Why follow your passion is bad advice

Why follow your passion is bad advice
Photo by Holly Mandarich / Unsplash

How do you know if you’ve chosen the right career path?

How do you decide what to pursue, and how do you actually make progress?

I’ve spent the past few months researching all of these questions, and today, I share with you what I’ve learned, and what I’ll be doing on my journey.

Let’s dive into the controversial advice:

Follow Your Passion

For some, this advice is the first they reach for when asked for career advice. And for others, it throws them into an immediate fit of rage when mentioned.

Let’s really break down this advice, see what we can learn from it, and figure out which parts may not be all that useful.

Let’s take it backwards if you’ll allow, and talk about passion first.


To me, passion feels very ambiguous. Everyone has a different perspective on what it means, if it’s an emotion, if it’s motivation, purpose, or a calling.

In Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (which we’ll talk about more a bit later), Cal references a study where college students are asked what they’re passionate about. Most respond that they’re passionate about things like dancing, hockey, skiing, reading, and swimming. But when we’re talking about “following your passion” here, it’s mostly in a career context, with some undertones of this motivational calling, or predetermined purpose in your life.

So, there’s a disconnect here. A “passion” for one person may be a hobby they really enjoy, whereas it might be a career, value, or purpose for someone else.

To try to find some sort of true meaning behind what a passion is, we can look at the etymology, which actually reveals something very interesting.

“Passion” actually comes from the Latin root “pati” which means “suffer”. A bit different than what we picture today, right?

Though it makes more sense when you understand the context. It was often used in Christian theology in terms of the “passion of Christ” and the pain, or suffering, he was willing to go through for his higher purpose.

When I learned about this, I also thought about Mark Manson. He asks “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?” Mark talks about how everything that we’re going to work on in life is going to have its crappy parts to it, so we should look for the things that, despite being objectively unpleasant, we actually don’t mind.

Enjoying our suffering

There are two parts to our suffering that we can take a look at to make suffering more enjoyable

The first one is aligning with our natural tendencies and enjoyment. This is what Mark is getting at with the “favorite flavor” analogy. What’s the difficult, sludgy work that you actually enjoy? What do you do for fun that other people look at you crazy for? To me, its reading, taking notes, and clashing ideas together. My girlfriend - well she, she just thinks it’s weird of me. But it’s something I enjoy.

If you play video games or have other hobbies that your really enjoy, you can gain insight from those here. For instance, what do you enjoy doing in video games? What games do you enjoy “grinding” in, and why? Do you enjoy games like Factorio where you’re building systems and production lines? Do you like sandbox games where you can build and let your creativity run free? Do you like RPGs where you have to grind levels? Or do you like competitive shooters where it comes down to skill acquisition and competition? I’d recommend taking a deeper look at what it is you find enjoyable in your ‘play’ time, and dive into why you do that.

Second, we can change the meaning that we give to it. This is where something like Victor Frankl’s mans search for meaning can come into play.

There’s a space in between our suffering, and our reaction to that suffering. External pushes like a higher purpose, competing interests, or ‘dharma’ can come into play and let us turn our suffering into something greater than ourselves.

This is also where the “your” part of “follow your passion” gets upended. Oftentimes, we don’t find it worth it to suffer for our own good. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve tried countless times to do hard work in order to benefit myself in the long run, but it just never works.

When we add in something higher to the equation, a competing interest that affects someone else, outside of just our own life.

Now that we have the passion is suffering theory out of the way, we can go to the next grievance of passion.

Singularity (not the black hole one)

A lot of times, it’s interpreted as a single calling or purpose. Some sort of predetermined gem out there that you just need to find, but it’s really not the case. Now this isn’t some new, nuanced take, but I think what’s important here is that it’s really a journey, both internally and externally.

As we talked about with suffering, there’s the internal aspect of the meaning you assign to it, and your natural tendencies of what you enjoy, but there’s also this external aspect to it - your interaction with the world and the environment that you’re in. They’re both there to be shaped over time.

