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Follow your passion is terrible advice

I don’t have a history of high blood pressure, but if one more person tells me to “follow my passion” I may well be in danger of having my arteries explode with fury.

(Don’t try to picture that too intently. It’s gross).

And for someone who rarely lifts her voice above a conversational speaking volume it’s a pretty…well…passionate…response to what is probably a very well-intentioned (albeit clichéd) piece of life advice.

But when people blithely dish out the old “follow your passion” mantra, it makes me want to grab them by the lapels and shake some sense into them. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Some people don’t have “a passion”

Not everyone is born knowing that they’re destined to be a doctor or actor or dancer. And what’s more, not everyone develops such single-minded focus later in life. I know this for a fact, because I’m one of those people.

I don’t have a passion.

What I mean by that is that I don’t have One True Calling whose pull lures me ever onward through this crazy journey called life. I’m interested in lots of things, and it’s variety of life experiences that floats my boat. Does that make me a weirdo? No.

(I’m a weirdo for *other* reasons).

And it’s not just me. There are many people who don’t have A Passion and are railing against the assumption from society that there is one out there somewhere that they just haven’t found yet. Emilie of puttylike.com has coined a new label for people who don’t have a single driving passion, who have many different interests and creative pursuits in life rather than a drive to attain mastery in a narrow field – multipotentialite. Love the concept, hate the word. (Sorry Emilie – too many syllables, it will never catch on).

There are so many people out there who are never going to find their one single “thing” because they simply don’t have one to find. I really liked an analogy given by Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love fame during her SuperSoul Session with Oprah. Gilbert described two types of people:

Jackhammers jump on a passion and don’t let go. They remain super-focused and chase single-mindedly after that passion. Jackhammers get stuff done.

Hummingbirds, however, are different. They “move from tree to tree, from flower to flower, from field to field, trying this, trying that. Two things happen: They create incredibly rich, complex lives for themselves, and they also end up cross-pollinating the world”

“Find your passion” might work for jackhammers, but some of us are hummingbirds. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

2. It makes generalists/multipotentialites* feel like they’re inadequate

Being told to follow your passion, and being unable to find the damn thing by one’s mid-thirties, can make you feel that there’s something wrong with you. People in their twenties are allowed to cast around and experiment with different opportunities, to “find themselves” via gap years and backpacking adventures. But if you hit 30 and still haven’t settled into a “something” then you start to look a bit hopeless. If not exactly a lost cause, then definitely someone to be pitied.

And nobody likes to feel they they’ve failed at life.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of unquestioning conformity to external expectations (hence the name of this blog). So whenever a social norm acts to make people feel bad – whether it’s for not being a certain weight or not attaining a certain income level or not hitting life milestones of mortgage/marriage/mini-me’s (or not hitting them in the right order) – well I think we should all give two fingers up to that social norm.

People are different. They’re motivated and inspired by different things. They walk different paths. And that’s okay.

I know, I just said that “multipotentialite” would never catch on yet here I am using it one paragraph later. Curse you, english-language, for not having better describing-words for the things.

3. Telling people to follow their passion means they might dismiss paths that might (eventually) lead to passion 

Taking the view that your passion is a “thing” that you need to “find” sets up the expectation that you’ll recognise it when you see it. You’ll encounter it and have an instant flash of insight. Bang! Passion! There you go – found it, job done, happily ever after.

That doesn’t usually happen. In fact, it’s much more common for people to develop a passion for something after they’ve been doing it a while. There’s no bolt-of-lightning insight, but rather a gradual realisation that we’re getting more and more passionate about what we’ve ended up doing. And sometimes the way we get started initially is more due to chance than conscious direction on our part.

Pin it!I really love the story about Christina Harbridge told by Simon Sinek in his eye-opening book Start With Why. Christina founded a highly successful debt collections firm that managed to collect three times as many debts as the industry average and won her accolades all over the place. She got the idea for her revolutionary approach after working in a traditional collection agency. The part I love is that apparently she answered the ad for this “collections” job in the mistaken belief that she’d be working with art collections or antiques. (I shouldn’t laugh, but…).

