“Follow your passion” is a phrase often given as career advice to people getting into a field. I don’t like the this advice. It sets high expectations for someone trying to break into a field and it has the potential to lead to burnout. Note the second definition about in the image above.
There’s nothing wrong with using passion as motivation, but that same emotion has a dark side. Instead of following a passion, bring it to your daily work. Look for value and unique skill sets that will provide a positive impact.
Following your passion isn't helpful advice
I first started to question “follow your passion” early in 2015. It was while listening to an episode of the NPR TED Radio Hour titled success. In that episode there was plenty of talk about following your passion for success. Well, except for Mike Rowe. For those unfamiliar with Rowe, he had a TV show titled Dirty Jobs. Rowe would go with a film crew to various locations to work for a day doing a less than glamorous job.
In his TED talk he described the people doing these dirty jobs day-to-day as happy. No one follows their passion to be septic tank cleaner or a road kill highway picker upper or a bait seller. Yet, that's what these people did and they were successful. 40-50 of the 200 people he followed around were multi-millionaires. He suggests that instead of following a passion, bring passion to the work.
A recent Art of Charm podcast featured Cal Newport and he has another angle. In the episode he debunks the “follow your passion” advice. The people that give the advice usually give it because they can't explicitly explain why they've been successful. He says, instead of following your passion you should let your passion follow you. He talks about finding the unique skill and valuable skills in your daily work that makes you stick out. What creative solutions can make systems and processes run more efficiently. That's what these successful people have found in the work they do or the content they create.
Reflecting on my career
Coming out of high school I was set to go into the Army as a paralegal. Instead I ended up in the Navy as an electronics technician, after my contract fell through. Would I be more or less happy in that role? I don't know. I'd like to think I would be just as happy in a legal career as I am in my IT career. I've seen people passionate about computers and I can safely say I am not one of them. What I've enjoyed is solving problems. Building new programs and systems and optimizing ones already in place.
In my daily work I've looked for ways to make the most impact and make things run better:
I’ve implemented a remote access and software deployment solution for the help desk. They had to manage computers all over the state. Before the solution they had to travel for the simplest problem.
I also took our unused IDS solution and setup a one-man security operations center (SOC). Computers I found talking to countries outside of the US I had a technician investigate for malware.
I’ve cleaned up content filtering rules and rebuilt servers to interfere with operations less. That led to management tasking me with important projects. Implementing security in the software development life cycle (SDLC) process. Hardening our computers and securing our websites. I didn't follow my passion to any of those areas, I brought it with me. What's allowed me to be successful is following through on tasks and improving what's already in place.
Of all the work I've done, I found that I really enjoyed working in application security. If there’s one area I would love to move into it would be application security. Yet, I also enjoy building new programs and making a positive impact. I currently work in a SOC. It’s not the most exciting experience for me, but I’m learning what I can and trying to improve or build out new processes. I’m trying to learn the nuance of a SIEM and the challenges of being a SOC analyst. I’m bringing my passion with me and learning the skills that provide value to the organization.
It’s okay to be in a field and not be passionate. Success isn't found by following your passion. It's by bringing it with you. If you’re among those that are passionate about a particular field, that's awesome. I know a couple people like that and they live and breath the work day and night. I contest that’s a rare thing.
For the rest of us look for enjoyment and fulfillment in everyday work. Try to identify what can make the most impact in your organization and your career. Bring the passion or let it follow you. Success will be sure to follow.