Why “follow your passion” is the worst career advice

I’d like to start this blog post with a quote that you’ve probably read somewhere on the Internet:

Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

Often attributed to Confucius (which doesn’t really convince me—was “career choice” a thing in Confucius’s China?), this statement spread throughout a fairly wide range of sources, mostly from motivators of all sorts authoring self-help books or guest posting on business-themed websites.

As a result, it’s not that infrequent to hear recommendations such as “follow your passions” addressed to those who are striving for a change in their life. Blinded by their perhaps facile world view, people who suggest that the key for happiness lies in transforming hobbies into profit-making machines seem to ignore some of the very basic principles of our society.

Let’s start from the most obvious: most people’s passions, as a matter of fact, don’t fit well with today’s job markets. Most “passions,” oftentimes involving performing arts, literature, sports, traveling and whatnot, lead people to fight for a handful of highly desired positions.

There are quite a few examples that we could talk about. Take professional musicians. There’s no unlimited demand for them. Those who work with their music right now are basically good CEO’s of themselves—they sell their music as a product, therefore doing social media marketing, vlogs, podcasts, online stores, et cetera. Talent is not enough, unfortunately. Most successful musicians I know are better business-people than their less wealthy colleagues, not necessarily more talented.

Another example, much more painful—people in love with writing, who would love to write for a living. People ready to pen any kind of content that might be exchanged for some cash—usually a few cents—without realising they’re trying to make it in a space that is hyper-saturated to say the very least. All for their will to write, without focusing on the impact their content will have on people.

Every time someone shoots the “follow your heart” recommendation, what they’re saying might very well mean “sure, why not, spend your life wasting your time, doing something meaningless, maybe detrimental, maybe even dangerous for the whole world except you.

Doing “what we love” is not enough. What’s the alternative then?

Generally speaking, unless we’ve chosen to live as hermits, we’re part of a community. Something bigger than just ourselves. It might be our family. Our village, town, or neighbourhood. A community that builds around something, from a rock band to an open source software.

As parts of one or more communities, we’re bound to invest our time in activities that fits at least one of the next three categories.

Things we love to bits.
Things that can improve or even change people’s life.
Things that keeps us healthy.

Whether the money comes in from the first, second or third category, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that you do at least one thing that makes you feel alive, at least one thing that has a positive impact on the people around you, at least one thing to keep you in good shape.

So the point is: Looking for a source of income? It doesn’t necessarily have to come from your passions. Focus on what you can do—or can become good at—that also happens to be valuable to the world.

How I apply this in my life

I try to make it simple. The healthy part is easy—I go to the gym and eat nutritious food. I aim at 5 workouts per week, and cook at home instead of living on Deliveroo.

What do I love to bits? I look at it from another point of view—I’ve worked to make sure nothing in my life makes me feel miserable. I love my job, I love the people with whom I work, I love working out (which fits the healthy category too, so yay), I love spending time with my bass guitars.

How do I improve people’s life? That’s the part that might be tricky. As part of our jobs at Human Made, we’re encouraged to give back to the WordPress community in any way we can. As a non-engineer, I do several things that are not necessarily linear or consistent. Right now, I’m mentoring new speakers for two WordCamps (London and Turin). I’m helping people find the confidence and using the right tools to share their knowledge. Was it my childhood dream? Not necessarily, but that’s not the point. I’m contributing to something bigger than me. I’m having an impact on someone else. It feels magnificent.

Adjust or lose.

If you’re about to leave college, if you’re looking for a job, if you’re in the middle of a change career, don’t just look into your passions. Don’t be the selfish person that does something whether it has a impact on other people or not. Following your “passion” could lead to a life of misery and the alternative can actually be not that bad: something beneficial for others, that you at least don’t dislike, and maybe comes with a real job market connected. And who knows, maybe you’ve found a new passion. They usually change during a lifetime after all.

And if you are already working and at the same time doing what you love, don’t brag about you not working because Confucius allegedly said so. First, it’s a bit disrespectful towards all those people who once had dreams whose path of life brought them to, I don’t know, flip burgers at Five Guys. Second, you sound like you live in the 19th century: you still believe that work is by definition unpleasant and tiring. Third, it fuels unrealistic expectations on how people should invest their time, leading them to give a genuine shot at something potentially irrelevant to the rest of the world.

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