“Follow your passion” could be the worst career advice you ever get.
You might be surprised to hear that, judging by all the passion-themed inspirational quotes you’ll find pretty much everywhere.
The line of thinking goes something like this: if you’re not passionate about it, you won’t care enough to do it well, so it’s not worth doing at all. And, if your enthusiasm isn’t dialed to 11, even for a second, something must be wrong—quick, run!
Truth is, you can accomplish amazing things without being full throttle at every moment. And often, better work comes from people who can disconnect, look at things objectively and make a rational decision. Putting passion on the shelf, every once and awhile, has its merits. Plus, the world’s going to grind to a halt if the only work that ever gets done is someone’s passion project.
I’m not the only one who is starting to feel this way. Mark Cuban and others have begun to call into question this career search platitude for which, like most things, it appears Oprah is responsible.
You see, the trouble with passion is that it’s a great jackhammer, even when all you need is a pencil with a decent eraser.
The reality of most good, challenging jobs is that sometimes, they can be intensely stressful. Fate is eventually going to hand you a hot mess where every idea you try is wrong. On days like that, following your passion is like throwing lighter fluid on a dumpster fire: oddly thrilling but not helping.
Even on the very best days, you’re still responsible for things like issuing purchase orders and filling out timesheets. If you’re passionate about that, you’re lying, but that doesn’t mean you can just opt out.
Yes, there are many elements of this job where passion plays a vital role, but I’d contend that if left unchecked, it can take you to an unhappy place. Passion can make you the most valuable player on the team—or the pariah who does great work, but who nobody wants to work with.
So passion is sometimes brilliant, sometimes misguided. It’s the Kanye West of motivators.
The thing is, knowing when to let go of my passion has actually helped me get better. That might sound like heresy, especially when a passion for writing and the outdoors is a big part of why I call Swanson Russell home. But hear me out: I am driven to do the best work I possibly can. I am ecstatic when a great new idea comes to me. But that initial burst of euphoria has to be complemented by a sober analysis of the strategic merit of said idea. Just because I love it, doesn’t mean it’s right. That’s not passion. That’s honesty.
When clients or team members have questions or criticisms of a concept, I resist the urge to pound the table and make loud noises. Instead, I do my best to listen, discuss and solve, even if that means overhauling or abandoning an idea that originally seemed like the best thing ever. That’s not passion. That’s collaboration.
Contrary to the nonverbals the beret I wear to work every day might be sending, I’m not here to see my name in lights at the awards show. I am here to be a small part of an incredible team of individuals who inspire me with their boundless talent for food humor and our common pursuit of a larger goal. That’s not passion. That’s commitment.
And the sum total of it all is love—for the work, for the people I work with. Passion isn’t enough. It will fizzle out, or burn you out. Instead, I’d encourage anyone starting out in this industry, or contemplating the next move, to find a discipline, a place and a peer group that will channel your passion into something far more sustainable. Discover a work environment—preferably one like this—that can help you become a better, well-rounded professional, and have fun while doing it.
So, back to the question that got us here: is “follow your passion” really the worst? I mean, probably not. It can point you in the right direction—just don’t follow it over that cliff there. Yikes, that was close.
If you’re doing it right, sooner or later, cooler heads prevail and a deeper purpose reveals itself. So does better work.