To her credit, she went through with the interview and was even offered the job. So Christina ended up accidentally working somewhere that wasn’t related at all to her interest in antique collections, but she developed enough passion for it that she built her own company in that same field.

There are so many other stories of leaders who didn’t “find” or uncover a pre-existing passion for their area of expertise. Rather, it was developed over time for something that didn’t initially spark off any fireworks for them. I mean, even Steve Jobs of the “find what you love” Stanford commencement address didn’t start Apple because of a passion for technology – his passion at the time was for Eastern mysticism. He just started Apple in the hopes of making a quick buck. But there’s no denying that he loved what he did – he became passionate over time.

And this is how it happens for most of us. Being placed on the lookout for an enigmatic “passion” that we allegedly already have hidden inside us waiting to be uncovered can divert us from diving into alternative areas – ones that might actually resonate with us and turn into a passion.

This rejection of the “follow your passion” mantra may sound strange coming from me. After all, this whole blog is about inspiring you to create your ideal lifestyle by doing what you want to do. But actually it makes perfect sense. It doesn’t change my belief that we should all be taking control over the direction of our lives, setting goals, moving forward. But for those of us who don’t intrinsically know what it is that we want to do, we have the extra step of working out just what that is. Like Elizabeth Gilbert’s hummingbirds, the way to do it is to follow our areas of interest to see where they take us.

How to identify interests worth pursuing professionally, ones that we might be able to turn into an income stream, is a whole different topic that I’ll post about in the future. For now, though, I want to offer some words of reassurance to my fellow hummingbirds:

You’re not alone

There’s nothing “missing” because you can’t think of your calling

You’re not destined to a live a life without passion

You’re goddamn awesome!

Are you a hummingbird? What are some of the most interesting avenues you’ve explored while trying to uncover that special something that grips you? Let me know in the comments below.

Recommended reading:

Start with Why by Simon Sinek

This is a great book that distils down the key features of great leaders – they focus on the WHY rather than the HOW. Packed full of lots of examples, it’s inspirational and definitely worth a read.

Click to buy on Amazon.

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7 Comments

  1. Angela | Acting BABE network

    Great piece! I always felt lucky that I knew what I wanted from an early age. But my struggle was being able to make it happen fast enough and make money from it. But reading this makes me realise I can’t preach the old “follow your passion” to everyone as it just won’t work.

    Reply
    • Trish Mossman

      Thanks, Angela. You point out another side to the tale that I hadn’t considered. While we Hummingbirds may be frustrated that we can’t identify “A Passion”, the other side of the coin is the frustration of knowing in your bones what it is that you want, and having to wait months or years or decades to achieve it.

      Reply
  2. Ange

    Fantastic piece. I agree wholeheartedly. When I left my career, everyone assumed I had some passion project in mind. I didn’t – I just couldn’t do that job anymore. I have hobbies that I like a lot but they’re not businesses. I’m dabbling and experimenting and I figure something will come along that is the right fit

    Reply
    • Trish Mossman

      That’s a great attitude, Ange. I agree completely that experimenting is the best way to really home in on what’s right for you.

      Reply
  3. Kaleigh

    I appreciate this post so much. I’m the one out of my friends that didn’t study something black&white like teaching, occupational therapy, one of those things where my job was obvious once I got out of college. I studied IR&Business, and there is A LOT of grey area there. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) as easy for me to figure out what I want to do. As far as passions go, mine have always been reading & writing. While I ultimately decided to start a blog centered around the two, I can’t “follow my passion” and stay home everyday to read & write unless it’s paying the bills – and, of course, when you first start out, it doesn’t. So, I personally can relate to people telling me “just write” when I talk about my long term career plans. I still plan to pay my bills along the way! I work for a global IT .distributor & while I am not passionate about IT, it pays the bills and allows me to read&write in freetime, and for now that has to be good enough.

    Love the points you made here, thank you for sharing this !!

    Reply
  4. Katie-Joy

    Im a hummingbird!

    Reply
    • Trish Mossman

      The best way to be! (Though I have to admit I’m pretty biased ?)

      Reply

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