“Follow your passion, money will automatically follow and a fulfilled life will be a bonus” is often suggested as great life and career advice. Do this very early in life, we are told. But even if you could not, it is never too late, we are also told. While this advice was oft given even earlier, it got that special extra boost when Steve Jobs gave a commencement speech in 2005 at Stanford stadium to the graduating class:
“You’ve got to find what you love…. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”
That speech became a viral hit on internet, getting almost 4 crores of views. There is almost a whole industry on this now, with books, counselors, seminars, etc. on this. How to find your passion, how to pursue it and how to thus live a fulfilled and, very likely, even a prosperous life pursuing your passion. We actually see many giving up “dull/monotonous” corporate careers midway, to start “something new, something they always wanted to do”, and doing this “before it is too late”. These people are seen as courageous heroes, while those who continue with their existing “dull drudgery” are seen as losers.
But is this really good advice, skeptics increasingly ask. Worse, is it a risky and probably disastrous advice? Is it likely that most may end up wasting years, probably decades, pursuing what really is a mirage? And the questions raised are not just about the process involved. The questions asked are more fundamental. That this pursuit finding your passion itself is bad advice.
Take the example of Steve Jobs himself. His life has been chronicled for this aspect by author Cal Newport (who has written a whole book on this - “So good they can’t ignore you” - which book I have drawn heavily from for this piece). Several critical steps, twists and turns of the life of Steve Jobs are highlighted to show that computers and technology was hardly his first love, much less his passion. If at all, it was always opportunistic, to make a few quick bucks and that too just one of many other things he did.
To begin with, Steve Jobs studied not engineering or computers at Stanford, but Western History and dance and even dabbled in Eastern mysticism, even though this was supposedly the technological era and mood of the times. Even Apple Computers was not really his idea. Tech wizard Steve Wozniak had got an order to design a terminal device to access a central computer. Wozniak could do the tech part which he was good at but was bad at the business angle, for which he teamed up with Jobs. The point of all this was that Steve Jobs was almost 180 degrees on opposite side of technology as a passion. Tech was just a means of earning some quick cash, maybe not so different from students acting as waiters to pay for their college tuitions. Apple Computers too was, as per book by Jeffrey Young (Steve Jobs: The Journey is the reward), founded almost accidentally, and most certainly not out of any passion for computers, to capitalise on a money making opportunity. There was no vision of “changing the world”, the legendary pitch that Steve Jobs apocryphally made to ex-Pepsi head John Sculley to make him join Apple as President (“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”).
A research team led by Canadian psychologist Robert Vallarand surveyed 539 university students to know what they were passionate about. 84% did say that they had a passion. The top five of such passions as selected were dance, hockey, skiing, reading and swimming – all hobbies! Less than 4% had any relation to work or education, rest 96% were hobbies like sports or art. Countless other examples and research are quoted by Cal Newport to show that successful people did not set about this route of finding and pursuing their passion – and many candidly admitted that their career route was actually trial and error than with a design or a discovered passion.
So where does not leave us? Are we doomed to the drudgery of being the proverbial cog in the wheel, with no way out but face monotony and misery? Perhaps not. Perhaps the original advice of ‘follow your advice’ is putting the cart before the horse. The better advice could be converting your existing work into something of a passion. Do it well, keep getting better and better at it and it is this that would bring fulfillment, happiness and of course money. Move from trying to find the right work to simply working right, as Cal Newport says. Love for what you are doing will just follow.
And, to me, this does sound far better and even practical advice. This may not be suitable for those rare situations where one is stuck in a job that one is wholly unsuited for, where one does not have any aptitude at all for it and every attempt at improvement has been a frustrating setback. There may also be exceptions where some may have found passion early in life. But otherwise, it is very likely that we are in a job or activity where we already have some aptitude. It is then a matter of pursuing it and honing our skills on a day to day basis to become better and better. There have been studies that putting in years actively in an activity does bring excellence (see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers). One does not need to even mention that progress and prosperity both will follow. More importantly, there will be the daily sense of satisfaction of doing a job well and happiness is then just the logical consequence.
I remember even I had got sucked some years back into this enticing conversation. And then, getting carried away, wrote once on social media – “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, but even an open office cubicle can be a life sentence”. Fortunately, I did not do anything further towards this in real work life.
Even if we do not accept this altered perception wholly, at least the ‘find and follow your passion’ mantra needs substantial modification. It may make more sense to ‘find and follow your aptitude’. This would have the advantage that at least an attempt is made to find what one is good at, not just one is merely dreamy about.
Thus, this advice may be good at the start, at the middle and at even the end of one’s career. A person who has become better and better all through at what he has been doing will be allowed to be let go very reluctantly by employers or clients. Indeed, he may be asked to hang on, as ‘advisor’ or ‘retainer’ which would then have the best of many worlds for him or her – to remain active, to earn money and to continue to do work that brings fulfillment.
To be clear, this again is not the silver bullet advice or mantra to assuredly find happiness. It is possible that one may choose a career where one thought one had aptitude but much later that we realize we do not have such aptitude. It is also very likely that the process of improvement may be slow and may take a long time if ever to be recognized. It may happen that one’s work/skills may simply become redundant through, say, technology, though it is rare that such redundancy is so total. Yet it presents more hope and appears to be more grounded.