Why We Need to Go Beyond the Advice to ‘Do What You Love’

This may be good advice, but it shouldn’t end there.
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This may be good advice, but it shouldn’t end there.

“If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” the old adage goes. As millennials, we’ve been told over and over again to find—and then follow—our passion. Doing so, they say, will not only fulfill our purpose but also pay our bills, inspire others, and make the world a better place—all while we sing “Kumbaya” in perfect pitch.

Now, don’t get us wrong—these sentiments hold real truths. We will spend roughly a third of our adult lives building our careers. Consequently, we have every right to enjoy what we spend a huge chunk of our lives doing. But while career options have never seemed more boundless, a little skepticism about “following your passion” is warranted. While well-meaning, it’s incomplete. Real life has a way of stepping in and challenging our ideals. Dirty Jobs TV-show host Mike Rowe says, “Statistically, you’re not going to make it. You know why? Because there are like only one hundred astronauts.” Just because you dream about it, doesn’t mean it can or will happen.

We're not bringing this up to dash your hopes and dreams. We’ve both found jobs that we love (Julia is a psychotherapist and Maria cofounded Kandid.ly, a tech start-up for photography services). At times, our careers really do make us come alive. Often, they bring us joy. And it’s true—a lot of days don’t feel like “work” in the miserable sense of the word. But are these vocational pursuits our sole passion? No.

Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Workweek (along with other books that are “four-hour” themed), was once asked if he thought “follow your passion” was realistic career advice. At the time, Maria was at a crossroads in her career. She wondered, “Am I in this tech start-up for real, or am I going to go back to ‘following my passion’ as a creative writer for an ad agency?” Hence, she was particularly poised for what he had to say:

“Definitely not. It is popular to fantasize about ‘dream jobs,’ read about them, and envy those who have escaped the daily grind to revel in career nirvana. . . . But how do those who have found the ‘promised land’ really feel? Beyond the sound bites they offer magazines, there’s often a very different truth.

“Converting passions into work is the fastest way to kill those passions. Surfing two hours on a Saturday to decompress from a hard week might be heaven, but waking up at 6 a.m. every morning to do it forty hours per week with difficult clients is a very different animal.”

Here we realized that the word passion implies a feverish emotion. Like new love, it’s reckless and fierce, and it can swallow you whole, disorienting you with rose-colored beer goggles. Passion, by its nature, can’t last. It’s far too intense. It will burn you out. It can lead you to single-mindedness and blind you from the real opportunities available to you. Ferriss continues:

“I'm not saying we shouldn't be interested in our work—we should be. I am simply saying that we shouldn’t expect too much of it. The more unrelated demands we make of a single vehicle, the less likely that vehicle—whether work or marriage—is to get us where we want to go.”

Yes, you need to do something that works with your talents. Naturally, the subjects we’ve developed our talents in are often things we enjoy, activities that modern vernacular might define as our “passions.”

But does talent alone makes for a good career? In addition to hosting Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe started a foundation to promote the value of skilled labor. He recommends that, instead of using passion as your compass, use your opportunities. Seek a need that you have the talent to fill. In this interview, he gives an example of an entrepreneurial man who saw the need for septic tank services. He pursued it and now has a thriving business. While cleaning septic tanks might not have been his dream job growing up, it provides him with an opportunity to meet a need in the community with unique skills he has.

Taking this “talent and opportunity” approach gives you the freedom to pursue opportunities that come up without worrying about whether they fit into a rigid “dream job” career path. If Julia had taken the "follow your passion" route, she would have said no to other opportunities in order to focus solely on advancing her career as a therapist. But in saying yes to do marketing for a volunteer organization, she found an equally fulfilling opportunity that has developed her other talents and interests, such as writing and public relations. Pursuing opportunities outside our passions allows us to discover and embrace the multi-faceted and talented women we are, where we are.

Your work shouldn’t be the only thing that defines you. Beyond being a psychotherapist, Julia is a writer, volunteer, friend, and daughter. Maria isn’t just the cofounder of a start-up. She’s also a wife, sister, writer, and more. If we let passion be our sole driver, we easily miss out on these other elements of our life that give it meaning and make it fulfilling. But if we remove passion from the equation, pouring all our efforts and energy into work seems out of balance.

Keiko Tarquinio, a pediatrician at Emory University who writes about the challenges of work-life balance says, “Work always seems to be antagonistic to, rather than synergistic with, maintaining a personal life.” After all, if your job is your sole passion and defines who you are as a person, you invest your best time into it at the expense of other areas of your life. Tarquinio shares that she learned being flexible at work to ensure that things outside of work were able to be her top priority.

For Tarquinio, those priorities are clear. “At the end of my life,” she writes, “I would like to be recognized as a wife and a mother first, rather than a physician or researcher in a particular field. This is my priority.” Our needs change depending on where we are in our life’s journey, so knowing our priorities is key. What elements in your life leave you feeling most fulfilled and inspired? These deserve top billing in your life.

So, what's the point of all this? Enjoy the work that you do, but not as the sole foundation of your self-worth. A Man of La Mancha quest for your glamorous dream job could be holding you back from pursuing real and meaningful opportunities in front of you. Follow your interests, but don't risk losing your passions by making them your work. As Mike Rowe advises, “Never follow your passion, but always bring it with you.” The goal is to recognize that real and wonderful possibilities lie where your passions and opportunities intersect.

Photo Credit: Julia Hembree