Should You Follow Your Passion? (Nope – You Should Grow It)

Whether you’re a parent or a coach, an athlete or a musician or a kid, there’s one piece of advice that you’ve heard a zillion times: follow your passion. It’s a beautifully tempting idea, because it implies each of us has a calling, a destiny.

It’s also crummy advice.

Here’s why: follow your passion (FYP) is based on the notion that our passions are fixed and unchangeable, and that our main job is to hunt after that passion as if it were so much buried Spanish treasure. The idea is, once we discover it, we’ll find happiness.

The problem is, that’s not true. Yes, there are a lucky few who are seized by a desire in childhood and spend the rest of their lives happily following that narrow road. But for the vast majority of us, life is more complicated: we are faced with tough choices, branching pathways. And when we base our happiness on FYP’s treasure-hunt logic, we create a cascade of frustration (Why aren’t I happy? Should I switch paths? What’s wrong with me?).

The key fact to realize is that passions aren’t fixed — they’re flexible and alive. They grow and change in connection with our abilities and accomplishments. For a useful insight into this, check out this piece by Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and author of the new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, who devastatingly debunks the Myth of FYP. His argument is based on two basic truths:

  • Point #1: the thing that people love about their lives — that X factor that gives them the feeling of passion — usually has less to do with the specifics of a pursuit, and more to do with the bigger factors: the feeling of self-efficacy, accomplishment, and the joy of having a mission that impacts the world in a positive way.
  • Point #2: The early years of any pursuit are filled with struggle and difficulty. The love of a craft grows alongside our skills.

I’m Exhibit A. Though I loved books, I didn’t grow up burning to be a writer; I turned to it after college, after I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. My early years working at a magazine were fun, but also hard and frustrating. If I’d been constantly asking myself, “Is this truly my passion?” I would have been frustrated. But as I got better, I started to enjoy it more and more. I wrote short articles, then longer articles. Then decided to try writing a book. It worked — not because I’d followed my passion, but because my passion grew alongside my skills.

To be clear: this is not to say you shouldn’t do what you love. You absolutely should. But you should do so with the right expectations. As Newport points out: don’t follow your passion. Let your passion follow you, by cultivating it through hard work.