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Follow Your Passion at Your Peril?

A flash from the past: back-to-school night for high school, joining other parents herded from one humid classroom to another. Most of the details have faded but I do recall my oldest son’s freshman year when all the first-year parents were gathered in the auditorium.  College was just  four short years away, we were warned, so our child better develop a “passion” now—a sport, an activity, an academic subject—so he will have a topic for his college essay. Yikes!  We were under the illusion that decent grades and a few extracurriculars were enough to gain admission to a “good” college, just like when we applied eons ago.  As we soon learned, like with so many other aspects of parenting, baby boomers had upped the ante, raising the competition level in everything from travel soccer to concert orchestra to college admissions.

When it came time to fill out those applications, many essays listed quite specific instructions: Don’t give a laundry list of student activities; pick one area and demonstrate accomplishment. That’s where the supposed “passion” came in.

Somehow, over the college years, that “passion” morphed into a career goal.  Counselors, book authors, motivational speakers, and yes, parents too, advised young adults to “follow your passion” into work that they would greet with joy each dawn!  Cue the inspirational music.   As many of our adult children have discovered, the music didn’t last beyond fabulous internships and hard-won GPAs, when a career was a fantasy rather than a reality.

If they are lucky enough to have jobs, most young adults are starting at the bottom of the ladder with less-than-challenging tasks. What happened to work they were passionate about? When they bemoan underemployment, they are criticized for acting “entitled.”

Taking a contrarian view,  in a Harvard Business Review blog, Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor and member of GenY himself, answers that criticism, blaming parents and others for chanting the “follow your passion” mantra.  In researching his new book, Prof. Newport charted the phrase “follow your passion” and found that use of the term began in the 1990s and peaked in the 2000s.  He writes:

This simple phrase, “follow your passion,” turns out to be surprisingly pernicious…The verb “follow” implies that you start by identifying a passion and then match this preexisting calling to a job. Because the passion precedes the job, it stands to reason that you should love your work from the very first day.

It’s this final implication that causes damage.

The research was undertaken for his book: “So Good They Can’t Ignore: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”  (The title comes from advice Steve Martin gave to aspiring entertainers: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.)  Prof. Newport  argues that “passion” is found when people become very good at their work, and that becoming good at a job often comes only after frustrating fits and starts over a period of years.  Prof. Newport writes:

The early stages of a fantastic career might not feel fantastic at all, a reality that clashes with the fantasy world implied by the advice to “follow your passion” — an alternate universe where there’s a perfect job waiting for you, one that you’ll love right away once you discover it.

He acknowledges that the “skill-building” phase can take five or even ten years, but eventually the young person becomes valued for their talents, business connections and work history.  Being valued increases self-worth and often a passion for work arises out of that feeling of accomplishment and ability.

This may not be an easy message to give (or accept ourselves) for our adult children who have worked so hard to achieve in school only to begin at the bottom again in a career.  When they lament the drudgery or the lack of fast promotion, we need to remind them that they will likely be working for 40 years or more so it might take a few years to get that corner office! In the meantime, suggest they take Prof. Newport’s book out of the local library (trying to save money here) and learn from his lessons.


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