The Passion Paradox

What am I passionate about? My ideal career is in pursuit of my passion, right?

There are many times in life when we may stop to think about our professional direction. We may be in college trying to pick a focus of study that will set the trajectory for our career. We may by sitting at our 9-5 job thinking we’d like to do something else, questioning the meaning of our efforts and how we spend the majority of our lives.  We may be new parents, realizing that our previous path doesn’t gel with our new family-focused priorities. We may be in retirement, having graduated from our primary career and considering a new chapter. 

Regardless of when in life we may stop to pause, we all tend to be seeking a new direction that holds personal meaning. Inevitably at some point, we ask “What am I passionate about?” as a seemingly obvious starting point. 

Is following your passion actually a bad idea?

I feel strongly that we spend too much of our precious time in life working for our endeavors not to provide fulfillment, inspiration and growth. I feel even more strongly so since becoming a parent and realizing the value of my time. Work need not be drudgery undertaken only to pay the bills, but what can it be? 

Passion, hmmm… What does that mean? I really like yoga so does that mean I should become a yoga teacher? Will I still like yoga once I’m doing it all day, most days? Planning sequences and making my business out of it? Would it be aligned with my financial needs? Would it give me more time flexibility to be the type of present mom I am committed to being? Will the activity I love turn into a job I hate?

The Muse notes, the passion mantra is actually not so helpful for two reasons:

“First, it’s very unclear how to actually do it… Secondly, and more importantly, “follow your passion” is not helpful because it makes it sound so easy. And that is a very insidious thing, because finding meaningful work is anything but easy.”

In addition to these considerations, passions change. defines “passion” as:

  1. any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.
  2. strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor.
  3. strong sexual desire; lust.
  4. an instance or experience of strong love or sexual desire.
  5. a person toward whom one feels strong love or sexual desire.
  6. a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.

Let’s fast forward through all of the love and sexual desire references to definition #6. If I was a betting woman, I don’t think I would wager the peace of mind of my next few decades on following “a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.” I have enthusiasm for a great many things and discover more on the regular. 

“A recent Stanford research paper identifies the main flaw of this undead trope: “Finding your passion” presupposes that interests and passions are fixed, rather than fluid and evolving as we age and gain wisdom and experience. Those who follow the fixed mindset are much more likely to give up when obstacles arise. As the authors say, “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.” Forbes

Let’s rethink the Passion equation. 

What if passion was not an input to finding your ideal career, but instead an output? What if passion is something that develops from pursuing something you find worthwhile while leveraging your abilities and supporting your basic needs and the lifestyle you desire? I already have a passion project in my life right now- my family. I want to find a professional path that is fulfilling but doesn’t require the sacrifice of all of my waking hours and a decent paycheck.

“Cal Newport’s seminal book So Good They Can’t Ignore You is the leading intellectual ammo for us passion principle deniers. Cal’s central thesis is that developing rare and valuable skills will lead to far greater career satisfaction because they make you financially stable and give you lots of control over your time. And slowly, you develop passion for a field you have profound expertise in.

A corollary to this approach is Cal’s blog post about reverse-engineering your lifestyle: Know how you want to live, and then fit a career around that vision. Your choices will need to be different if you want to live quietly in the woods vs if you want to jet-set around the world.” Forbes 

Putting My $ Where My Mouth Is:

Personally, I am running an experiment with my own professional pursuits. I am unapologetically starting with my fundamental “requirements” which start with lifestyle considerations, evaluating my skillset in the context of market demand and considering what type of work I find to be engaging and meaningful.

I’m not ready to lift the veil and reveal what I have been exploring, but I can say that I’ve surprised myself by finding really neat new paths and am feeling more energized and inspired by career outlook than I have felt in a really long time, maybe ever. I’ll keep you tuned on how it all turns out. Newsflash: It comes with a big slice of humble pie. 

Passion Follows Engagement

“Passion doesn’t fall out of the sky or emerge from thin air. It’s the result of experimentation, exploration, and curiosity. You don’t follow it, you find it. And you find it by discovering what you find engaging. As Tina Seelig once said to me “passion follows engagement.” Medium

Instead of starting with your “passion,” start by thinking about what your skills are, what the needs of the market are in relation to your skills, what type of lifestyle makes sense for you, what you find engaging and what resonates with you in terms of meaning. My theory is that laying your foundation on this bedrock is far more reliable and fulfilling than chasing a fleeting interest and that we are more likely to find passion by not explicitly following it. 

Following your passion is a very “me”-centered view of the world. When you go through life, what you’ll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you’ve put into the world. So my recommendation would be follow your contribution. Find the thing that you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow.

Ben Horowitz

The Muse does a great job of outlining steps to finding meaningful work:

  1. First, you have to understand legacy: what you care about, what you are driven by, and what change you want to create in the world, for others and for future generations. This goes far beyond locking yourself in a room with a journal and pen. It involves deep introspection to be sure, but also a lot of conversations, fact-finding, and systematically testing your assumptions about what will allow you to work with a deep and personal sense of purpose. Understanding your legacy starts with the understanding that you will probably never arrive at a singular answer as to what is meaningful to you (if you do, it won’t last forever). But you can reach progressive levels of clarity that will lead you to more fulfilling opportunities—which will in turn influence and alter your vision of meaningful work. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-discovery and self-creation.
  1. Second, you need to seek mastery by understanding what skills are valued by the market you want to be working in, what skills you can and want to become excellent at relative to your competition, and how you can align the two.
  1. Third, you need to seek freedom: cultivating and exchanging the value your mastery provides in such a way that you progressively gain the ability to do work that is in alignment with your legacy, on your own terms.

2 thoughts on “The Passion Paradox

  1. I really love this. So thorough and helpful!! I had been struggling for years to “find” my passion when it finally hit me. I realized a had very specific skills that have been with me since I was a child or a teenager and those skills are enjoyable and something I can contribute in a meaningful way. Once I had that part figured out it’s become easier for me to see a path worth pursuing ☺️


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