Please, Don’t Follow Your Passion

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As it turns out, telling young people; or anyone in fact struggling to find a direction for their career, to just follow their passion, isn’t really very useful advice, and in fact, may well be harmful.

Before I go on I must confess, I’ve said this in the past when counselling students, but to be honest, it never really felt right. In saying this to them it was my hope that I could get them to seriously consider what was really important to them; what they really cared about. As it turns out I was close, but I was missing something very important.

In a recent Globe and Mail article there is reference to a study which found that only 4% of university graduates had a passion that was career-related. The research was done by a Canadian psychologist who surveyed 600 university students and found that 84% did in fact have a passion, however these passions had nothing to do with careers, but rather revolved around activities like dance, hockey, skiing, reading and swimming. This research would suggest that telling people to follow their passion when most don’t have one, is like putting the cart before the horse- useless.

The same article references a Yale Professor, Amy Wrzesniewski, whose researched also makes us re-think the role of passion in finding a career. Through her research she determined there were three classifications of work:

  • Job – a way to pay the bills
  • Career – a path to increasingly better work
  • Calling – work that is important to an individual’s life and a vital part of their identity

Ms. Wrzeniewski’s research found that the strongest predictor of people seeing their work as a “calling” was time. Her conclusion was that the happiest, most passionate employees were those who had been doing their job the longest. As the article concludes, passion is a product of work and not a driver.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this I had an epiphany of sorts. It made so much more sense to be telling people who are in the early stages of their career journey, struggling to find their direction, that finding their passion or calling is in fact the end goal of this journey, rather than the starting point. That in reality, finding your calling and passion is a factor of time and nothing else, and the first step of this journey starts with getting in the game – finding that first job, getting experience, learning and growing personally, and constantly building on that experience day in and day out. At some point hopefully, one of these “jobs” will turn into a career, and if their lucky, a path to their calling.

While this all make sense, it’s time to get real! While the process of getting a job, that leads to a career, that hopefully turns into a calling, sounds logical, we all know it’s not that simple. There’s a lot more to it! While I don’t have any research to support this other than years of observation, the reality is that many people never really find their career path, and of those who do, even fewer find their calling. As a business restructuring specialist, I’ve run into this situation many times, because at the heart of every struggling company are a lot of struggling people; people who know that things have to change but have no idea how to change them. For people in this situation, finding their calling, or moving along their career path is the last thing on their mind. Their only concern is keeping their job so they can pay their mortgage and feed their family.

Recognizing that many people never really make the transition from a job to a career, is it really enough for us to simply tell people to get in the game; to work hard, and that everything will eventually fall into place? The answer is of course it’s not, and the main reason – most simply don’t have the skills they’ll need to make the leap from a job to a career, and even less have what it takes to pursue their calling.

There are many who believe that this gap has been created by our universities and colleges who aren’t teaching the skills required to be job-ready. This position was supported in a Globe and Mail article that reported on a poll by Modus Research who interviewed 823 business leaders in Canada about their views on how well Canadian universities are doing in preparing graduates to address their needs. The poll found that only 41% believed they were doing a good job, while 31% said they were doing a poor job. The other 28% were either neutral or undecided. In other words, over 50% didn’t think Canadian universities were doing a good job.

According to Modus, the main concern for those who were unhappy revolved around the same issue- the need to put as much emphasis on the development of the soft skills as they do on technical skills. To further support this position, a study was done at Wake Forrest University to determine the most important competencies that business leaders are looking for when hiring. They are:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Leadership skills and potential
  • Ability to work well with others
  • Adaptability, including dealing with ambiguity
  • People and task management skills
  • Self-management skills

More importantly this Wake Forrest study found that “specific functional expertise” was of only medium importance when hiring. Or in other words, employers ranked the soft skills as more important that the technical skills. To be fair, many universities and colleges are trying to change but many still believe that the acquisition of soft-skills isn’t their responsibility. They believe their main role is to teach students to become critical, independent thinkers, and to encourage them to become life-long learners.

In conclusion, given that there is a gap between the skill that universities and colleges are teaching, and the skills that employers really want, we need to make sure that young people entering the work world are aware of this gap and know that they have to take steps to close it. They need to know that if they don’t close this gap their odds of having a successful, rewarding career are very low, and their chance of finding their true calling is next to nil. So instead of telling people to follow their passion, we should be telling them to go find their passion. To do that we need to reinforce the following:

  1. Make them realize that in most cases they are not job ready. There is still a lot of learning to do. A university or college degree is just the start.
  2. To use their critical thinking skills to learn as much as they can about the skills employers really want
  3. To honestly assess their own soft-skills and where necessary, commit to improving and strengthening these skills through research, courses and active participation
  4. To get in the game and soon as possible. To find a job at whatever level necessary, and to start using their soft skills to transform a simple job into an exciting career

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