Why following your passions is bad career advice

I used to be one of those annoying guys who urged people to find their passion and encouraged them to turn it into it their job. As far as I could tell, it seemed like an obvious formula for creating a great, profitable life.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. I was falling victim to cliché and generally bad career advice. More than that, I was missing a big blind spot in my own life: I already turned two of my passions into jobs and grew to hate them.

As a child, I studied magic because I loved it. My love of magic led to my performing at birthday parties, then events around town, and eventually for Fortune 500s and pro sports teams. Along the way, I completely fell out of love with magic. In fact, I ended up hating it. What started as a passion turned into an obligation.

The same thing happened with speaking. I started working as a pro speaker because I loved it. As I became increasingly successful, I started to lose interest in getting on stage.

We are often counseled to “do what we love,” or to “follow our passions and figure out how to make a living from them later.” This way, we’ll “never have to work a day in our lives.”

As it turns out, monetizing your passion is a pretty bad move. Not only is it overly quixotic, it also runs the risk of ruining the exact things that bring you joy. In this article, we’re going to consider why blurring the line between passions and professions tends to make people unhappy.

First things first: you have permission to not follow your passions

I know that a lot of people feel like they’re doing it wrong unless they are Tom- Cruise-jumping-on-Oprah-Winfrey’s-couch-happy about their jobs.

If that’s you, I want to be clear about something: it is 100% fine to take a job that you like but don’t love and then use your free time to pursue your passions and hobbies.

In fact, for most people, doing anything besides that is a pretty bad idea (more on that in a second). So if you’re just looking for permission to have a normal job, you’ve got it! It’s okay if you’re not leaping out of bed every morning excited to get to work. Just make sure that your work is engaging enough and leaves you with time for yourself.

An even more productive approach is to consider a simple question: do you hate your job? If the answer is no, you’re on the right track. If the answer is yes, then you need to start looking for a new one.

Passion is more complicated than it seems

To further complicate the matter, passion is more complicated and elusive than it seems.

The act of finding your passion is fairly counter-intuitive. As Cal Newport points out in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” passion tends to come from the investment of time and hard work on projects you find interesting. As your skill improves and you begin to understand the nuance and beauty of your craft, then you’re likely to feel passionate about it. In other words, passion doesn’t inspire action like we often assume; action inspires passion.

The complexity doesn’t end there. Once you’ve found something you love, you have to accept that your passions will change – often dramatically – as you age. The wild partying that defined the best moments of your 20’s is unlikely to interest you in your 60s.

Want to kill your passions? Monetize them.

Not only is building your life around your passions tricky, but also monetizing your passions is likely to kill them. Here’s why…

1) Many passions can’t really be monetized. I love playing Settlers of Catan, reading, and a good day sailing. I could get a job at a board game shop, work as a reader for as a publishing agent, or teach sailing at a summer camp. The problem is that those are in the neighborhood of my passions without actually being the thing I love.

If you squint, you can almost convince yourself that you’re doing what you love, but you aren’t. Instead, you’re settling for a lower paying and less engaging job that you will eventually begin to resent.

2) You will fall victim to overexposure. Imagine if you had to eat pizza – or whatever your favorite food is – every day. Pizza would lose its desirability quickly. This happens with pretty much everything.

We need a bit of distance to truly appreciate the things in our lives. Unfortunately, most of us can’t separate ourselves from our jobs. We depend on them to pay the bills. This means that if you monetize your passion, the intensity of feeling that once delighted you will inevitably fade away.

3) Turning what you love into your job makes you beholden to it. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re beholden to having some sort of a job for most of your life.

At first glance, getting paid for what you’re passionate about is wildly appealing. When you dig a little deeper, you start to realize that being forced to engage with something makes it much harder to love. For example, most of us hated “The Great Gatsby” when we had to read it in High School, but actually liked it when we reread it later in life.

