Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jennifer Gresham of Everyday Bright.
Your soul dies a little every time you drive to work.
The solution sounds so easy: “follow your bliss.”
But you don’t get far before you discover more questions than answers: How do I know if something is really a passion? What if I don’t have a passion? What if I have too many? Am I dooming myself to a life of poverty if I follow my passion once I find it?
It’s not that you don’t want to live a life of passion, but you’re scared. What if it doesn’t work out?
One of two things happen when people get really scared. Either they become depressed and hopeless, deciding the whole passion idea is a crock. Or they rashly quit their job and figure the rest will work itself out.
I hate to admit it, but I’ve actually done both. Relatively early in my career, I gave up on doing something different than what I’d majored in. I had a PhD in biochemistry and it felt like too much of a waste to do something else. Besides, I was relatively good at it.
Later, as the urgency to live the life I wanted became too great to ignore, I quit my job before I had any idea what I wanted to do instead. It was scary. We suddenly had one sure salary and three mortgages to pay. Looking back, I see I made the whole process harder than I had to.
Most of the time we hear about the success stories, and while they might provide inspiration, they can also reinforce some romantic illusions about career change that aren’t helpful. If you’re not careful, it’s quite possible to find yourself in yet another near miss of a job, wondering what went wrong.
We can’t let that happen to you.
Below I provide the nuance you need to make sense of the common advice to “follow your passion,” explaining the most common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Pitfall #1: Much ado about passion
A lot of people worry they don’t have any passions because there’s nothing that occupies their every waking thought or makes them quiver with excitement. But there’s no absolute level of emotion that everyone needs or is capable of experiencing. It’s a little like dating. Some people get consumed by their relationships, others may enjoy a sense a peace and contentment. One is not better than the other.
Passion is just a popular (and more concise) way to refer to activities we’re intrinsically motivated to perform. As Daniel Pink says, the things “that matter, that we like, and that are meaningful.” Don’t make passion more complicated than it is.
Pitfall #2: Going in circles
Once you open up the definition of passion, you may worry you have too many and can’t choose among them. There are two potential solutions:
- Find a way to creatively combine one or more of them
- Realize that intrinsic motivation to perform must also be accompanied by the motivation to master. If you don’t like to read about it, talk about it, or learn about it in your free time, it’s probably better as a hobby.
But realize that passion isn’t the whole picture either. Finding the right career is looking for the sweet spot between your passions, your personality, and your strengths. If you’ve done the above and you’re still going in circles, you’re probably putting too much weight on one of the three, instead of looking at jobs that connect them.
Pitfall #3: Anti-passions
Most careers are made of more than one activity. When considering whether a “passion” could become a dream job, break down your new career into all the activities that will be required, with some sense of how often they’re performed.
Artists need to enjoy marketing and sales if they’re going to make a living. Lawyers need to be researchers and often skilled bureaucrats. If a passion-turned-career involves too much time doing activities you despise (what I call “anti-passions”), it’s also likely to be the anti-heaven of what you were envisioning.
Pitfall #4: The “Do what you love and the money will follow” mantra
In many respects, I like this mantra. I mean, too often we chase after jobs that pay a lot and hope we like them. I much prefer the idea of chasing after jobs we love and hope they pay a lot.
But the starving artist stereotype exists for a reason. Many will follow their passion and earn a lot less than they did before, and many will do it nearly on purpose. It’s easy to argue, when you do what you love, that you don’t really care if you get paid for it. Believe me, I have said this to myself more than once since quitting, as bizarre as it sounds.
Don’t pity them (or me) for a minute. Although we may not assign it a monetary value, happiness is worth something. You just have to decide how much it’s worth to you.
Pitfall #5: Moving too fast
This pit is the widest and the deepest. Many good dreams have gotten lost here.
Let’s go back to our dating analogy. Few would advise you to marry someone you just met a couple of weeks ago. It’s called the honeymoon phase, when you tend to see what you want to see instead of what’s really there.
And yet people do that with their careers all the time. They translate a love of coffee into a dream of owning their own cafe. Or a passion for organization into a wedding planning business.
Do – your – homework.
If I had just one message for those that would prefer their passion didn’t blow up in their face, this would be it. Remember what we said about passion in the first place: if you’re not willing to talk about it, read about, and learn about, don’t turn it into your livelihood.
What does this mean practically? You should read at least 3 books on the career you’re considering, talk to at least 5 people who are doing it now, and if you’re thinking of starting your own business, I recommend you have at least 3 paying customers before making the leap to full-time.
I realize that “practical passion” must sound pretty strange. Foreign, even.
But when you wake up in the morning, excited at another day where you get paid to live your dream and change the world, all at the same time, I promise, it will feel pretty darn wonderful.
About the author: Jennifer Gresham is a PhD scientist turned writer and coach, author of the popular career blog Everyday Bright. If you’d like to learn more about what it takes to follow your passion practically, check out her free videos on career change.