In the industrial economy, the most used piece of career advice is arguably “follow you passion.”
There’s even a cycle of use, peaking right around graduation season when a new list of politicians, business people, and celebrities don outfits from Harry Potter and give the pomp and ceremonial commencement address. But follow your passion is terrible advice. It’s not that the graduation platitude isn’t well-intentioned. It’s not that being able to work in a vocation you love isn’t an ideal situation. It’s that “follow you passion” gets it backwards.
Passion comes later. Passion follows. One of the things we know from self-determination theory and other theories of human motivation is that one of the biggest motivators is mastery. One of the biggest things that makes you feel engaged, makes you enjoy doing work, is the feeling of making progress and getting more proficient at the task that you’re doing.
Mastery is one of the big three elements of self-determination theory and in many ways predicts that as people grow in their skills and can see their own growth, they’re more like to stay motivated and eventually passionate about the job.
As people find something that they’re good at, and they begin to refine and get better and improve, they eventually become passionate about it. I usually think of this not in fancy research terms, but as evidenced in the show Dirty Jobs. On every episode of the show, host Mike Rowe introduces viewers to a set of people who do some of the most disgusting and…well…dirty…jobs out there.
And yet, they’re generally some of the happiest people you could meet. They’ve learned to love it. Whatever their reasons for picking a job that likely only a few people would love at first sight, they grew into it and became passion. And you will too, even if you don’t get too dirty.
Follow your passion is lousy advice. Follow your strengths. Follow elements in your job you’re making progress on. Or if you don’t have a job, follow those subjects that you studied in school and were good at.
Follow whatever little clues there are about something that you feel like you could really make progress in—that you could really move down the path to mastery toward—and you will find that path to mastery leads to passion. So, don’t follow your passion. Don’t follow your bliss. Follow your potential for mastery and trust that passion will follow you.
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