university professor plays to my strengths. The problem was that for most of my life I had my eyes set on a career in policing because it was a secure route with a good pension and I couldn’t think of any other career ideas at the time.
At one point I also took an office admin job that I had failed at quite miserably. With its fast-paced multitasking and lack of intellectual stimulation, I can honestly say I found it easier to do a doctorate in sociology than to work in that role. Rather than trying to fit in with what everyone else is doing or what you may be expected to do, play to your strengths, even if it results in taking a less conventional route.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key to setting yourself up for success later in life. Take a serious look at your life, beginning from your early childhood.
What types of things have you always been drawn to? What type of temperament or personality traits do you have? How can you use these to your competitive advantage?
Sit down with someone you trust to give you honest feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. The sooner you start playing to your strengths, the more time you will have to build on your competitive advantage and set yourself up for success in your thirties onward.
2. Develop a passion through specialized skills
There are no shortage of millennials trying to “find their passion.” twenty-somethings in America are enthralled by entrepreneurial pursuits that can bring meaning to their work-lives. The problem is that with this increasing level of flexibility there is also an increasing level of uncertainty.
Rather than trying to “follow your passion,” I say, “make your passion follow you.” This means knowing your strengths and putting in the work first, then your passion for that work will likely grow as you progress in the area.
As I neared the end of my doctoral degree in sociology, I discovered how relevant this advice truly is. Throughout my grad school career, I have been asked repeatedly, “what are you going to do with that degree?” To which I always replied, “the only job available for someone with this degree: research and teach in a university setting.”
As much as I would love to land a tenure-track professorship, I now recognize that my passion for writing, analytical inquiry, and strategic problem-solving are not dependent on the university context. I am now broadening my horizon by contributing to projects outside the walls of academia.
When your passion is based on your skills, losing your job can’t even take that away. Your passion will follow you so long as you put in the work.
3. Grind, hustle, and live simply
Gain the skills, knowledge, and networks that will lay a strong foundation for your career and social life. This requires a long-term mindset. Like the game of monopoly, the goal is to invest, invest, invest, and wait for the payout.
Long-term investment in yourself is made all the more difficult nowadays when bombarded with social media posts making it seem like everyone else is super rich and traveling all the time. Delayed gratification is a true virtue when laying the foundation for your future success.
My own version of self-investment was nine years of university education packed with reading, writing, and re-reading abstract sociological texts, coupled with rapidly consuming a large chunk of content coming out of the personal development genre.
Along the way I witnessed others around me rake in the cash at their “real jobs,” traveling the globe, and stocking designer wardrobes. Submitting to the process requires short-term sacrifices, but you will look back thanking yourself for laying a strong foundation for your own definition of success, rather than giving into short term monetary gains.
Stay on your path to mastery, become a craftsman of your work, and know that vocations are earned, not found. Perhaps then, instead of following your passion, your passion will start following you.
If you are interested in learning more about what it means to have a purpose, you can check out my article on the topic here: What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?