The beautiful thing about your passions is that you choose to do them. If I’m not interested in blogging next week – even though I normally love it – no biggie. I can take the week off and work on my next article whenever inspiration strikes. In contrast, we do not have the luxury of choosing to skip work just because we don’t feel like going.  

Furthermore, your job inevitably gets infused with stress, deadlines, anxiety, and annoyance. For many, getting paid to do what you love is a great way to lose interest in the exact thing that used to light you up.

4) The successful people who urge you to “follow your heart” tend to be short sighted. It’s popular for celebrities, entrepreneurs, athletes, executives and the like to report that they succeeded because they followed their hearts. This narrative is so common that it seems almost insane to argue against it.

The reality is simple: following your heart is not a sure-fire path to success. In fact, it’s risky and short sighted. It ignores the jarring importance of luck, circumstance and privilege in extreme success. There are countless people who have followed their hearts and had it dramatically stunt their careers. Of course, we never hear from them because they aren’t famous and it’s considered impolite to ask someone why they didn’t succeed.

So yes, it’s extremely compelling when successful people tell us to follow our hearts. And to be honest, I think we should – just not necessarily with our careers.

PS: Falling in love with your job isn’t the secret to a good life anyways

The reason that most people want to wed their passion to their profession is because it seems like an easy path to happiness and the good life. I get that.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The real trick is to find a job that enables space and energy for you to do the things that produce happiness within your life.

Happiness – as far as I can tell – comes from a fluid combination of knowing and loving yourself, having enough, proactive generosity, decent mental health, self-worth, rest, activity, service to others, and meaningful relationships. Oh, and Settlers of Catan. Lots and lots of Settlers.


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13 thoughts on “Why following your passions is bad career advice

  1. Jason,

    Another insightful article from one of my favorite writers. What a simple yet seemingly elusive concept! No wonder that, while I love writing and consider it a passion, I work in an IT dept and loathe when my responsibilities include creating documentation! Food for my thoughts. Thank you! I’m glad I don’t pay you a dime for the pleasure of reading your blog as I would never want you to give up on your passion! 😁

    Kathy P. (KP)

    1. KP – first of all, thank you! I’m not sure anyone has ever referred to me as one of their favorite writers. You’ve totally made my day! And glad you’re able to keep your passion and work at arms length (and interesting that it frustrates you when they intersect).

  2. Hello Jason,

    I must say I totally disagree. Hear me out.

    Turning your passions for magic or public speaking into obligations is a fault that can be avoided by seeking the balance between professional and personal life.

    The more you want to earn and the better you want to become at it, the more you’ll turn it into a business. And, for sure, there’s the downside of a having a business: not being able to ALWAYS do what you love.

    When it comes to taking a job that you like but don’t love, there are two problems:
    – it’s really hard to define the difference between what you love and what you like if you don’t know yourself well enough;
    – people oftentimes are forgetting to pursue their passions after they get their first job.

    You can monetize Settlers of Catan, reading, or sailing.
    Settlers of Catan – start streaming while playing the game and having fun; Twitch is an amazing platform that can help you.
    Reading – read as many books as you can and create personalized reviews that will make people engage with you.
    Sailing – Travel the sea with the purpose of creating a map or something that seems interesting for your targeted audience.
    The idea here is to develop a community around you with people interested in what you are doing, and you can do it whatever your passion is. The downside is that you have to pick only one passion to monetize, maybe two.

    If you really love something, you won’t feel any overwhelm if you do it 24/7/365. Otherwise, it isn’t love, it’s just pleasure. At one point, you may stop loving it but that’s life.

    1. David –

      First of all, I’m delighted that you’re voicing your opinion. I’ve gotten things wrong before, and this may be one of them. To some degree, I think you’re right. Looking back, I could have used more balance, less integration (maybe), but then also, do you really want to put limits around the stuff you love.

      I think your point about people forgetting to pursue their passions after they get a job is really, really sharp. It’s like a critical step that virtually all of us are missing.

