Follow Your Passion is Bad Advice Unless...Is ‘follow your passion’ a relatively new concept? I never heard this when I was a high school student in the late 80s. My parents encouraged me to study engineering or medicine. These careers usually pay enough to live a comfortable lifestyle.

Their advice was to follow a good steady paycheck because life will be easier. They worked minimum wage jobs for years and became small business owners when I was in high school. Our family finances were unstable for most of my youth. For them, a stable paycheck was a much higher priority than passion. Mrs. RB40 told me it was the same with her. Her parents told her to study and get a good job. I’m pretty sure no adult in my youth ever uttered the word passion.

Fortunately, I was good at math and science so I studied engineering in college. It worked out well for the most part and I found a stable, well-paying job after I graduated. Engineering was never a big passion, but I was competent at the technical part of it. Personally, I think ‘do what you’re good at’ is better advice than ‘follow your passion’. At least, you have a talent base to build on. Today, we’ll explore why following your passion is bad advice. There is an exception, of course. Read until the end to see the “unless…” part.

*Originally written in 2018. Updated 2020. Congratulations to all the graduating class of 2020! It’s a tough year to graduate from college, but don’t be discouraged. It will get better. Good luck!

Passion doesn’t last

The first problem with passion is that it rarely lasts. Passion is like teenage love. It’s fleeting. I’ve been passionate about many things. Nothing really stuck, though. Here are a few of my past obsessions.

  • Video games – What kid doesn’t love video games? I used to play for hours and I loved it. Now, I only play casual games on my phone occasionally. Video games are fun, but it takes way too much time. Besides, my thumbs and shoulders can’t take that kind of abuse anymore.
  • Ukulele – I got into the ukulele in the early 2000s. The ukulele was having a resurgent and you heard it everywhere. I had 10 ukes at one point and even started a uke enthusiast group. Learning to play was a lot of fun, but the passion fizzled out after 5-6 years. Now I only have 2 ukes and rarely play.
  • Watching the Portland Trailblazers meltdown – The year 2000, the Blazers were up 15 points in the 4th quarter against the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. For the next 10 minutes, they choked completely and missed shots after shots. I was watching this game with a bunch of friends and it was unbelievable. I followed the Blazers passionately for a few more years and then lost interest. It’s not much fun anymore.
  • Reading Sci-Fi books – Well, I still love reading a good science fiction book, but I don’t know how you can follow that passion into a career. Currently, I’m reading the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie. It’s great so far.

These are just a few examples. I’m sure you have a bunch of passions that you left behind also. People change and our passion evolves over time. Maybe your passion is traveling the world, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be much fun once you’ve on the road nonstop for 5-6 years. It’ll get old.

Everybody has similar passions

The thing about passion is that everybody has similar ones. Most of us like these activities:

  • Sports – running, rock climbing, and other active pursuits
  • Leisure activities – listening to music, watching movies, and playing games
  • Making music – playing the guitar and other instruments
  • Reading – novels, blogs, magazines, etc…
  • Creating art – painting, photography, woodworking
  • Learning – taking classes, watching useful videos on YouTube, studying
  • Travel – locally and internationally.

Everybody is passionate about these things. However, there are relatively few decent-paying jobs in these industries. You’d have to be a talented musician AND be very lucky to make a good living. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you can succeed in that field. The competition is fierce for those few jobs. It takes extraordinary talent, a lot of luck, and years of hard work to succeed in those fields.

Passion doesn’t translate well into a career

Lastly, passion just doesn’t translate well into a career. I still love reading a good book, but I have no idea how to make money with that passion. I guess I could try going to work in the publishing industry or something like that. However, that doesn’t sound fun at all. Reading for leisure is great. Reading to make a living seems much more tedious.

As for those other things on my list above, I’m just not very talented at any of them, although I recently heard there are professional computer game players now. Elite gamers fill stadiums and fans watch them play just like any team sports. That’s insane. Apparently, it’s called eSports. Wow, I was born too early to give this a go.

Follow your success

A piece of advice I like better is to follow your success. When you’re successful at something, you’re more likely to develop a passion for it. Let’s look at blogging for example.

I started blogging about early retirement in 2010 and I spent a ton of time learning the ropes. The first 6 months were tough because I didn’t have any readers. However, I networked with other bloggers and slowly increased my readership. After a year or so, I started making a little income from blogging and this kept me motivated. Our readership peaked in 2014 and it’s been mostly flat since.

RB40 blog income history

Blogging was a fun hobby that turned into a passion after I had some success at it. If the readership and income didn’t improve, I probably would’ve lost interest and moved on to something else. Interestingly, I never liked writing essays when I was in school. English was my second language and I still have some trouble with grammar. That’s why I need Mrs. RB40 to edit every post before I publish it. I’m a lot better writer now because I had a lot more practice.

Coincidently, I haven’t looked at the stats in a long time. Retire by 40 has been viewed almost 12 million times. That’s amazing!

*If you’re curious about blogging check out my tutorial – How to Start a Blog and Why You Should.

Anyway, I think it’s better to try a few different things. If you’re successful, then stick with it. If not, then move on to something else after a few years. I had a graduate degree in engineering and I enjoyed it for a while. However, I moved on when the career wasn’t a good fit anymore.

So here is the ‘unless’. Follow your passion is bad advice unless you succeed. Success trumps everything. 🙂

Another alternative

Alternatively, it is much easier to follow your passion if you’ve reached financial independence already. Money doesn’t matter as much at that point. You can pursue your passion and do whatever you want.

Ok, it’s your turn. What do you think about the ‘follow your passion’ advice? Did you get this advice when you were young?

Image credit Florian Schneider

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