Follow your passion? Or earn it?

Something I wonder about all the time is whether or not people should subscribe to the “follow your passion” line of advice when choosing a career path. I waver because something doesn’t quite sit right with me.

It’s up to you to find your purpose…and work hard to achieve it.

I think it’s because deep down I know that finding the right career path for you is not just about finding your passion. One component of it definitely involves identifying your interests to determine what path to go down, but also involves discovering, along the way, what other types of factors can be useful in navigating your path. Things like skill development, experience, hard work, understanding your personal values and preferred work environment, and exhibiting a smattering of key personality traits that help you succeed at just about anything, such as being persistent, disciplined, confident, and achievement-oriented.

I think I’m coming to the realization that you have to earn your dream job, rather than discover it.

I wanted to share this article by Cal Newport published in the New York Times. The article certainly makes some interesting arguments to support this position.

It’s not that the “follow your passion” is wrong per se, it’s just that it’s idealistic, if not a tad misleading, directionless, impractical, and not all that helpful for today’s career seekers.

Let me give you an example directly from the article. The author faced a difficult decision during his senior year of college: accept a job at Microsoft, accept a position within the doctoral program in computer science at M.I.T., or pursue a career as a full-time author, having just successfully published his first nonfiction book. Now wouldn’t we all like to be in this position!?

He chose the doctoral program. But that’s not the interesting part. What is interesting is his philosophy on his decision: he believes that any of the career paths presented to him could have turned into a passion for him. In his own words:


Today, I’m a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and I love my job. The most important lesson I can draw from my experience is that this love has nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor. There’s nothing special about my choosing this particular path. What mattered is what I did once I made my choice…Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.


Now, it’s true that the “follow your passion” advice might work for the budding recording artist who simply needs to muster the courage to audition for American Idol or some other reality TV show in order to be “discovered” and land the opportunity of a lifetime. But these are extremely rare and exceptional cases, and even still, can anyone tell me what the last American Idol is doing now?? Makes you wonder.

All joking aside, this advice may actually work for a small subset of individuals who, for whatever reason, had a good sense of their calling from an early age, or who were blessed with a clear and undeniable talent that they simply could not ignore.

But for the rest of us, I would agree with the author that the best way to find a dream job is to earn it. That is to say, work hard at learning more about yourself, research opportunities, pursue them relentlessly, and make a decision to accept that first job. [Indecision is not your friend…it seems comforting at the time, but it’s really coddling you and preventing you from learning and experiencing important life/career lessons].

Once you’ve landed your first job, expect that you’ll have to grind through the tough early (learning) stages of your career to eventually reach the level of experience and confidence that will allow you to feel like you’ve made it, or have at least accomplished some of your career ambitions. This takes time, patience, determination, and hard work!

So it looks like I might modify the advice slightly to ditch “follow” and replace it with “actively learn” about your passions…and don’t rest there!

You can start by taking purposeful and structured steps to uncover your full range of interests (not just a single passion) and identify your skills and values, through helpful career planning tools, such as the Jackson Career Explorer (JCE). Then run with it. This involves working hard and persisting through the inevitable ups and downs along your career path to build your competence in your chosen area and ultimately realize your career goals.

I want to hear what you think about this. Do you know someone who has followed his or her passion and landed the job of their dreams, or do you know others who found their calling through some other path? Please share your own story!

3 thoughts on “Follow your passion? Or earn it?

  1. Inspiring things being shared, is this advisable in general. I think as par environmental condition, sometime may not result. But need passion to get the result we want.

  2. Thanks for your comment. We can’t underestimate the power of current economic conditions over our quest for employment. In some cases, we will have to take what we can get, so to speak, but, as you’ve mentioned, should always keep in mind our passions as our careers evolve.

  3. […] week’s post is a pretty hot topic due in part to the recent publication of Cal Newport’s book So Good […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s