Mark Cuban once said that “follow your passion” is “easily the worst advice you could ever give or get.” For most people, being passionate about something is not enough reason to follow it as a career path.
“If you really want to know where your destiny lies, look at where you apply your time,” Cuban further explained. “You may or may not realize it yet, but how you use or don’t use your time is going to be the best indication of where your future is going to take you.”
His point is this: When you work hard at something, you become good at it. And when you become good at it, it can become a passion. So if you’ve struggled for years finding a dream job centered around the passions you already have—or you struggle because you don’t have an obvious passion—stop and think about whether you’re seeking a unicorn that doesn’t exist or isn’t worth finding.
Instead of following a passion like traveling or cooking and trying to turn it into a career instead of a hobby, why not take stock in what skills you’re good at or motivations you have that make those things enjoyable? Then, more broadly apply them to your career instead.
“You might find this shocking, but I didn’t grow up wanting to be a staffing firm CEO,” jokes The HT Group’s Mark Turpin. “But I did learn early on that I’m good at connecting people and helping others succeed. When I started to focus on those strengths, they turned into passions and eventually evolved into The HT Group.”
“It’s not that being able to work in a vocation you love isn’t an ideal situation. It’s that ‘follow your passion’ gets it backward. Passion comes later,” explains David Burkus, best-selling author, speaker, and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. He uses the television show Dirty Jobs to illustrate this thinking. “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.”
He adds, “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…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.”
Research has found that even having a passion in the first place could limit your career potential. A series of Stanford studies show that when an individual believes that they have a passion out there just waiting for them to find or hone, a few things happen that can damage their career:
- They may be less open-minded and willing to learn new things outside that narrow mindset, which could hurt them down the road.
- They’re conditioned to believe that a passion shouldn’t be challenging to pursue and are more apt to give up when things get hard.
The researchers’ advice is to, instead, “look at something and [if you] think, ‘that seems interesting, that could be an area I could make a contribution in,’…invest yourself in it. You take some time to do it, you encounter challenges, over time you build that commitment.”
“It’s about finding meaning in your work, not the elusive ‘meaningful work’ professionals are often told to look for,” Turpin adds. “Your attitude, curiosity, and competency in your job will make it a passion project for you, whatever that job may be. When you’re able to do that, you’re more than happy to work hard at improving yourself, learning more, and contributing in that area.”
To help you find meaning in your work and, thus, spark passion within your job:
- Consider supporting coworkers or redefining your relationships at work. Becoming a source of positivity in the workplace can make you happier, as well. Learn more about this tip here.
- Read this Columbia University commencement speech by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. He told new graduates, “don’t follow your passion…what are you good at? That’s a much easier thing to figure out.” Plus, he adds, passions can change, and you might not be good at them anyway. “Has anybody ever watched American Idol?” he asked. “Just because you love singing doesn’t mean you should be a professional singer.”
- Identify your motivations and strengths so that you can find the right fit. You might be surprised to discover a manufacturing job or a career in tech sales is right up your alley, but maybe it is. Consider taking a few pre-employment assessments to get a better idea of what motivates you and what you’re good at doing. And consider working with a recruiter or even temping while you job-search to open yourself up to industries and roles you may not have considered before.
So don’t be discouraged if your passion job hasn’t presented itself to you. Finding meaning and fulfillment in what you do well is a much better place to start.