#01: Why "Follow Your Passion" Is Bad Advice

Revamped newsletter, new series focusing on careers, Krishnamurti on knowing ourselves, and an article exploring white collar workers' invisible economy.

Welcome to the revamped Work From Form newsletter. Thank you for being a loyal subscriber to my (very) sporadic posts. That will change. Now, you can expect a weekly email from yours truly making sense of the complex (but oh-so-wonderful) intersection of work, learning, creativity, and tech.

This Week:

🤿 Quote: Krishnamurti on Knowing Ourselves
👨‍💼 News: The Consequences of Remote Work
💡 New Series: What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Careers
🧠 Essay: Why “Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice

🤿 Quote

“To know ourselves. Surely that is the only foundation on which we can build. But, before we can build, before we can transform, before we can condemn or destroy, we must know that which we are. Because what we are, the world is. If we are petty, jealous, vain, greedy— that is what we create about us, that is the society in which we live.”

- J. Krishnamurti, (from the highly recommended!) The First and Last Freedom, 1954

👨‍💼 News

The Consequences of Remote Work

Great read about the invisible economy supported by white collar workers: from Starbucks to dry cleaners to airlines (business travel accounts for 60-70% of all airlines revenue!) Now, this hidden economy is crumbling due to COVID-led restrictions and the meteoric rise of remote work.


💡New Series

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Careers

Browse most articles and books around career advice and it seems the answers are clear: You either become rich or your work becomes your passion. Titles like Become a Millionaire by Following These Five Easy Steps, Hustle and Earn Millions, or Get Rich Now, advertise an easy way to make money fast. The titles on the passion side usually talk about freedom and authenticity. Things like Follow Your Dreams and Do What You Love, Ditch The Ladder and Become Free, Follow Your Passion.

The money advice is somewhat cringey, but they are the bestsellers. These are the guys and gals making real money. Ironically, they are the ones becoming rich quickly by selling you their advice.

Yet, the second advice seems to hit a deeper chord. Of course you want to live a more meaningful life! Of course you want to be free from the corporate ladder and embrace your passions! But the situation is more complex than that. What does it mean to follow your passions? How can you reconcile your interests with an income that allows you to live comfortably, to raise a family? How can you differentiate yourself in a crowded market of professionals? What about the coming AI dominance and automatization of jobs?

I am going to explore this complex topic in the coming weeks and offer my perspective on how to craft a meaningful and successful career. One that is relevant for today’s uncertain times of COVID and “software eating the world”.

This week, I’ll discuss how “Follow Your Passion” is bad advice.


🧠 Essay

Why “Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice

Good intentions, bad outcomes

We are bombarded with advice telling us to be passionate about our work. That if you "love what you do, you won't have to work a day in your life". That you should "follow your passion and success will follow".

This advice— which sounds more like a mandate— is well-meaning, but misguided.

First of all, it gets the order all wrong. It presupposes that we all have a preexisting passion we can easily identify and follow. This is just not true for the majority of people.

It is also too simplistic. Apparently we just need to match our innate interest to a job and then we can live happily ever after. It doesn’t talk about developing skills or pursuing interests. It doesn't deal with the complexities of actually making money, achieving success, addressing current responsibilities, skills we have and want to cultivate, etc.

It has a paradoxical impact: the more the advice industry tells us to be passionate, the less passionate we will be. We’ll think there's something wrong with us. And what's worse we won't allow ourselves to explore other options because we’ll feel anxious, constantly second guessing our decisions.

Why?

Because everything feels like a break or make moment, like we are making the final decision to dedicate to one thing for the rest of our lives. The stakes feel absurdly high. If we choose correctly we’ll have a blissful life where we "won’t have to work for a day in your life", or it will be torture because we chose the wrong thing. These kind of thoughts place unnatural pressure and unrealistic expectations. Therefore, every new activity is met with anxiety, with an obsession to define if it as the one thing that we might truly love.