      That said, I want to challenge you on two things. First, your stance on monetization – specifically, I doubt it would work. The vast majority of bloggers and live streamers lose money on their endeavors. It’s kind of like telling a child who loves basketball they can become a pro athlete. In a technical sense it’s true, but it’s wildly wildly improbable and requires a huge amount of luck.

      Second, the assertion that if you really love something, you wont feel overwhelm if you do it 24/7/365. You may be right about that, but I can’t conceive of how that would be possible. There are a lot of things I love -reading, meditation, hanging with friends, etc – but if I always did those things, Im pretty sure I’d grow to resent them.

      1. I really love this debate, Jason. ❤️

        Before trying to monetize anything, people should know themselves really well. If anyone, before trying to monetize his/her passion, is looking into developing other skills like charisma, relationships, social interaction, and anything that’s under the ‘soft skills’ category, they’ll be one step ahead. Those are the skills that are making others consider someone a unique person.

        Moreover, if we are talking about getting rich, it won’t happen. At least, not in the first 5 years. Of course, it will happen if there’s luck involved. But not even a job gets one rich.

        So, if we are talking about monetization, we should talk about one’s expectations regarding the income, as a result of all the efforts.

        One more thing about monetization, and I believe this is the most important one. Because people expect it to happen in like two or three months, they get really disappointed and quit. It’s hard to monetize something, especially if you are just starting out simply because the process of marketing is a complex one.

        But monetization isn’t about getting money; it is more about connecting with people and building a trustworthy relationship with them, which isn’t happening in two or three months.

        On the other hand, let’s say you pick Catan as the passion you want to monetize. It means you’ll have to work 5-10 hours a day, every day, in order to make it happen. But it doesn’t mean that you’ll only play Catan for the rest of your life. Other activities like reading or sailing, which won’t be monetized, will help you keep some sort of balance.

        When someone is getting a job, that job isn’t the only thing their doing, right? I mean, it shouldn’t be.

        And if you’re scared you won’t love it anymore if you do it 5-10 hours a day, then get yourself involved for a small amount of time, but the less time you invest in it the more time you’ll need in order to get that main passion monetized.

        PS: I wrote so much, I should copy/paste my two comments into an article and post it on my blog. Just joking. 😀

        1. David – you are more than welcome to copy / paste any part of this conversation and use it on your own blog. If you do, send me the link. 🙂

  3. Jason I disagree as well! Usually I think you are spot-on with your blogs, but on this one, I respectfully think you are missing something. I don’t think that monetizing your passions is the problem. It’s just that we go through phases in our lives, and certain passions may be shorter -lived than others. If people didn’t follow their passions and try to monetize them, there would be no great artists, or musicians – or Yoga teachers, for that matter. Greatness comes from passion and from devoting your life to it – at least for the present moment. And then, when that passion dies down, you move on. One problem that people often run into when turning their passion into a business, is that they forget to “fill the well”. If you are just using your talent to make money, you will fail, but if you are taking the time to truly enjoy what you love at the same time, you will feed your soul.

    I also see this as an issue of identity. If you call yourself “A Magician” or “A Public Speaker” or whatever, rather than saying “I have a business of producing Magic Shows” or “I do Public Speaking for a living” you are setting yourself up for more difficulty when that work no longer suits you. Then you go through this identity crisis and have to re-define yourself. Whereas, if you recognize that you are a vital human being, with many different passions and interests and identities, you are freed up to play with them (and even monetize them) at different points in your life and not be devastated when the passion dies down.

    Hope this wasn’t too long a response!

    1. Becky – first of all, thanks for voicing your opinion. I really appreciate that. I’ve gotten a lot wrong in my life, and it’s always nice when people point that out….

      I agree with a lot of what you’re written. Taking the time to fill the well is of critical importance (and, transparently, something Im just learning to do now…). I also agree with you on the issue of identity. These days ambitious (and non-ambitious) people identify almost exclusively with their job. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and a pretty malevolent one. I think if one can separate their identity form their work, it probably does allow more room for loving the work (and oxygen). And of course, we both agree on passions evolving.

