The Trouble With Following Your Passion 

As a high school student, I was regularly told to follow my passion. It’s the advice many teens are given specifically related to career aspirations, elective selection, and future college applications. Find what you’re passionate about and focus on that. It’s a trope that lines up beautifully with “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”.

As I’ve progressed in my career, and taken on mentorship of those who will come after me, I’ve learned how perilous that advice can be.

Unknown Unknowns

When you receive the advice to follow your passion early in your life or your career, you have so many things you haven’t encountered yet. In my case, I was passionate about music. In part, I was passionate about it because I naturally excelled at music and I greatly disliked doing things I was bad at.

I focused intently on music with the ultimate end goal of “being famous*” since that’s what most musicians we know of are: famous. I didn’t realize that there were other parts of music that we going to be more appealing to me. Things like learning how to work in an ensemble, and how to guide an ensemble. Or the semantic language of music and its deep ties to math.

Passion Paradox

And while we’re on the subject of things we’re naturally good at, let’s talk about what makes you passionate. In order to enjoy a task, it’s important to have some level of mastery. So few people find joy in being bad at stuff (which is separate from enjoying new experiences). When we tell inexperienced people to follow their passions, we run the risk of cutting off the opportunity to grow their skills.

Consider lexicography.

This is one of those jobs that would make absolute sense for someone with a voracious love of reading, writing, and the ever-evolving nature of language. You might not suggest to any teen who loved reading that they “pursue professional reading” since there just aren’t that many job opportunities. Exposure to related work and fields is paramount to discovering those nuanced parts of what drives a passion.

Network Disadvantage

Not that this suggestion is perfect. I am aware that exposing your student to a broad spectrum of vocations isn’t possible for everyone. Take Your Child to Work Day gives them insight into your work world, which is of course helpful. Having a network that helps or encourages internships or job-shadowing is definitely a matter of privilege.

My best suggestion for broadening your knowledge without a network is to get a mentor. In my limited experience, it’s not been hard to get someone who is willing to mentor you. What is hard is being easy to mentor (and making the best use of everyone’s time).

Examined Pursuits

As with so many things, my recommendations boil down to “going in with your eyes open”. If you want to be famous, and you’ve learned all the many ways you can be in an industry without being the improbable star, yet still want to strive toward stardom then great. You have every right and you’re probably going to be amazing!

Just make sure that you take the time to know more about the entire landscape before you start.

* I have not, in case you missed it, gone on to be a famous musician. I work in technology.

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