Follow your passion, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have one

Successful people are always telling you to follow your passion, even if you don’t think doing so will allow you to pay rent. Don’t worry about the money, they say. Do what you love and the money will follow. This is 100% true, as long as you’re passionate about finance or fossil fuels.

Much of the advice young adults get about choosing a career and developing a professional life comes from people with a skewed perspective on what it takes to be successful, and this is a problem. When everything has turned out okay for you, it’s easy to tell other people that if they just be themselves and do what they like, everything will turn out okay for them too. It’s easy to realize that you’ve been successful at something, but it’s very hard to pinpoint why. And so when successful people try to articulate the causes of their success, they often fall on one fashionable, click-inducing reason: they followed their passion, and everything fell into place. They might say they got lucky, and they might know intellectually that success is partially about luck, but they don’t feel it. The outcome tints their view of the process, and they really believe that doing what you love leads to success and stability.

So what, you ask. Maybe people are advocating for following passions based on slightly irrational thinking – is that such a bad thing? Doing what you love is still a good idea, right?

Yes. I agree. But what’s not good is telling people that it’s only worth doing things you’re passionate about, and that’s often how this kind of advice comes across. When the theme of a motivational speech could be described as “doing anything you don’t love is selling out,” something is wrong.

It leads to people wearily insisting they’re passionate about some topic that might as well have been chosen out of a hat, because it puts enormous pressure on young adults to just be passionate about something (bonus points if it conveniently sets you up to make a lot of money). But in all the excitement over doing what you love, we’ve forgotten that you aren’t necessarily an awful person if you don’t have a burning desire to help underprivileged kids go to college or to save an endangered tree species. You shouldn’t feel like a failure if nothing particular comes to mind when guest lecturers and bosses and TED talk people tell you to follow your passion. Having a quirky mission in life and trying to turn it into money isn’t the only the only thing that makes life enjoyable, and it’s certainly not the only indicator of whether a person is worthwhile.

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