Dear Graduates, Don’t Follow Your Passion

This weekend will mark one year since I walked across the stage at UCLA and officially received my college diploma. After financially supporting myself through college, transferring schools three different times and living in near poverty, I was SO FREAKING PROUD of my accomplishment. Walking across the stage was proof that I had survived.

This weekend, thousands of new graduates in California will walk across the stage and enter a new chapter: “adulthood.”

By the time I walked across the stage last year, I had already started my first full-time job. I graduated a quarter early and had been eager to start the next phase of my life (and finally earn more money).

In a lot of ways, it was weird to be back on campus and surrounded by friends who had just finished finals. I felt out of place in a place that had once been my home. But I didn’t feel like I belonged with my work colleagues either.

Most of them were double my age, had kids and were in an entirely different stage of life. During my first year out of college, I existed in a weird in-between; I didn’t feel like I really belonged anywhere.

Anyone has graduated college will tell you that it’s a weird time. You’re suddenly thrust into the “adult” world, thrown into offices with people who are your parents’ age and you are expected to have it all figured out in a matter of weeks.

Apart from making enough money to you know, survive, there is only one piece advice all graduates are given: follow your passion.

Your favorite professor says it on stage at graduation, your parents say it over Sunday night dinners and it is all over the Internet.

Every single blog, website and social media platform is plastered with this generic piece of advice and honestly, I’m sick of it.

Passion is great. It’s the weird (yet delightful) feeling that makes you excited to do something or create something, but it’s also fickle and changes at a moment’s notice.

Maybe you think your “passion” is teaching so you become a high school teacher but quickly discover that you hate the politics of school systems. Does this mean that your “passion” isn’t teaching? Probably not. It simply means that a different type of teaching might be better for you. Maybe you would prefer online tutoring, starting your own school, homeschooling or teaching in higher education. Your “passion” doesn’t lead you to a destination; it merely serves as a confusing and mysterious guide.

But for people who don’t know what the heck their “passion” is, this advice is even more harmful. “Passion” implies purpose and meaning. It suggests fulfillment and endless days of job-filled bliss. So if you don’t have a “passion” the entire prospect of finding an enjoyable job feels hopeless.

This is the position I’ve found myself in this past year. While being bombarded with messages of “passion,” “fulfillment” and “purpose,” my career anxiety reached a feverish climax that resulted in a month-long funk that bordered on depression.

I was putting so much pressure on myself to somehow discover the perfect career that I eventually snapped. I started crying one day in the parking lot at work and found that I couldn’t stop. I felt so overwhelmed, confused and purposeless.

I wanted to do what I had been told: find my passion and blindly follow wherever it leads. But it turns out, that’s an impossible task, at least for me.

The truth is that I’m “passionate” about so many different things. I’m passionate about nature, animals, women’s rights, Myers-Briggs personality types, writing, reading, goofing off with kids, running, travelling, my partner Alex, home décor, personal finance, my family, beach days, delicious food and my best friends. I am passionate about all of it. Any one of the things on that list could become a career and some of them already have.

I’ve been a paid writer. I was a lifeguard at a local pool, I blog about personal finance (without pay, but still), I briefly attended classes to become a Pilates instructor; I tutored 6 year olds in math. I was paid to write about a trip to London. I worked at a high-end restaurant and I currently volunteer as an advocate for sexual assault survivors.

When I finally sat down and thought about it, I realized that I have followed my passions. But that doesn’t mean I have a singular, focused “Passion” with a capitol P. Instead, I have interests, causes I care about and things I enjoy.

And for me, the overarching theme is simple: I want to be challenged.

I want a job that pushes me to become smarter, more capable and more skilled. I want to go somewhere each day (even if it’s just to my desk in the next room) and be challenged. I want to learn and grow while doing something that feels meaningful. In other words, I want to cultivate my passions, not “follow” them.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read something by Cal Newton. Cal took a deep dive into the trendy advice of “follow your passion” in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. He was also interviewed on one of my favorite websites, The Minimialists.

When asked about the difference between following your passion and cultivating it, Cal responds:

“Follow” implies that you discover the passion in advance then go match it to a job. At which point, you’re done.

“Cultivate” implies that you work toward building passion for your job. This is a longer process but it’s way more likely to pay dividends. It requires you to approach your work like a craftsman. Honing your ability, and then leveraging your value, once good, to shape your working life toward the type of lifestyle that resonates with you.

So what does this have to do with money?

Our passions, careers and overall happiness are intimately connected to our finances. It’s connected to how much we earn, how much we emotionally spend and our overall life satisfaction. In other words, it’s a big freaking deal.

I’m definitely still trying to answer these questions for myself and honestly, I’m not sure I’ll have the answers anytime soon. But in the meantime, I’m cultivating the crap out of the things I care about.

5 thoughts on “Dear Graduates, Don’t Follow Your Passion

  1. Kris says:

    Yeah, I learned that lesson years ago too. Passion is one thing…making a living in life is another. You can follow your passion, and you can make a living – if you’re real lucky you can do both at the same time. But if your passion isn’t making money, or in a career that makes you lots of money, then what?

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  2. ZJ Thorne says:

    Great post. There are so many areas of the world I am passionate about. I trade my time for money, because I need money. If I waited for a job I’m passionate about, I would still be waiting. Instead, I’m working for someone full-time while I build an LLC I am passionate about that will allow me to live the life I want.

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  3. Sarah Noelle @ The Yachtless says:

    Oh hooray, thanks for writing this, Taylor! I so agree that “follow your passion” is ridiculous and misleading advice, and I also happened to read So Good They Can’t Ignore You earlier this year. I so wish that I had questioned this advice when I was younger, because I really wasted a lot of time trying (unsuccessfully) to follow it. When I was in college the main thing I liked to do was read, so I figured that reading must be my “passion” and ended up working retail in a bookstore for over two years from ages 23-25, mostly because I figured this was the best way to fulfill my passion (love books –> work in bookstore, obviously). And while working in the bookstore was all well and good, I made $8/hour, lived with my parents, and learned few (if any) marketable skills. Somehow I just couldn’t think outside the box of “well, I love to read, so this is what I should be doing”. I wish I’d understood back then that the most important thing was to challenge myself and acquire new skills. Ah well. Anyway, great post, and thanks for tackling this topic. It sounds to me like you’re doing an awesome job of challenging yourself by exploring and cultivating some pretty great activities and interests. 🙂

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  4. Lindsay @ The Notorious D.E.B.T. says:

    This is awesome advice. I think I’m relatively lucky in that I’ve got a clear focus of what I want right now. I used to feel sorry for people who didn’t, but now that I’m seeing consequences of what happens when you can’t follow your passion (i.e., no jobs in that field), I’m thinking that being flexible and not being married to one true “Passion” is probably the better way to go.

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  5. Abigail @ipickuppennies says:

    Amen! I did a post a couple of years ago called “Doing what you love is overrated.” I think not everyone has a passion, and that’s okay. Plus, following a passion dull-time can quickly kill your, well, passion for it. There’s nothing wrong with working a normal job and having your real life outside work. Frankly, it’s a lot healthier for many people.

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