Myth #5: Follow Your Passion
Updated: Sep 11, 2021
This is bad advice for four reasons.
First Reason: Ignorance of Career Fields
Most young adults haven't spent nearly enough time and effort to understand different career choices to have developed true passion for a particular career. They mistake passion, an overwhelming obsession for something that "master's the mind", for a strong interest or affinity for something. They declare having passion for a particular career in say, business or law, only to lose that interest mere months later or even within minutes, when confronted with facts about the career field.
This happens usually because they never fully understood the career fields, but rather reacted to superficial and wildly distorted representations of those careers from friends, social media, movies, etc.
Similarly, they declare having an aversion to certain career fields such as engineering or computer science based, once again, on superficial and thus distorted information. The vast majority of young adults who initially told me that they had an aversion to engineering provided laughably inaccurate views of engineering. They claimed that engineering lacked opportunities for creativity and human connection, for working outdoors, for excitement, for....etc. Of course, engineering is exactly the opposite. It is creative and human-centered problem-solving to the extreme!
It is far better for a young adult to admit ignorance of career fields, than to declare a misinformed "passion" or aversion for a particular one. Admitting ignorance opens that young adult to exploration of career fields, whereas declaring misinformed passion closes it.
Second Reason: Ignorance of Passion
Passion is derived from Latin passionem which means "suffering, enduring". To have a passion for something means to have an overwhelming obsession for something that "master's the mind" and for which one is willing to suffer. Most young adults in affluent communities have not lived long enough to have developed this overwhelming obsession for something. They also have not lived hard enough to understand what it means to suffer; their lives are filled with comfort. So they would not understand what it means to have a passion for a particular career field ...or for anything else.
Third Reason: Creative Destruction
The nature of work changes faster over human history. Technological advancement will create new career fields that don't exist today and destroy current ones. (The graph below is extracted from the World Development Report.) Thus, the aforementioned superficial and distorted impressions that many young adults hold of career fields will become even less relevant over time. So it's foolish to declare passion for a career field that one hardly understands and that will either disappear or change profoundly.
The future forecast below from Institute for the Future includes twenty separate forecasts for emerging technologies and their impact on human civilization. These forecasts, even if only partially realized, will destroy or profoundly change entire job families while creating new ones.
Meanwhile, the probability of specific jobs being replaced by automation is estimated by willrobotstakemyjob.com:
which is based on the landmark research The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?
Fourth Reason: It's Not About You
Our modern culture pushes young adults to self-absorption. Social media, TED speakers and school counselors tell them to "follow their passion" with the overt or implied promise that doing so will lead to lives of meaning and prosperity. But what if the young adult's interest is not needed and thus not rewarded by society? What if the supply of say of video-game testers far exceeds the demand for such? The iron law of economics then intrudes with mere subsistence level wages.
Too many idealistic and naive young adults I have met fail to understand how intensely competitive the real-world is; they don't bother to explore the viability of different careers and the many competitors they will face in the labor market. Competitors will emerge from not only developing countries, but increasingly from AI.
They haven't contemplated what good they can do for the world or themselves if they cannot earn enough to pay rent or buy food. How much good can they do if their self-esteem is as low as the minimum wage that they earn from an Instacart or Uber gig?
Since World War II, each successive generation has out-earned the previous ...until Gen X. The graph below reveals the stark reality of income stagnation, even regression for young adults in the hyper-competitive labor market.
Duty as Parents
As parents, our primary duty is to prepare our children to survive and thrive in the real-world. And as complexity, uncertainty and competition intensifies in the real-world, our work gains importance and difficulty. Unlike earlier generations, our industry specific work experiences and social connections no longer are adequate.
We parents need to plant seeds of wisdom that will continue to bear fruit for our children long after we have perished. One such seed is to guide our children to focus on what the real-world needs and will pay for, rather than to indulge blindly in "following their passion".
If the young adult's interests coincide with what the real-world rewards lavishly, then she/he is extremely lucky. But luck is not strategy. Make Yourself Useful is.
This is my "Make Yourself Useful" principle.
If your interests coincide with what the world will pay you to provide, then you're extremely fortunate. If they don't, work hard to acquire the skills necessary to fill such needs and as a consequence, enjoy high pay, career growth, pleasant working conditions and generous benefits. Also, learn to like what you do well. If you consistently make yourself useful, you'll be rewarded with enough economic power, social credibility and personal clout to pursue other interests outside of work.