Following Passion

I have been thinking quite a bit about the tendency people have to talk of “finding your passion” in relation to work or career. It started with Joshua Millburn’s and Ryan Nicodemus’ short essay on “What is your mission?”

They deal with two things – there is no obvious single passion that a person is meant to pursue, and that it’s possible to get stuck or settle for a job or career path that is to a certain extent predetermined by its ability to deliver more money, responsibility and status. They suggest picking something you are passionate about and pursuing it to find if it makes a difference. To turn a passion into a mission is to actually do something about it.

They have taken much from a man named Cal Newport who has been testing the idea of trying to “find your passion” and then finding a job in that area, which seems to have become something of a career advisory mantra. His main point is that chasing after a “passion” can often be a rather bad thing to do.

I recall a bit of school career advice (in England), and it seemed to amount to little more than the suggestion to take what you’re interested in and do that. Either that, or whatever it is you think you want to do (for whatever reason), advice is given on how to get into a specific career. “Get lots of qualifications” is another thing that sticks in my mind.  I can’t recall anyone saying “follow your passion” exactly, so perhaps it is more of an American phrase. In England we tend to be a bit more realistic in some ways, but the overall impression one gets is of finding a career track to get on and follow.

For me “follow your passion” has been something that I’ve seen more in the personal development blogoshpere rather than standard career advice. There is much said about how to find out what your passion is and how to work at it.


Now if I look at my own life I can see why going down a road prompted by “passion” isn’t necessarily helpful. From a very young age I was attracted to computers and making them do things, and I was quite interested in getting into creating computer games, after I had an idea I wanted to design computers. I did some work experience at Bullfrog in the 90s, and briefly met Peter Molyneux. At the same time I was also fascinated by astronomy and cosmology. I also had an enthusiasm for writing science fiction and spent much time in “world building” in a similar manner to Tolkein.

You might say I had a “passion” for each of these things, and these passions tended to swap around a lot. For most of my school years I thought I’d be doing computer science, but something happened to switch me over to wanting to study astronomy about the time I was looking at going to university. I followed this passion and enrolled in an Astronomy programme. My parents were a little confused by this as computing seemed to be a stronger interest for years. Looking back, I’m a little confused by it myself.

By the end of my degree, I was starting to look for a way to get back to computing by combining physics and programming, and by the time I’d graduated I was looking for jobs the combined the same things. Unfortunately this was a tricky market in the early 2000s, and having a degree in Physics wasn’t enough to walk into a job. I was also very bad at interviews. In fact studying at university does nothing in itself for preparing you for the job market, but everyone is so often told that a university education makes a big difference.

In the end I picked up a junior IT job near my home, a job that I could have walked into when I was 16. I don’t think my physics degree demonstrated any more facility for the job than my high school education.

This is what following my passion led me through. A relatively expensive education that had questionable value in helping me find employment. In fact it has taken me a long time to “let go” of making a four year mistake. I have tried to convince myself that it added something valuable to my life, but I don’t believe I got much beyond what I could have done studying by myself. I may have picked up certain learning skills, but I could have done the same thing in a computer science programme, or just getting a job and learning that way.

It is a bit difficult for me to say this was entirely a bad thing to have gone through the process of eliminating career paths, but a bit more time could have been left before committing to a rather expensive course of study that failed to find much of a focus.

Returning to Cal Newport’s investigation, the main thing to remember about passions is that they are changeable and temporary. Following passion blindly can push you in odd directions. It can’t necessarily be maintained. It can lead you to construct elaborate fantasies about what your life would be like if your career was “matched” with your passion.

If following your passion is unwise, what should you do instead? Cal suggests cultivating passion rather than trying to find some all-consuming desire to do something different. Passion for your work is a result rather than a precondition.

My interpretation is that passion is a fickle thing, and what a person is looking for is something more reliable and constant. Rather than considering “True Passion” against short term excitement, I’d define passion as closer to lust. Once you have the thing you desire it can often end up being disappointing. Cal cites a story about a man who was convinced he would be happy as a Zen monk, but after he’d burned all his bridges and joined a monastery he came to the realisation that he couldn’t make that one thing his whole life.

There is much wisdom in considering what you already have and how you can use that to get your life closer to what you want. Cal uses the term “career capital” to explain what people accumulate through their experience of doing something for a long time. To simply switch without doing some work in a different area simply dumps a huge amount of investment.

For me the career capital is in the Information Technology industry, which can become quite stressful or dull depending on the sort of job you have. I was once presented with a choice of joining an academic research department in Canada when I had a “relapse” of interest in Physics, but I had some realisation that the path I was on in the area of computing was still more suitable after already having made progress to a much greater income. To make the change I’d have been getting the pay of a Graduate student, and ultimately the interest in the research could not make up for this.

Although I haven’t always been that proactive about making the most of the “career capital” I have, sticking with things has enabled me to get into what I consider is a balanced position where work isn’t taking me over or leaving me very bored.

I think what Cal’s research has done has taken away the potentially dangerous characterisation of “passion” as being something magical that a person is looking for. I have stopped thinking in terms of passion and more about putting in the hours to get better at creating music and writing about it. He has also validated what the Minimalists have done to change their lives, and the constant is always that there is a lot of work involved and you have to keep at it for years in order to start getting results.