Don’t Follow Your Passion – Do What You’re Good At

I have heard that if you do what you love, you will never work another day in your life.  It seems to me that current think has twisted how you should apply that to your career. Current think will have you believe that if you do what you love, the money will miraculously follow. It will have you believe there is no way you can’t succeed both financially and as a contributing member of society if you just follow your dream.  But if you’re not really good at what you “love” or if you’re not a standout at your “passion” relative to all the other valuable people in the field/trade, …well then, the world doesn’t owe you anything.

Understanding that I don’t necessarily need to do what I “love” has been a real epiphany for me lately.

I went through a bit of a woe-is-me period not too long ago.  Because this “find your passion and the rest will follow” chatter has been so prominent in our culture lately, I had myself convinced that despite initially becoming a scientist because I found earth science fascinating, I needed to do something else.  I thought this because the popular advice I was hearing was that you should find the one thing in the world you absolutely love that doesn’t even feel like work.  Once you find That One Thing and then pursue it as a career, money and success will magically appear in its wake.  Did I embark on my career because I love sitting in front of a computer manipulating software in a windowless office for 9 hours a day?  No. OK, then.  So what do I love?

Well, I’m excited by science.  I took a few geology classes and decided to major in it because I thought it was so cool.  The other things I love doing can be found on my About Me page.  I love hanging out with my cat and all animals.  Writing is something I do without expecting any pay (this blog).  I write because it’s a compulsion, and a form of self-expression and because I love the catharsis.  Other things I love are  being up in the middle of the night reading and philosophizing when the rest of the world is tucked away and then sleeping odd hours during the day.  And I adore hiking and yoga.  I love spending part of every day tinkering around in the kitchen.

So this advice to do what I love had me really confused.  I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong that would allow me to incorporate all these things that allow me to get lost in time into my career.  So, here’s what my imagined career started to look like:

We live on a ranch (near a city so I have access to the cultural center but also near the mountains so I can hike).  We have maybe three dogs, the house cat (Dove), and a barn full of other cats I have adopted from shelters.  I have a herd of alpacas, a couple of goats, and some horses.  So that’s my workplace – an idyllic ranch.  Doesn’t it sound so much better than an over air-conditioned skyscraper, I kept asking myself?

So, I make a little bit of money from the alpaca fleece.  But what else?  What else am I doing that I love that is going to wondrously give me satisfaction, pride, and that pesky little thing called money?  Of course!  I will teach yoga and meditation.  Perhaps this could be a getaway spa-type place where people come for rehabilitation amongst the fresh air.  A bed and breakfast type place where I lead the stressed-out city folk on revitalizing hikes and feed them from my organic farm.  And then, on the side, I’ll write an amazing book and it will be a best-seller and will support me for the rest of my life.  I would hate to give up science, so I guess I will have to start a center, maybe an observatory, or perhaps be a guide at a park, a consultant on the side, a teacher?

After contemplating and cultivating this dream career for many years, I slowly started to descend in to a period of malaise, a strong distaste for The Office Job.  I started whining to my sister about it during a weekend we spent together with my mom up in Vail (a place especially conducive to one imagining The Dream Life) and she said I should read a book our dad had recommended to her.  It is called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.  He makes some really good points in the book.  One is that the world doesn’t owe you anything simply because you’ve identified your passion.  You need to create something valuable to give to the world after putting in the time to become good at it and only then will you receive something back.  In becoming good at something, that in turn stokes your passion for it.

So maybe I can have my Land of Levity with birds chirping, beasts running wild and office refugees doing yoga, but the world doesn’t owe me that kind of life in the sense that it will “pay me out” as a career choice.  I could pursue the lifestyle, yes, but that doesn’t mean it will be the thing from which I earn money or be successful or feed my ego. The world has no career karma saved up for me just because I can envision my ideal lifestyle.

So I have given up on this “dream career” for now. Why?  Because I’m a scientist.  That’s what I do.  It’s why I spent seven years in school and have arduously trudged up the learning curve in my field over the last nine years.  It doesn’t mean I can’t still find time to do yoga and read and meditate and spend time with Dove and volunteer and write when I’m not at the office.  And on top of that, I’m a good scientist.  I’d probably suck at doing the other things I imagine that I love, or at least suck badly enough that it wouldn’t earn me money because I’d be a novice, which in of itself would probably discourage me.

I know what it feels like to be a novice in a field I know little about.  I know because I spent the first 10,000 hours of my career as a scientist (which pretty much just ended) until I passed over in to the “expert” category and feel proficient and confident (most days).  See Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers if you haven’t heard about this phenomenon.  It’s frustrating and it’s hard work to learn and prove yourself and grow both professionally and personally.

And that is what I have come to discover.   Being good at something and having a coveted skill is what brings career satisfaction.  Being good at something generally requires an investment of time to develop that skill.  And you probably wouldn’t have invested in that skill in the first place if it wasn’t something you had a propensity for and an interest in.

I now see why all these seasoned guys (okay, well maybe the seasoned ones are 5% women in my career…I discuss that more in this post on women in science) might really love their jobs and pop in to the office on their days off.

If you love your work, great, but it is still something you are doing for yourself and/or your family to live.  Your work could be supporting you financially or psychologically, or both.  It’s still something you are expecting a reward from, whether monetary or pride or to feel valued to some extent.  If you happen to love every second of your career, you are still getting paid so it’s still technically work.

Now, I’m not saying it never happens that someone is wildly successful at turning their passion in to a job or business.  All I’m saying is re-think what the world owes you.  Re-think whether or not it will feel like work if you throw yourself into something, passion or not.  And think about all those times that you started to enjoy something once you got really good at it.


  1. Pingback: Women in Science | Discover Sukha

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