”Follow Your Passion” is Terrible Advice


I was stood on stage at graduation last summer and a man dressed in a gown and mortarboard looked at me square in the eye.

”You’ve done the hard work, now it’s time you follow your passion”.

I nodded, thanked him, and pretended I knew what that was.

You see, I had heard the phrase ”follow your passion” several times that day from parents, students, teachers, and chancellors alike – it was a phrase given out so liberally I was beginning to think I was going mad and hearing things over and over again like a broken record.

On the surface, it’s good advice – sure. Graduation is a proud day for everyone, and the sight of wide-eyed students clutching their diplomas and wearing their mortarboards is enough to get any professor misty-eyed as they release their inner Robin Williams and hope the students take their wisdom on board. Follow your passion. Follow your passion and the money will follow. It’s almost sage-like.

Well, ultimatley, it’s banal, hollow, useless, fortune-cookie-quality advice that has no actual meaning for most people when they actually break down the saying.

I’m sure the man who said that to me had the greatest intentions and was just trying to inspire a young man with his whole career ahead of him – so, whatever your name is, it’s not personal – it’s just your advice really sucks and I hate you.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit far.

It’s just most people aren’t born with an innate passion they ‘find’ one day whilst stargazing around a campfire. Most people aren’t born with a talent that puts them in the 1% of their chosen field. If you’ve read my post on mediocrity you’ll know that the vast majority of people on this planet are in the middle of the bell curve – having no extraordinary ability, gift, or passion for any one predetermined thing.

Now imagine if the professor told me that on stage – a lot of awkward silence would have followed, I bet.

So, hold the phone a minute – if ‘follow your passion’ is such useless advice for most people, why do some people end up loving their careers?

Well, Cal Newport answered this question in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. It’s wonderful look at people in differing careers and investigates why some people love what they do whilst most of us loathe what we do.

The results are pretty interesting.

Cal found that passion is hardly ever pre-determined, but is created as a result of years and years of mastery. Ira Glass was once a radio intern with barely any skill in his craft and a voice that was hardly as easy on the ears as some of his much more famous contemporaries. He was born with neither the talent or innate passion for broadcasting – and, despite this, is perhaps the most famous radio man in the world.

He got there by getting really fucking good at what he does. The skills came about after he spent hours upon hours practicing the fundamentals – making sure to increase the difficulty of his tasks along the way. He didn’t stay in his comfort zone only doing the things he knew he was good at. His skills got better and better doing the things he was, well, mediocre at. This is known as deliberate practice – the unrewarding, painstaking, and thankless task of practicing a new skill as soon as you’ve mastered the preceding one.

Glass’s This American Life is a brilliant radio show due to his skills, and that’s why he’s passionate about his job – and mega rich I’d bet. Gordon Ramsay spent years getting yelled at in the kitchen, practicing dishes that pushed his skills each and every day. If he’d spent 20 years cooking fish and chips, he’d still be a lowly sous-chef. Instead, he worked on his weaknesses, took feedback on the chin, and came back stronger each time.

Now he’s a multi-millionaire and his passion is evidently as strong as ever.

Watching yourself get better at a task is one of the most rewarding feelings out there – improvement is addictive, engaging, and does wonders for your confidence. As your skills (in any chosen area) improve, you’ll be hungry for more and more – which is the perfect breeding ground for passion.

So maybe we should chase that instead – mastery. Mastery breeds passion. So you better get real fucking good.

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