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Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Bad Advice

5 minute read

I worried for a very long time in my 20s that I didn’t have what it takes to do, well, anything. Simmering beneath the post-college, what-do-I-do-now angst was the persistent idea that if I knew what my One True Passion was, then my path would be obvious and success would be inevitable. I knew I was passionate about writing, for instance, but I didn’t think I was passionate enough—otherwise, why would I be watching Talk Soup in my underwear?

The one-two punch of passion-centered career advice is typically: (1) Identify your passion. (2) Follow said passion. Somebody gave me a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute, in its millionth edition, and I couldn’t get through it. It didn’t make sense. If memory serves, you took a quiz, and then they told you what you should pursue—one of which, in my case, I swear to you, was a promising career as a funeral director.

To me, the pressure to “find your passion” felt like having to pick a major—for life. It was hard enough to pick a focus for four years, and I changed my major at least twice. Pick one out of the box of 64 career Crayolas, and color everything with it. Is that really how you create a life? My passion has to be a single hue? I have to commit to cornflower blue for the balance of time?

I envied my friends with their prefab careers that came ready-made (or so it seemed): Lawyers and nurses and high school math teachers. I figured I would always be behind because people who were driven by passion would always arrive at their destinations ahead of me, while I’d be limping along on foot, squinting at street signs.

So I temped, which made everything worse because that job is, by definition, noncommittal: I wasn’t invested in anyone, and they weren’t invested in me. I used to wait until the clock struck five and then cry all the way to the train. I felt at loose ends, pointless, passionless.

Then I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You. In it, Cal Newport explains what he calls “the passion hypothesis.” Basically, I’d had the theory all backward. “The key to occupational happiness,” Newport writes, “is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.” This book is essentially the logical, evidence-based book that lays out a sensible argument about why you don’t lead with passion first, but with skill. The whole time I read it, I was like, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Finally, it was clear me: The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any passion. The problem was that, as many people do, I was jumping ship as soon as a job, a situation or anything really seemed to not be delivering on the big Passion Promise. We tend to pull the plug before we get good at anything, before we give our passion a chance to heat up.

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This issue bugged me enough to pitch it to the director of the largest TEDx event in the country last year—and he bit. And so I stepped onto the stage at TEDx Kansas City in August 2015 to explain that the directive to find your passion was a flat-out bad idea, that it created little more than mental and emotional chaos, a cascade of shoulds and, ultimately, despair and self-loathing. I got so much great feedback—immediately after and to this day. People sending me emails saying that they’re tremendously relieved because they thought they were the only one. Hardly. The video has been viewed more than 400,000 times.

The fact is, many people, including me, have stumbled, tripped or made an unexpected turn into the lives they have, whether they admit it publicly or not. I realize that the idea of a formula is much more alluring than relying on what essentially amounts to luck. But the fact that life is so unpredictable is part of the magic. Take me, for example: I was a magazine editor for many years, and then I got laid off. Instead of getting the same job at another magazine, I decided to go out on my own. What exactly was I going to do? I would figure it out—by identifying which of my skills were most valuable to the people who needed them. Today, I run my own business as a writer, speaker and branding and content strategist.

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Does that mean you don’t need passion? You do need it, but not as a precursor to what you choose to do next. As I say in my TED talk, your passion is you, not some career you pick out of a lineup. It’s the energy you bring to everything you do. The things that will drive, trigger and inspire you are important, but they are the clues, not necessarily the end objective. Sometimes, you don’t know where any of it’s heading until you get there—and that’s O.K.

Terri Trespicio is a writer, editor and entrepreneur. She runs a boutique branding and content agency, where she works with individuals, startups and established brands to make their messages compelling across media platforms.

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