the downside of “follow your passion” advice in career

If you have ever asked around for career advice, you may have heard something about finding your calling, or going for what you love even if it is unconventional or totally different from your formal education.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that if you love something, you will naturally become really good at it too, and you will find much more satisfaction in that path.

The book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport argues against the “passion mindset”, favouring the “craftsman mindset“, the idea that becoming really good at something and finding fulfillment in your career comes down to committedly developing your skills regardless of your passion for that thing. Passion is no requirement.

Upon reflecting on the book, I figured that there certainly are some disempowering thoughts the passion mindset can create for people:

If you are passionate about something specific, so much so that you can get lost in doing that thing, then that must mean that you are naturally pre-disposed for working towards that thing. It also must mean that compared to other people, on average you would excel much more in that thing.

Some potential issues

1. Giving up too early. If we are thinking from the passion mindset, then we may want to give up too early when we struggle with something, thinking that we would never struggle this much if this thing was our natural talent and passion. This is the opposite of the growth mindset which encourages us to persevere to succeed.

Just because you struggle in something specific right now, even more than other people, it can’t be guaranteed that you won’t improve in the next years and come to really enjoy that thing (organic chemistry, I’m looking at youšŸ˜¤)

2. Constantly looking for flaws (and lack of commitment). If we set on a journey of experimentation to find our passion, we’ll be carrying ourselves with an idealized view of what our dream career might be. While trying new things, instead of becoming fully mentally present to absorb the new knowledge and skills, we could be wasting that cognitive energy trying to think about which aspects we don’t like, then hop onto another thing hoping for better.

This could lead to dissatisfaction with whatever is right in front of us when it could’ve been much more beneficial if we had a more opportunistic mindset about that experience, i.e., what is it that I can extract from this experience? or how does this experience give me an advantage?

3. Shying away from hard work.

It may cause us to be embarrassed or hesitant about working hard thinking that if we have to work hard for something, it must not be our talent, therefore not meant for us (ever felt pressured around the students who get A’s without studying?).

This could eventually lead us to give up instead of persevering and developing our skills, which could’ve eventually led to more confidence down the line.

šŸ“™Opposing Viewpoints

I find it interesting that the two books I’ve read, “StrengthsFinder 2.0” and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” offer completely different viewpoints on finding career fulfillment and excellence, both claiming to be based on research.

The first book claims that “success = talent x hard work”. It claims that according to their research people who have careers that let them use and expand on their natural strengths report being the most satisfied. In order to get the most out of one’s career, one must match themselves well with a career that plays to their strengths. Otherwise, their hard work will not pay off to its fullest potential.

The second book heavily favours building up your skillset through hard work and deliberate practice (re: 10,000 hours rule of mastery) and argues that after you become really good at what you do, fulfillment will come as a by-product. It even warns of the dangers of the unrealistic feel-good messages of the passion mindset.

What’s the truth?

My current opinion is that there seems to be some truth to the “following your strengths” theory and it seems important to consider. However, in terms of practicality, the “craftsman’s mindset” offers much more clarity on how to get really good at what you do. Instead of getting stuck thinking and thinking about what your passion is and what you were born to do, you could just start to do something and get good at it.

It also makes me think about how not all of us are born prodigies. At the same time, our society runs based on the very essential hard work of people like those in EMT and medical services, electricity and other utility supplies, agriculture (we’d be dead without food!) etc. A lot of times people seem to step up to fill in the need of the time rather than worrying about a passion. Still, the answer doesn’t seem 100% black and white yet.

So, what do you think?


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