Twenty years ago, I was asked to describe my dream job. My response was to host a travel show on cable television. The job would be the ultimate combination of my passions for traveling, educating, and speaking. Needless to say, I chose not to follow those passions and pursue that career path. Some might say I missed out, but looking back now, I don’t regret my choice.
“Follow your passion” is one of the most common nuggets of advice offered to young professionals seeking career advice. But is it really the best advice?
It is important to be passionate about your work and career. Passion drives commitment and generates satisfaction in our lives. Passion triggers excitement and keeps us engaged. Ultimately, passion will be a major component of any success.
Despite the valuable benefits of being passionate about your work, following your passion may not be the best course of action when making career decisions. In reality, this advice can have negative implications.
Here are five reasons why following your passion may not be your best career move:
1. Passion may have little to do with ability
Some time ago, I asked a group of third graders what they wanted to be when they grow up. Most responded they dreamed of becoming singers, actresses, or professional athletes. These are not surprising responses coming from a group of 9-year-olds. But as adults, we know their odds for achievement are slim due to the required level of ability.
Ability is paramount when it comes to professional success, but ability and passion are not necessarily correlated. The better strategy is to focus on your abilities and consider where they apply to a career or business. By accepting opportunities and tackling challenges, we better understand our specialized expertise and skill sets. Once we realize where we excel, then we can begin to unleash our greatest potential.
2. Competence is developed, not a discovered passion
When we consider successful people in the business world, we recognize highly passionate and talented individuals. However, we only see their success at the surface. We don’t witness the long hours, hard work, frustrations and disappointments that cultivated their success. Success is not the result of an ingrained passion waiting to be capitalized upon. It is the result of a level of competence developed over time.
Uber-successful individuals will agree they are passionate about their life work. But their road to success was not spearheaded by passion alone. They worked diligently to develop the skills and competencies necessary for their success. During the process, they became passionate about their work and intentional skill development.
3. Restricting focus limits skill diversification
The advice to choose a career based on following a passion is well-intentioned and sounds good on the surface. But the research says something different.
A recent study from Stanford psychologists, Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton, reveals the potential downfalls of following your passion. This research found that pursuing a fixed personal interest was likely to limit other interests and decrease the opportunity to develop new and different passions.
“When you focus on your passion, you narrow your interest too much, which keeps people from having creative and new innovations and ideas. Being narrowly focused on one area could prevent individuals from developing knowledge in other areas that could be important to their field at a later time.”
The research is clear. A specific focus on one passion may lead to both personal and career limitations.
4. Passions may come and go over time
Just as we constantly grow and change, so do our interests and passions. Many of us are no longer interested in or driven by the same things we were a few years ago. What may have been a passion in our twenties may no longer be appealing in our thirties.
A career centered around today’s passion could lead to boredom or lack of enjoyment in the future. Ultimately you may find yourself not enjoying your work as much as initially thought, creating a real risk for any professional venture. The pursuit of a limited area of focus may result in disappointment, even though it seemed so appealing a short time ago.
Your skills, talents and general fields of interest should be the key drivers. These items don’t significantly change over time and can be applied in a variety of careers. Instead of doing what you thought you loved, you may find that you will love doing what you do well.
5. Following opportunity, not passion, will deliver the best results
Opportunity appears in surprising and unpredictable ways, and excellent opportunities should be carefully considered and acted upon. But the risk of missing out on new opportunities is real when following a specific passion or self-glamorized dream job.
I look back now at opportunities that defined my career and realize each required me to have an open mind or make a major change. And while these opportunities may not have initially fit into the realm of following my passion, I became very passionate about the opportunity.
Pre-determined passion should never prevent the exploration or consideration of new opportunities. Meaningful, relevant and exciting work often appears when least expected. Become passionate about identifying opportunities that will allow you to develop a passion for your work.
Following a passion into a career or business may not be realistic or the best decision, and it can be more harmful than helpful. As quoted in the research noted above: “The message to find your passion is generally offered with good intentions, to convey: Do not worry so much about talent, do not bow to pressure for status or money, just find what is meaningful and interesting to you. Unfortunately, the belief system this message may engender can undermine the very development of people’s interests.”
Being passionate about an idea, an activity, or an interest is meaningful but doesn’t define your work or how you spend a career. Passions may be best reserved for hobbies, to provide an escape or maintain a work-life balance.
Develop a genuine passion for the work you do and the skills you have. Find a career or a business that allows you to become passionate about the work you do on a daily basis. Instead of following your passion, bring it with you to the job.
Remember that real success comes from being passionate about your work—not necessarily from making something you're passionate about your life’s work.
Brian T. King is the founder and owner of multiple firms encompassing design, construction, real estate, and manufacturing, and currently president of the integrated Design-Build firm A M King. Brian shares his passion for mentoring young professionals, rising managers and entrepreneurs at speaking engagements around the country, on podcasts and via his blog.