Follow Your Energy, Not Your Passion

The inspiring Zig Ziglar once said:   “When you catch a glimpse of your potential, that’s when passion is born.”

The advice to “FOLLOW YOUR PASSION” is misguided for all kinds of reasons.  Research reveals that only about 20% of people have an innate, pre-existing passion to follow.  The remaining 80% don’t have an innate passion and don’t know how to find one.

Yet so many people spend inordinate amounts of time searching their soul for clues and coming up empty.

“They talk as if their passion were a lost item they could find by digging around in their psyches” says psychologist Martha Beck.

All the soul searching in the world can’t unearth what does not yet exist.

Or as one frustrated twenty-something commented:  “I looked inside my soul and there was nothing there.”

He didn’t know what he was looking for; however he knew how he wanted to feel.  He wanted to be struck by vocational lightning.  He wanted a light bulb to go off inside his head.  He wanted to fall in love at first sight.

That may not be the best idea.  When people fall head-over-heels for something that they know nothing about, they’re falling in love with a fantasy that may be vastly removed from reality.

Eric Chester is the author of Reviving Work Ethic and an expert on the school-to-work transition.  He believes that newcomers to the job market don’t understand the relationship between passion and effort.

In an interview with Forbes Magazine Chester says:

“Passion doesn’t fuel work ethic; work ethic fuels passion.  Most people want to go about it backwards. They want to let their passions propel their efforts. They want an emotion-driven life, but our emotions don’t always lead us where we need to go or keep us where we need to be.

You won’t produce heat in your fireplace by saying, ‘Once there’s a fire, I’ll put in some logs.’”

The Passionistas (Romantics who are passionate about passion) believe that love conquers all.  But all the passion and enthusiasm in the world can’t overcome a lack of talent.  In the work world it’s necessary to deliver something of value that other people are willing to pay for.  If the only people who are willing to fork over their cash for the fruits of someone’s labor are family and friends, then their work doesn’t have any market value.  (On the plus side: They are blessed with supportive family and friends.)

Marc Andreessen is a technology pioneer and venture capitalist.  “Mr. Silicon Valley” has been outspoken in his belief that ‘contribution’ is more important than passion.  He believes that too many people are pursuing uber-competitive fields that they aren’t qualified for.

“Whatever you do,” he wrote in a series of Tweets on the subject “Don’t follow your passion.”

Georgetown Prof. Cal Newport echoes Andreessen in his belief that contribution is more important than passion.

“The problem with the passion mindset is that it leads people to approach their work asking, What can the world offer me?  The better question is, What can I offer the world?”

In his book Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You Newport argues for a mastery-centric approach to career satisfaction that utilizes a craftsman’s mindset.

“Passions don’t come before skills,” Newport explains. “That’s often a roadblock — it’s hard to get around this idea that we all have a preexisting strong passion, and it’s just whether or not we follow it.”

“Mastery precedes passion.”

Writing in his blog “Don’t Follow Your Passion, Follow Your Effort,” gazillionaire Mark Cuban says:

“’Follow Your Passion’ is easily the worst advice you could ever give or get.

1.  When you work hard at something you become good at it.

2.   When you become good at doing something, you will enjoy it more.

3.   When you enjoy doing something, there is a very good chance you will become passionate or more passionate about it.

4.   When you are good at something, passionate and work even harder to excel and be the best at it, good things happen.

Don’t follow your passion, follow your effort. It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it.”

While there’s definitely merit to what these men are saying, they don’t have a career counselor’s perspective.  As someone who has worked with midlife career changers for decades, I can say with absolute certainty that it is possible to excel at something that isn’t your passion.

For some people it may make more sense to “Follow your energy.”  When an activity is naturally energizing it, too, has great potential to ignite a passion.  As an added benefit, it can help sustain momentum and prevent burnout.

In their wildly popular course Designing Your Life Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dale Evans introduce design-thinking into the career equation.  They encourage their students to use an iterative, trial-and-error process to determine their best choices.

They argue that “Follow your passion” is destructive advice (once again) because research shows that very few people have an innate passion to follow.   They encourage their students to experiment with different options in order to “work their way into” their passion.

In an intensely heated LinkedIn debate (among career counselors and coaches) an overwhelming majority of the people responding were dogmatic in their defense of passion.  If there’s strength in numbers the Passionistas have a mountain of support for their belief that passion is the key to just about everything — from wine and cheese to world peace.

Perhaps the solution is something less emotionally frenetic.  New York Times columnist David Brooks never uses the word passion when talking about work.  And yet he is 100% sold on the possibilities of love.  He recommends this thoughtful approach:

  1. Make a short list of your vocational loves.  (For him that was playwriting, politics and writing.)
  2. Establish your priorities.
  3. Reality test your choices.

When you can write that list in order, you have your answer.

I admire David Brooks greatly.  But I’m not 100% sold on the idea that you have to choose and commit to a singular passion.  It has become much more acceptable for people to have multiple careers,  sequentially and/or simultaneously.

What’s matters most is that you find a decision-making style that’s genuinely right for you.  Not everyone will approach the challenge in exactly the same way.  Nor will everyone be looking for the same exact feeling.

Writer Laurie Watel describes her experience this way:  “It’s like finding the best friend that you never knew you had.”