Follow Your Passion, Don’t Follow Your Passion, & Other Master Narratives to Avoid

Sometime in the early 90s while I was an undergrad, the Career Development Department at my university introduced me to What Color Is Your Parachute, a guide to finding one’s career path by finding one’s passion. It was the same era when I took personality and gift inventories about every other month, including the one which said “garbage collector” would be a good career match for my skill set.

But I was no more passionate about waste removal than I was about fashion modeling. I was passionate about writing. And though I earned little more than minimum wage in my first professional writing position as a newspaper reporter, I believed my passion was worth pursuing.

I’m still passionate about writing in fact, and despite the growing collection of experts who now insist we should stop counseling young people to follow their passions, I’m still writing.

Why shouldn’t we follow our passions?

The “don’t follow your passion” movement started sometime around 2012. That’s the defining moment Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, highlights in a recent Business Insider article “A Steve Jobs quote perfectly sums up why passion isn’t enough for career success.” According to Newport, people had been talking about Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement address for years. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do,” Jobs famously told that graduating class.

But during a panel at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson felt like he needed to set the record straight, to tweak the advice Jobs had given. “The important point is to not just follow your passion but something larger than yourself,” Isaacson said. “It ain’t just about you and your damn passion.”

Newport goes on to talk about seeing a career, even a job, not just as a thing to get something from, but a place where we can give back. It’s good advice. He also says that the “follow your passion” advice can become limiting to young people who don’t feel a true calling or don’t know exactly what they want to do as a career. No passion? No problem, says Newport. “… work passionately toward the hard but worthy goal of making an impact.”

Of course the “don’t follow your passion” folks talk about career choices just as blindly as they accuse the “follow your passion” crowd of doing, as if young people don’t know how hard it is to get a job with an English major. In fact, in a January 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty reported that English majors are declining throughout the country. She interviewed Sarah Feeney, a senior at the University of Maryland, who followed her passion in choosing English as her major but understands why other students don’t.

But maybe you are following your passion

“I think that a large part of why we’re seeing fewer English majors, and fewer humanities majors in general, is because students are constantly told that studying a subject in the humanities will only prepare them for jobs in the fast-food or retail industry,” Feeney said in that interview. “We need to work hard to show students that studying a subject like English can help to prepare them exponentially for the future. Studying the humanities helps you to learn to quickly analyze and understand information and to communicate ideas.”

The “don’t follow your passion” advice also seems to suffer in a way similar to the “write what you know” mantra for authors. I can know new things by giving myself different experiences and acquiring new knowledge. The same is true for passion. I can care about different things throughout my life. If nothing else, that’s what I gathered from the story about Steve Jobs.

In an earlier article Newport wrote for Fast Company, he tracked the life of Steve Jobs, saying Jobs was decidedly not passionate about technology, business, or entrepreneurism as a young man. “He instead studied Western history and dance, and dabbled in Eastern mysticism,” Newport wrote. But as I see it, Job’s famous drop out of college and those early years in his adult life when he was dabbling in spiritual enlightenment and taking jobs as needed demonstrated he actually was just following his passion.

When, as Newport and others have noted, Jobs got his “lucky break,” abandoned his passions, and became rich, who’s to say that he would have been prepared to take those early risks had he been off doing what was practical? Maybe those first few years of following his passions gave him the vocational flexibility and freedom to see a good deal—and develop a new passion—when the time came. Would anyone argue that Jobs was not passionate about Apple?

So we should follow our passions?

If the “don’t follow your passion” advice is a little off, should we all just go back to telling young people to follow their passions again? Maybe not. The follow-your-passion advice also has some limitations.

First, it can be biased. Back when I was trying to figure out what color my parachute was, nobody—and I mean nobody—was telling my friends who were passionate about business or education or science that they might want to major in art or literature as a “back-up.” Those friends are now psychologists and teachers and business analysts who followed their career dreams and have made a nice living for themselves.

The “follow-your-passion” folks get nervous when it comes to people like me, though, people whose passions will never translate into FTEs in corporate America or tenure-track positions or partnerships in other established institutions. We give scholarships to students who want to cure cancer, but we offer employment applications to Starbucks for those who want to write the great American novel.

Of course, humanities majors are having their day now, too. According to new statistics, philosophy majors have increasing earning power in today’s economic landscape, and The Washington Post recently reported that tech companies are snatching up liberal arts majors for their “diversity of skills and flexible critical thinking.” Newport might say, “See, I told you it’s better for them not to follow their passions.” But I would say the opposite. Following one’s passions doesn’t mean a life of poverty, and success doesn’t always look like one thing. I think today’s young people are smart enough to know that.

But that’s the second difficulty with the follow-your passion advice: it has become something of a master narrative in our culture. “Once certain stories get embedded into the culture, they become master narratives—blueprints for people to follow when structuring their own stories, for better or worse. One such blueprint is your standard “go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids,” writes Julie Beck in a recent Atlantic article called Life’s Stories. Master narratives can be helpful templates to young people, providing them with a vision for success in their lives, especially for those following their passions. But they can “stigmatize anyone who doesn’t follow them to a T, and provide unrealistic expectations of happiness for those who do.”  On this point, Newport and I tend to agree.

You can both follow and work outside your passion

At its heart, the follow-your-passion advice for people of any age is not about creating self-entitled employees who will only ever seek to do what they are passionate about. It’s about giving people permission to keep caring about whatever it is that fills up their souls.

Likewise, most of us know that following our passions doesn’t always mean changing the world or creating an empire or padding our personal bank accounts. We may have to move outside of our passions to meet the needs of our community or achieve financial security. But we can still follow our passion by doing it “on the side” or for no pay at all, by coming to that thing we love prepared to work, to put in the time, and to take the risks when they come along.

Because unless you try, you’ll never know. Maybe you can change the world with your passion. Just be sure you’re wearing your parachute—whatever color it is.

Photo by Diana Robinson, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on October 25, 2015.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.