I remember feeling this when I had to decide a major for college. (Now, the fact that we have to choose majors at 18 without any real-world experience is a topic for a later post). Oh no, I thought when confronted with two majors I liked but would offer really different outcomes, this is it. My life will be determined by this decision. Either I will have a great career and be successful or I will become a resented loser.

The added problem is that we are not told how hard it is to develop actual skills. The focus is always on the decision. So we just assume that the hard part is over when we decide to pursue X. Imagine our surprise when things get tough, or boring, or whenever hardships arise (as they eventually will). We are not equipped to handle it. We would probably take our decision back. If activity X is this hard then that probably means it isn’t my passion.

What to do, then?

Here are some principles that have guided my thinking around this complex topic. The main idea is to establish a process for discovering and refining skills and interests by doing, more than deciding a priori.

1. SCRATCH YOUR OWN ITCH

You have to discover what you enjoy doing, don’t let other people tell you what you should do. Let your own curiosity be your guide. If that’s hard, just think of things you are already interested in and take small steps in that direction. If it is taking a coding class or start writing a short story or create a business plan for a business idea you've had for a while, do it. You won’t know until you start.

2. EXPERIMENT

The beauty of this approach is that it removes the anxiety of “finding the right thing”. Every skill you want to learn or topic you want to deep dive is a hypothesis you need to test out. You don’t need to commit to it for the rest of your life, or tie your identity to your experiments. If the experiment is not successful, don’t worry: it’s not a reflection of who you are.

3. LET FAILURES TEACH YOU

Don’t fear failure. Usually, when we fail, we give up. We assume that it’s not meant to be. It's hard to keep going. Yet, if we don't push forward, we won't find whatever that makes us tick. You know deep down that everything you do or don’t do is your responsibility and that is a lot of pressure. You are afraid you might fuck it up. It’s always easier to give up first. To stop the process and blame outside forces. Don’t. Use that failure to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, in order to refine your hypothesis.

4. STICK WITH WHAT WORKS

But you need to move forward. You need to stick to a skill long enough to actually become good at it. This is perhaps the most important point. Until you do something for a sustained period, you won't know if you actually like doing it. The truth is passion grows along with the skill. As you get better, you’ll become hooked to the new skill. So practice, practice, practice.

5. CONSISTENCY OVER PERFECTION

Consistency is key to develop expertise. It’s hard because you have to keep going even when you feel stupid and insecure. Embrace being an amateur. Share your work in progress. Learn in public. Remove the pressure from the start: you are no expert, don’t assume for a minute that you have to prove to be one. Yet, if you continue the process and you keep refining your skill, you eventually will become one.

6. CREATE THE PATH WHILE WALKING IT

You won’t know anything until you start doing it. For example, I had a clear idea for this essay, but only after wrestling with it for days I was able to flesh it out and simplify it into the somewhat coherent piece of writing you are reading now.

I know what you’re thinking. “Santi, stop being so meta.” But it’s true. The fact that you’re reading this is because I persevered (in a considerable small goal, but still...). I did twenty re-writes, changed the title, scrapped everything, made an outline, scrapped it again, and so on, in a chaotic process. And there was a point where I told myself, just drop it. It’s not worth it. It’s a stupid idea. You’re not a great writer anyway. By the by, do you know how many people will read this? But you know what. I kept at it because I enjoy writing about these ideas. I told my inner, insecure Santi to fuck off for a bit, and now, here’s this essay for everyone to read and get some value out of it.

And this is just a small example for a larger process we inevitably get into. We have some ideas that seem scary but are worth exploring: Should I apply for that job overseas? Should I take that design class? Should I publish that short story I’ve been tinkering with?

The ultimate question we must asking is: if we only have a short time here on this beautiful planet, are we spending our time doing what is important to us? What makes us tick? Why not pursue those seemingly crazy ideas and see where they lead us?


Thanks for reading!

See more of my work at Form, or email me if you want to craft a more meaningful career, or if you just want to nerd out.