Wednesday, February 5, 2014

(Don't) Follow Your Passion

Here is my most recent piece of commentary for the Denver Post:

(Don’t) Follow Your Passion

“Follow your passion? That may be the worst advice I ever got.”

This insight from Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs runs counter to every bit of advice teenagers receive from parents, teachers, and counselors.  Yet, it may be the best and certainly most honest guidance they hear. Now that high school seniors have filed their college apps and patiently wait to see which school will make their dreams come true, and high school juniors plan for the ACT and choose classes for senior year, it may be time to reflect on the belief that our jobs should make us happy and that college majors and career decisions should be based on ambiguous and nuanced ideas like passion.

Recently, Mike Rowe has been focused on promoting the value of skilled labor in a world that no longer appreciates it. Currently, there are roughly 3-4 million unfilled jobs in skilled labor, yet students are racking up a trillion dollars of debt for degrees they may not need. And, while there is certainly value in a liberal arts education, many students “follow their passion” to degrees which provide few of the skills they need for a career. Even in colleges the focus on “passion” has shifted. AP reporter Beth Harpaz explains, “While some top-tier schools can still attract students by promising self-discovery and intellectual pursuits, many colleges have changed their emphasis in the years since the recession hit. Instead of "Follow your passion," the mantra has become more like, "We'll help you get a job."
Writers and researchers like Daniel Coyle and Cal Newport agree with Rowe’s suspicion about following passion. In his book The Talent Code, Coyle recommends that students work on developing skills and talents rather than pursuing ideas like passion and personal happiness. In the real world, most people aren’t passionate about work or filled with zeal during the daily-ness of their jobs. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Additionally, following passion is a challenge for young people, many whom don’t have a passion, or at least not one easily linked to a career.  Cal Newport concurs in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, titled after a quote by actor Steve Martin.  A prominent entertainer and pop culture icon, Martin has written numerous best-selling books, an award winning play, and is considered one of the premier art collectors in American society.  He is also a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.  Steve Martin is just so good at what he does.  So, when Steve Martin was asked for the secret to success, he responded, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That advice – focused on developing skills and talents – is far better advice than pursuing “passion.” 

Incidentally, Newport’s book is subtitled, “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work We Love.” As a computer science professor at Georgetown, Cal Newport advises young people to work on simply being good at what they do. And rather than compare themselves to others, they should seek instead to understand themselves and develop individual strengths.  For those wondering what they want to do with their lives, he offers this advice: “Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable in the world.”  If people continue to grow and learn and develop talents, they will find their passion and success.

Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society urged students to “Make your lives extraordinary.” And many are doing exactly that. However, beyond that maybe we should advise students to “Make yourself indispensable.” The best way to secure a career is to have talents the world requires. In the first episode of the HBO show Girls, Hannah is fired from her unpaid internship, only to learn her replacement is actually being paid for the job. When she adamantly confronts her boss, he says, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.”  While Hannah may tell herself, “I can learn PhotoShop,” the reality is she didn’t.  Thus, the point is to advise kids to be the kind of person who learns Photo-Shop. Hannah is a classic example of a person waiting for passion to lead her to happiness – and it never happens. Successful people by contrast are the ones who work hard and do what needs to be done to get want they want and need.

Of course, students don’t only go to college to acquire job skills, and society suffers from such a utilitarian approach. As Robin Williams’ character Mr. Keating teaches the young men, “medicine, law, business, engineering – these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.” And, woe to the society that promotes only skill-oriented education at the expense of the arts and humanities. That said, the arts and poetry – those things that often fuel our passion – don’t have to be the source of employment. For as contemporary sage Robert Fulghum has said, “The hardest thing for most people to figure out is that it’s really rare to do what you love and get paid for it. It’s almost better not to because you end up hating the thing you’re doing because you have to do it. A lot of people would be artists if they didn’t also have to make a living.”

As a teacher, I followed my passion. And I am fulfilled emotionally by the very thing that pays my bills. A friend of mine majored in finance because she is really good at math, but she is not passionate or fulfilled by her job. In fact, it can be quite annoying and rather mundane. However, it affords her a great life with her family, which is truly her passion. Another friend makes a great living managing operating systems for a multinational firm. He is not a computer geek by any stretch, but when we were in college, computing was simply a skill he acquired, and he followed it to success in the tech revolution. So, one us followed his passion, another followed her skills, and the third just followed the market. That’s the full story that should be told in advising students on college and career choices.

Michael P. Mazenko works at Cherry Creek High School and blogs at Email him at

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