Don’t follow your passion

One idea that is hurting people in our country is the common refrain: Follow Your Passion. The idea has immediate appeal. But the writer Cal Newport in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You makes the point that even Steve Jobs, the poster child for the Follow Your Passion advice, was himself not initially driven by any passion or even great interest…. His success was a result not of passion, but of determination, leadership, opportunism, hard work and many other factors

Rajesh is 22 and worried about his future. “I don’t know what to do with my life. I wish I knew what my passion was.”

Geeta, 27, is a lawyer, but she has doubts about her career choice. “I am not sure if I should continue being a lawyer. I am doing well and it’s quite interesting. But I am not sure I am passionate about it.
It’s one life and I feel like I am wasting it.”

Harish doesn’t use the word “passion”, but he still carries the burden of the idea that he should be doing something bigger and grander than what he is doing currently. “I think of my friends… they are having so much fun pursuing their passion and I feel, why did I join commerce? You should see their posts on Facebook; Amar has a photo of winning a culinary competition, Swati has pictures of beautiful coral reefs and what do I have? Nothing except another excel spreadsheet. It’s pathetic.”

Ideas are like air. We breathe in the zeitgeist, taking in current values and ideals, and often we are unaware that these ideas are shaping us in the most profound manner possible.

If the ideas are good, they nourish us. But if they are bad, they hurt us, corroding us with quiet certainty.
The worst kind of idea is one that seems to make sense to us, but is in fact, a Trojan of an idea — innocuous and appealing on the surface, but having gained access to our brains, it hurts us.

In recent times, we have imported, and imbibed, many fundamental ideas from the West, a natural outcome of social media, capitalism and individualism.

These ideas inform our values, our ideals and desires, our motivations, our way of life and ultimately our identity — what makes our life meaningful? What is valuable? What is right and what is wrong?

One such idea that is hurting people in our country is the common refrain: Follow Your Passion.

The idea has immediate appeal. It makes logical sense. As Steve Jobs famously put it, “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.”

Rajesh, Gita and Harish, and millions of other young men and women in our country today have absorbed the idea that they must discover a passion for their work, and then having discovered it, the passion will take them to great success and happiness.

And so this idea makes many feel trapped and dissatisfied in what they see as mediocre passionless careers, and so they move from job to job, flitting from one interest to another, desperately looking for passion, much as a lovelorn person wandering in a desert in search of a lost lover.

Our expectations from our careers have certainly changed — the idea that our work should bring us pleasure is a relatively new one.

For the longest time, we worked for survival, and most people in previous generations considered it a blessing to be employed in a stable and secure job. Enjoyment was considered a bonus, but not a primary expectation, and consequently people in the past were more content with their careers.

Research in the US shows that job satisfaction has plummeted from 65 per cent to 40 per cent in the last decade and continues to fall amongst millennials.

Ironically, the country where this toxic idea first originated is now starting to question it.

The writer Cal Newport in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You makes the point that even Steve Jobs, the poster child for the Follow Your Passion advice, was himself not initially driven by any passion or even great interest.

He just happened to come across an opportunity to sell computers and he made the most of it. His success was a result not of passion, but of determination, leadership, opportunism, hard work and many other factors.

The psychologist Carol Dweck describes two kinds of attitudes that she called “mindsets”. If you have a “fixed mindset”, you believe that your abilities, your intelligence and talents are all fixed, that they can’t be changed, and so success is an affirmation of your real nature, and failure is a statement of a lack of ability.

In a “growth mindset”, the belief is that your abilities, talents, intelligences are not fixed and they can be improved with hard work and practice, so that failure is an opportunity to learn and improve, and success is a result of hard work and persistence.

Research proves that the fixed mindset is wrong — our abilities and talents always improve with persistent practice and hard work.

We all have some innate interests and strengths, but in order to achieve mastery and success we have to go through the discomfort of rigorous learning and practice.

GET OVER A FIXED MINDSET

Research also shows that those with a fixed mindset are unlikely to take on new challenges. They stay with tasks that they are already good at, because to try something new and to fail at it causes them emotional pain since they believe that failure is a measure of their own innate abilities.

The harmful “fixed mindset” attitude is implicit in the advice Follow Your Passion — it implies that we all have a great talent that will be unearthed, if we only discover our passion.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson’s research shows that mastery and success is a result not of innate talent as much as persistent hard work, about 10,000 hours of what he calls “deliberate practice”, where the practitioner must take feedback about their skills and improve accordingly.

HAVE A BEGINNER’S MIND

In the world, attaining greatness and success needs us to always have what the Zen monks call a “beginner’s mind”, the humility to know that no matter how skilled and knowledgeable we are, there is always room for learning and growth.

In direct contradiction to this, Follow Your Passion tells you to ignore the detractors, the critics and the naysayers to pursue your passion no matter what people are telling you.

Deliberate practice and a growth mindset therefore are incompatible with the advice Follow Your Passion. So, it is a toxic and dangerous idea that causes dissatisfaction, and ironically decreases the chances of success.
What, then, is the answer? Should we settle for an unsatisfactory, dissatisfying boring job that does not allow us to use our talents and strength? Not at all.

Never before have we had so many career options. In today’s world, it’s easier than ever before to lead a successful life, to enjoy what you are doing and to create value in the world. There will be plenty of passion, too, as you continue to learn and grow.

You will be driven, not by the sweet excesses of ephemeral passion, but by a deep, driving determination, to become better at what you do and to make a difference in the world.

So, don’t wait for passion to take you to success and happiness. Don’t follow your passion. Follow persistence and hard work and determination. Passion will follow you.

– Dr Shyam Bhat
This article was first published in the Telegraph – April 30th 2017


Also published on Medium.

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