It’s a journey, not an endpoint to achieve. You don’t put the final puzzle piece into place and finally achieve the “passion” state. It’s something thats a constant work in progress, an ebb and flow, and something that is always changing.

If we’re expecting to achieve some sort of state of being that we don’t even have a clear picture of, that’s a formula for constantly being dissatisfied with your life.

With this, a lot of people ask the wrong question. They ask “what do I want to do with my life” and “what do I want to be” but that’s the wrong positioning.

Instead, the question should be “what do I want to spend my life doing?” It’s a very subtle switch but it shifts your thinking from that end goal to the process. What do you want the process to be?

Is passion an emotion?

Some people talk about passion as an emotion, but honestly I never really got it. Whenever I think back to a time where I may have “felt passionate” I would describe it more as being heavily inspired or motivated, or caring deeply about a topic.

Instead of an emotion, I like to think of passion as more of a driving force. It’s an emergent phenomenon, where multiple different situations and traits meet together.

Where willpower is a pushing force from this inside, trying to force yourself to get where you want to go, passion is a gravity pulling you in the direction of the work you love. You’re able to relax and just let it pull you in its direction. It’s a practically infinite tap of motivation.

But we don’t allow the gravity to do the heavy lifting for us unless we’re positioned just right. Again, with the journey versus destination point, it’s a constant dance to pursue this point.

My current theory is that we’re able to get to this spot through the alignment of our personality, values, purpose, and the work that we’re doing every day.

When we get to this spot, we’re able to give the entirety of our ability to our work.

This ability to put in “100%” effort and go through the suffering that others aren’t willing to go through means that you’re much more likely to provide value to the world.

And of course, with providing value to the world, you’re able to leverage that for money, freedom, etc., which will get into more a little bit later.

Okay, so what about the word “follow”?


Overall I’ll keep this brief. The word follow implies that there’s something leading you. Maybe that there’s some sort of map that tells us exactly where we need to go, or a compass that will bring us directly to where the treasure of passion is buried.

While I do think the intention is good here, ‘follow’ really isn’t as active a term as required. I imagine a sort of blind obedience, rather than the hard work that’s required. What’s required is forging, experimentation, trial and error, and most of all, intentionality.

This whole “follow” thing makes it sound like there is a set path for you. There’s something inherit within you that needs to be followed. If that’s what you believe and that’s helping you towards your goals, then great. But if you haven’t the slightest clue about what your passion is, then trying to follow it is just paralyzing. Where do you start? How do you know what to choose?

Before we dive into the reflections you'll want to make and the actions you'll need to take to pursue work you love, there's a bit of a mental shift we need to make.

How important is this question?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal talks about his experience with his own decisions on what to work on. While his classmates in college were placing a “cosmic significance” on the decision of what to do with their lives, Cal was calm, cool, and collected because he knew that each and every path had something special, that there were unlimited options of paths waiting to be explored, each with “opportunities that had nothing to do with identifying predestined dispositions.”

This is something that Dr.K over at HealthyGamer talks about too, to not hype it up to be a huge decision and to be super concerned about it. It isn’t about choosing something and having that be the end all be all.

It’s about making progress.

You can experiment, flip back and forth between things, you can try something out for a short period of time and decide it’s not for you.

The main point here is to lay off of the significance of this decision. There is no “right” thing to work on, or predestined path that was carved for you, so don’t let that perfectionism keep you from taking a step forward. This whole “what to work on” thing is about balance, serendipity, and reflection on whether or not you’re enjoying the journey, but we’ll get more into that process in a little bit.

Here’s a question for you, that really made the shift for me.

Do you believe that you can turn ANY path into a path that you’ll love?

If the answer is no, why not? What are the non-negotiables that would kill any day to day joy? What percent of joy from your work comes from inside your head, versus from your external situation? What would it look like if you took more internal responsibility for enjoying your work?

The more responsibility we take, the more we can improve, and enjoy every day a little bit more.