“Following your passion” is shitty advice

Finding your true calling and passion is terrible advice - do this instead
This article first appeared in the
edition of The Ongoing.

A couple weeks back, I had a question from a subscriber about helping their partner find their true calling, and a career they're passionate about:

I’ve been struggling for a long time trying to help my partner find work that she’s "passionate" about, yet ultimately happy doing. I know there’s no clear-cut answers for these types of things, but the thing we’re having the biggest issue with is knowing where to start.

How do you start when you have no idea what you want to do? Who do you talk to? How do you make progress on this? My partner really just needs to take a first step but she doesn’t know what direction.

So many people struggle with the same question - "How do I find my true calling? What if I end up on a path that doesn't work for me?"

Right off the bat, the problem with this question is that it comes at the problem backwards. It assumes you'll come up with something you're passionate about, before making the decision to pick a path and start moving. It implies you've already discovered what you're passionate about - in which case, it's just a case of going out and finding a career or business that matches it. At which point, you're done. I wish it were that easy - but unfortunately, it just ain't.

It's a feeling that gets compounded when you look at most people who have already found success. It seems like every TED talk, every thought leader, and every self-help guru tells you to just "follow your passion," and you'll end up with a remarkable career and life, like them. Yeah, they're passionate about what they do, and they've turned that passion into a thriving business or career - but they conveniently leave out most of the problematic bits on how they ended up successful in the first place.

Follow your passion is bullshit advice

To be honest, I think "finding your passion" is bullshit advice. It's straightforward advice to give, and it feels easy enough to receive and follow - spending your time thinking through what you're passionate about certainly feels like progress. What ends up happening, though, is that we start believing there's one correct path, one true calling that's right for us. We start down a path and end up blindfolded to other interests and possibilities.

So many people - myself included - never stop to consider if they're on a path that works for them because they're so afraid of getting it wrong. No matter how successful they become, they'll stick with a career or business that doesn't work for them for far too long, never realizing they even have the option to change things up.

But here's the key thing you need to realize:

No single passion or true calling is waiting for us to discover it

Following your passion isn't the key to building a happy and successful life or career. I don't believe we have one true calling, or two, or even ten. I also don't think that there's a single passion that's somehow being hidden from us, that when we discover it, we'll be eternally happy in our work. We all have many things we're interested in - many things that bring meaning into our lives. And none of those things are black and white - everything lies somewhere in the middle of the scale.

Personally, it took me way too long to realize this. I started out studying computer engineering, before moving into software development, then engineering management, product management, and now freelance content marketing. Along the way, I also started a bunch of side businesses - I dabbled in freelance web design, I started a custom gift box company, I even sold Hackintosh netbooks on eBay for a while. I spent so long trying to find the one true idea that fit me, I probably missed out on dozens of opportunities that could have taken me in a more meaningful and personally satisfying path. It took a solid trip through burnout for me to realize I was on a path I wasn't passionate about.

After a while, you'll start losing your passion and initial enthusiasm for your work, regardless of what you do. It's like being in a long-term relationship - after that initial excitement wears off, the foundational things - doing meaningful work alongside people you like, for reasonable compensation, become much more important. It can take a lifetime to find that ideal balance.

So instead of trying to find what you're passionate about in advance, you should instead work on cultivating your passion.

Find somewhere you can make a difference

Find a place where you can make a difference in the lives, businesses, or careers of other people. That could be anything from designing web apps to coaching business owners, raising kids, or writing articles online with helpful advice (heyooo!). Get good at something that both holds your attention and serves others in a way that feels meaningful to you.

Once you're able to find something that feels both meaningful and interesting, work to cultivate your skills and experience. Since your work is naturally serving others, you'll soon be able to start leveraging that work into something that serves the kind of life you want to live. Whether it's freelance, remote work, or just leaving the office early on Fridays, build towards making your work fit your life, not the other way around.

A big part of this is the people you work with. For most 9-5'ers, you'll spend more time with your workmates than your own family - so working with people you don't enjoy can be toxic. When you're looking at, say, a job offer, it's easy to focus on the tangibles, like the salary and benefits - instead, you should focus more on whether you'll get along with the other employees, and whether they get along with each other already. No amount of money in the world is worth dealing with a work environment you hate - it's a quick trip to burnout, for sure.

And those super-successful entrepreneurs? They deal with the same crap we all do, every day. They question their decisions, they deal with the stress of the unknown, they wonder whether they could ever find a path that fits them. Your excitement around a particular idea or career path comes and goes. Everyone has shitty days - even those who love their jobs the most. But the work that matters, both to yourself and to others, transcends excitement or "passion."

So long story short, stop trying to find your true calling and start trying a bunch of things. As long as your work is helping others, is engaging to you, and you're working with people who energize you, you'll become passionate about your work.

If you're considering starting a business, looking for a new job, or making a career shift, think hard about which parts makes you the most excited. Perhaps it gives you more control over your working hours? Is it the ability to help other people reach their own goals? Does it give you the chance to learn something new?

Passion is fleeting. You can be passionate about something one day, then completely hate it the next. Expecting yourself to be able to commit to one true calling for your entire life is asking for trouble.

Instead, focus on finding a place you can make an impact, doing work you enjoy, and you'll already be far better off than most people.