Why 'Follow Your Passion' Is Bizarre Advice

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

A couple years ago, I launched a simple experiment. I identified a large group of people, from a variety of different professional fields, who all self-reported to love what they do for a living. I then gave them a straightforward prompt: "tell me your story."

My goal was to better understand how people end up passionate about their work. I succeeded in identifying some common patterns, but perhaps equally interesting is what I didn't find: very few of these happy workers knew in advance what they wanted to do with their life -- their path was more haphazard.

This conclusion is surprising to many in our culture where "follow your passion" has been canonized as unimpeachable advice.

But it wouldn't surprise Mike Rowe.

In his TEDTalk, Rowe explains that the tradespeople he profiled on his show, Dirty Jobs, are surprisingly happy. "Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work," he said. "I swear to God -- I did it with them." To Rowe, these experiences began to challenge many of the "sacred cows" he had been taught to believe about work satisfaction. Perhaps foremost of these sanctified ideas he began to doubt was the importance of pre-existing passion.

"Follow your passion... what could possibly be wrong with that?" Rowe joked in his talk. "Probably the worst advice I ever got."

Rowe's rejection of passion attracted a lot of attention, including over 1.3 million views of his talk. But it's worth taking the time to dive deeper into his statements to understand exactly what makes his ideas so transgressive.

In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer ("smells like hell, but God bless him, he's making a great living"), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.

You could replace pig farming with any number of pursuits, but so long as they yielded these same traits, he'd love his work. -- Cal Newport

The pig farmer is not happy because he was born with a pig farmer gene, or because he grew up feeling a deep pre-existing passion for pork. He's instead happy because he's making a great living, has tons of autonomy, and does work that's useful to the world (he raises his pigs on food scraps from nearby casinos that would otherwise go to waste). You could replace pig farming with any number of pursuits, but so long as they yielded these same traits, he'd love his work.

If we return to my own study of passion, which focused more on white collar work -- programmers, writers, doctors -- than the trades, I found similar conclusions. Few of my subjects followed a pre-existing passion into the careers that they now love. Their contentment instead grew over time as they got better at what they did, and then leveraged this skill to gain traits like competence, autonomy, and impact -- exactly the same types of traits that made Rowe's pig farmer so happy.

When you hear about my experiment, or Mike Rowe's experiences with dirty jobs, our society's obsession with "follow your passion" begins to seem bizarre. Why, we might ask, do we so easily accept the assumption that we're hard-wired for a specific economic pursuit? The alternative explanation -- that it's what you get out of your job, not the specifics of the work, that matters -- begins to seem a lot more reasonable.

We are, of course, a sound bite culture. So if we hope to discard "follow your passion" as a trope, we need to summarize the Roweian view of the world with something similarly pithy. In recognition of this reality, I'll end my discussion here with an attempt to satisfy this demand...

Don't follow your passion, let it follow you in your quest to become useful to the world.

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