The Follow Your Passion Myth

When I listened to a podcast in which Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) debunked the “follow your passion” mantra that seems to make its way into every graduation speech, I was elated.

Finally. Someone said it. Following your passion is not the be all and end all of a fulfilling career and a meaningful life.

I believe the “follow your passion” myth has severely handicapped high school and college students as well as young professionals; they have been indoctrinated with the belief that the only road to success and happiness is the unwavering pursuit of a self-identified, well-defined passion. Indeed, Gilbert states that imploring people to follow their passion can trigger feelings of stress and pressure for those who have not yet identified all that passion implies: a calling, intense conviction and overmastering feeling. I doubt the majority of 18 – 25 year olds, who have a limited amount of life experiences, can identify and commit to a career path that will steadily fuel and fulfill them for the next 40+ years.

Here’s a case in point: When my daughter was 17 years old and applying to college, she declared her passion for make-up artistry and pursued it with a vengeance. She attended the best make-up design school in the country and worked ~80 hours per week to earn her certifications in beauty, editorial and special effects make-up, all while pursuing a college degree in media and communications (her “back-up plan”). She worked at countless shows during NYC Fashion Weeks, served as the key make-up artist on the set of independent films and professional theatre, and designed & executed editorial make up for social media photo shoots (her work is pictured above). By all accounts, she was a successful make-up artist at age 19. Through grit, determination and natural creative talent, her passion had come to life more quickly than she had expected.

At age 20, exhausted from her dual life as a professional make-up artist and college student, she began agonizing over her decision to follow her passion. Overwhelmed by feelings of defeat, my daughter reluctantly told me that she doubted that make up artistry was her true passion. My first reaction was, “How great you know this at 20!” – my response came from seeing too many friends doggedly pursue a career path that they believed reflected their passion, only to find discontent or even misery at the end of 10+ grueling years in their chosen field. I admired my daughter’s self-awareness and courage to admit she had misinterpreted her passion.

Yet she was devastated. She was fraught with regret that she had “wasted” years of her life pursuing a passion that would not result in a long-term career. I explained to her that her course study and work experiences had strengthened her character and her capabilities. Her demonstrated skills in creative expression, grace under pressure, work ethic, collaboration and client service – just to name a few – could be applied to any career. In addition, her artistic mastery coupled with her social media savvy fueled her success as an Instagram micro-influencer (shameless plug for her: Insta > @lucymassadartistry). Her role as a micro-influencer afforded her free luxury beauty products and earnings for sponsored posts. While she was relieved to hear my perspective, she still felt overwhelmed with the uncertainty of what would guide her career path.

My daughter’s experience solidified my belief that people should not be consumed by the need to identify and pursue their passion. My advice: find a job that involves activities that you can be passionate about.

For example, my passion most certainly did not steer me to the best decade of my career as head of human capital at an asset management firm. I found my way there through an earnest desire to keep learning, a tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to take a leap of faith and a growing confidence that I could figure stuff out. Human capital at AB was not my passion, but it was a role that involved many things I was very passionate about including: driving change that had a meaningfully positive impact on the firm’s business and employees, developing team members to maximize their potential beyond their own expectations, facilitating productive team dynamics that allowed people to deliver more collectively than they would individually. As my career progressed, I became passionate about diversity, particularly gender diversity and fueling women to be their best selves for the world.

If I had been pressured to follow my passion at a young age, I would have pursued music and singing. This would have likely resulted in a first place win at a county fair karaoke contest, and that would have been the highlight of my career. Seeking roles that involved activities that I was passionate about has resulted in opportunities that allowed me to contribute to making a business better while having a positive impact on others. My focus on being passionate about what I was doing, and deliberately not pursuing my passion, resulted in a role that brought great meaning to my work, and therefore to my life.

In summary, here is my advice to those getting frustrated in the pursuit of your almighty passion: Do a self-check: Do you have a myopic view (i.e., are you thinking it’s your passion or bust)? And if you do, how are you feeling about your future? If you open your mind to countless activities that you can be passionate about, your future will feel full of endless possibilities, rather than a possibility of the end.

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