Why “Follow Your Passion” is Essential, But Not Enough

"woman walks on concrete road during daytime” by Raphael Rychetsky on Unsplash

How many times have you been told to “follow your passion?” It’s a message that appears in everything from graduation speeches to job ads to entrepreneurs talking about their success. We even say it ourselves.

These past 2 weeks, I have had more discussions than usual around the topic of passion, being sparked by sitting on a panel, to fireside chats to multiple conversations with clients, friends and even my high-performance coach – with each conversation having a different take of what each person view and definition of “passion” is. This revelation has opened me up to possibly re-defining what passion means to me.

The 3 words "follow your passion" is the most common advice heard over the decades possibly even centuries, and it’s so often shared by wise and extraordinarily successful people, so there must be something to it.

Take Steve Jobs, CEO & Founder of Apple and Pixar for instance. Here’s what Steve had to say about following your passion:

“I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Steve believed that finding your passion was the key to doing great work, and therefore the key to being truly satisfied in life.

On the other hand, Jim Carrey makes an excellent point about seemingly conservative choices:

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it…

My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive.

I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

Then, there’s the matter of the competitive edge you gain from working on something you’re passionate about. In a world where you’ll face competition in anything you pursue, your passion for that which you pursue can often be the winning factor you need to succeed.

The person who gives 110% to something has an advantage. The person who shows up day after day, month after month, year after year because she’s passionate about something has an edge.

If following your passion is the key to success, happiness and fulfilment if following your passion creates a strong competitive advantage, and if you can fail at something you’re not even interested in, why wouldn’t you follow your passion?

Why Following Your Passion Can Be a TALL ORDER

What I discovered this past 2 weeks through all my discussions and reflection of my own experiences in life is that following your passion ain’t so simple.

What if you don’t know what your passion is? What if you have multiple passions? What if your passion doesn’t seem attainable or if there’s no money in it?

This is what Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic) has to say about it:

“You spend a lot of your life having people tell you to follow your passion. It’s nice advice, it’s heart-warming advice, it’s great advice — if you happen to have one that is very clear and obvious.”

“We are constantly being told to pursue our passions in life, but there are times when passion is a TALL ORDER, and really hard to reach. In seasons of confusion, of loss, of boredom, of insecurity, of distraction, the idea of "passion" can feel completely inaccessible and impossible. In such times, you are lucky to be able to get your laundry done.”

Most people will be passionate about lots of things over the course of a life well-lived. It’s normal to care about many different things. It’s less common to have one solitary, blinding passion for your entire life.

Perhaps “follow a passion” is a better way to put it.

Think of all the things you’ve been passionate about in your lifetime. For me personally, over the past 20 years, my “passions” would include a long list of things like travelling, living abroad, cooking, creating tv shows, fashion, politics, entrepreneurship, startups, spirituality, coffee, wine, chocolate…most of them I still enjoy doing – a lot!

By choosing one passion – entrepreneurship, and following it, while not expecting it to be my everything anymore, it's given me freedom and I’ve been happy and successful but most of all, it has helped me find my purpose. This in itself has been a journey – my experiences in life for over 40 years and the skills I have accumulated over a 22-year career have led to me being passionate and committed to amplifying the voices of women and creating more female role models and thought leaders through storytelling. Leading me to launch HerWit mid this year, in the hope of creating a positive change by making a difference to young girls, women and society at large - this is my purpose.

You also need to provide something incredibly valuable to the world to become successful. To be happy, you need to love not only your chosen field, but also the environment, people, and reality of working within that world. You also need to be capable of becoming great at that thing, given the personality, physicality, temperament and intellect you walk the earth with.

Following your passion may be a key to happiness and fulfillment in life, but only when combined with all the other necessary ingredients. In other words, I have realized that it’s “a” key, not “the” key.

If You Don’t Know What Your Passion Is

Elizabeth Gilbert has some advice if you don’t know what your passion is: “follow your curiosity” she says:

“If you've lost your life's true passion (or if you're struggling desperately to find passion in the first place), don't sweat it. Back off for a while. But don't go idle, either. Just try something different, something you don't care about so much. Why not try following mere curiosity, with its humble, roundabout magic? At the very least, it will keep you pleasantly distracted while life sorts itself out. At the very most, your curiosity may surprise you. Before you even realize what's happening, it may have led you safely all the way home.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

If you have ever read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, this should sound somewhat familiar. Newport states, you should find work that allows you to spend time becoming more skilled at something meaningful. As time progresses and you become more skilled, you enjoy your work more because the more time you spend working on something, the closer you’ll become to it. Any interest can likely turn into a passion. Sometimes you have to pursue something before you know how deep your interest runs.  

For me, this is where passion kicks in the most, having that deep interest that connects with your inner being, making you come alive when you're doing it, talking about it and just in the universe of if.

So, when in doubt, follow your curiosity and see where it takes you.

If You Have Multiple Passions

You can be passionate about many things in your life. It’s OK, and completely normal. There is likely no “one true passion” for you, except in hindsight as you look back and construct the story of your life.

If you have multiple passions, don’t force one into being “the” passion. That’s too much to expect from any one interest in the hands of a jack of all trades.

Instead, evaluate your passions along with the other ingredients we talked about. Consider how passionate you are about each topic, but also consider how good you are at it, what the market is for earning a living, how much competition there is and whether you like the “lifestyle” involved in pursuing it.

If You Have One Passion But Have Reservations About Pursuing It

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to feel like you do have one true passion, congratulations, you’re a rare individual.

It’s natural to have reservations about pursuing something, especially if it’s potentially difficult and competitive, and if you’re not sure if you have what it takes to truly succeed.

But remember, the journey is the substance of life, not success (whatever that even means). If you look back several decades from now, will you wish you had taken a chance on something that meant so much to you?

As Jim Carrey said, “you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” The trick is in figuring out what you love. To do that, follow your curiosity and let it lead you to a passion.

Don’t hold out for the passion because you might not realize something was your life’s passion until after you’ve spent your life pursuing it.