      Where I sharply disagree though is with the statement, “If people didn’t follow their passions and try to monetize them, there would be no great artists, or musicians, or Yoga teachers, for that matter.” Virtually all crafts and practices have masters who have no interest in montezing their skills and still push the state of the art forward. In fact, for a long time there were virtually no novelists who made a living off of writing novels. They did it (as many still do) simply for the love of it, not the payday.

  4. The more I read your blog, the more it resonates. I’ve always felt a bit off for the sentiment that work is work, you have great days and you have horrible days. And passion is something fulfilling, uplifting, inspiring, even when it’s a huge struggle in the moment – like painting, poetry, rock climbing.

    It’s pretty amazing to get this kind of validation from someone so successful and grounded.

    1. Marina! First of all Im touched by your comment thank you (even though I’m probably less successful and grounded than you suspect I am 🙂 ). Im so honored to hear my work resonates with you. And yep – I share your sentiment. The idea that following your passion leads to euphoria is a fun idea, but divorced from reality. I think in a lot of cases, the people who preach this are kind of trying to trick themselves into believing they’re happier and more content than they are. Anyways, so happy to have you as a reader, and thanks for the comment!

  5. Hi Jason,
    first time comment here. I really enjoyed pondering the thesis and supporting arguments in your article. I have a resistance to the article however and I wonder if it’s a disservice to argue against people’s passion which it seems like you’re doing. If I were to rewrite it I would accentuate the positive and provide warnings for further contemplation.

    I’m sure your experience though will be valuable to some people and worthy of attention.

    For me pursuing your passion comes down to a few simple ideas.
    1. Pursue your passion, the payoff is simply too big to ignore. But consider that what you are passionate about might also just be what you enjoy, what you find comfort in, and what makes you feel good. Career passion doesn’t mean you need to jump out of bed with eager anticipation all time.

    2. Think practical first. Ask Yourself Basic Career Questions such as: Will anyone pay you to play games? Probably not. Are you willing to commit your future to a career path where there is uncertain demand? Is the career path flexible to allow different final destinations? What jobs exist now that I can see myself doing day in and day out?

    3. I might never truly know myself. Some people are gifted with an understanding of their purpose, skills, and preferences, but like you have found, for most of us self-awareness an ongoing discovery. Be prepared to change course as you learn more about your own likes/dislikes, values, and talents.

    4. My work environment is nearly as important as my training. Who wouldn’t like working at a place that is pleasant and has great people. And who could possibly find long term joy in a place with constant discord, stress, or hostility? Moral? Career satisfaction, and happiness in life, comes from many things not just doing what I’m passionate about. In that we are in agreement.

    Good luck and thanks again for an interesting subject.

    1. Hey Grant! So glad to have you as a reader, and thanks for commenting – I truly welcome dissenting / alternative views to my own. I get shit wrong somewhat often and certainly am not the definitive word on…. anything.

      To be clear though, I’m not advising people to avoid their passions, quiet the opposite. I think they should pursue them, just not usually in their careers. If that didn’t come through in the article, Im glad to have a chance to clarify now.

      And actually, I’ve read through your four points, and more or less agree with all of them. Thanks for taking the time to lay them out. I think point 2 and 3 are particularly important. Thanks Grant – so glad to have you as a reader. 🙂

      1. Hey Jason,
        Thanks for the respectful reply. Funny story… I was advised against pursuing my first career path idea when I was in high school, then 8 yrs later, free to decide for myself, I took it up (in college) and it was the best thing I could have done. At that point I was in survival mode trying to figure out what to do for work/career. I only wish I had started 8 years earlier. LOL. Live and learn right?
        I think some people have a much harder time figuring out what they want to do and passion sounds like a good place to start.
        Best to you

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