Is ‘follow your passion’ bad advice?

Is ‘follow your passion’ bad advice?


One of the most common pieces of career advice I hear comes in the form of just three words: Follow your passion.

Established leaders say it. Career coaches say it. Mentors say it. Many of the women we’ve interviewed on Women’s Agenda have said it. 

The search term “follow your passion” generates more than half a million results on Google, it’s intertwined with the need to “find your purpose” and other modern pressures we now place on the priority list. It’s certainly appealing advice, encouraging you to search within to determine what you’re really about, and then daring you to rise out of what you’re doing now to chase a great calling.

Recently, I moderated a conference panel with an inspiring group of women that explored the topic for a full hour. We never ran out of conversation, and the audience had plenty of questions to ask. Seemingly, we could discuss the need to “follow your passion”, along with “finding your purpose”, all day.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with a former executive who’d left the corporate world to ‘follow her passion’. While able to passionately articulate the working lifestyle she wanted to pursue, she admitted she was still figuring out just what kind of passion she should actually follow. She was still searching, she said, later conceeding that she regretted leaving the security of a regular paycheque, despite it coming from a job she disliked.

Both these conversations were meaningful and interesting, but they bothered me a little.

Do conferences that are typically dominated by men devote a full hour to a discussion on passion and purpose?

Can the search for one’s passion get in the way on long-term success? 

Is it even possible for a functioning society to sustain a workforce in which everyone is following their passion?

Do we put too much emphasis on the idea that ‘following your passion’ should come from paid employment, rather than some other aspect of your life of which paid employment could simply support?

Why would we want to ‘follow’ something in the first place? 

Some jobs are just that, jobs. They’re a means to earning an incoming for supporting your life and family. They may not light your fire or have you jumping out of bed ready to get stuck into it every morning, but they enable a freedom of a different kind: a regular wage.

Even for entrepreneurs and business owners, the pursuit of passion will only get them so far. This month, the Harvard Business Review has published new research refuting the “passion is the ticket to success” mantra for entrepreneurs. While passion can help when approaching investors and communicating an idea, its benefit is limited when it comes to long-term success.

The research, based on a number of studies and interviews with hundreds of founders, found that passion has no correlation with success a few years into the new business.

It found that what really matters to long-term success is preparedness: things such as research, well thought-out idea, testing, and solid plans for overcoming the inevitable challenges that come up along the way.

It’s a study that applies to entrepreneurs, but the key takeaway from the results could certainly be relevant to anyone pursuing particular goals or targets in their career.

HBR reports the researchers are not calling for entrepreneurs to downplay their passion, but to avoid giving it too much emphasis in their own minds and in the minds of those they’re communicating their vision with. So balance enthusiasm with preparedness — knowing exactly how you’re going to tackle what happens after the great vision is validated. 

Meanwhile author and academic Cal Newport offers a great alternative to ‘following your passion’. He suggests ‘cultivating’ it instead.

“Follow implies that you discover the passion in advance then go match it to a job. At which point, you’re done,” he told The Minimalists

“Cultivate implies that you work toward building passion for your job. This is a longer process but it’s way more likely to pay dividends. It requires you to approach your work like a craftsman. Honing your ability, and then leveraging your value, once good, to shape your working life toward the type of lifestyle that resonates with you.”

In a post for Business Insider, Newport quoted Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson who recalled Jobs’ perspective that passion should be about something larger than yourself.

As he recalled Jobs said:

“Yeah, we’re always talking about following your passion, but we’re all part of the flow of history … you’ve got to put something back into the flow of history that’s going to help your community, help other people … so that 20, 30, 40 years from now … people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion, he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.”

To follow something is passive, it has you chasing a final destination with little regard for what may come up along the way. Cultivating passion, however, puts you in the drivers’ seat for making it happen. It also gives an opportunity to pursue something bigger and more meaningful than you.

Now mix that cultivation with preparedness, and you might just be on to something.


This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda.


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