When following your passion doesn’t work, do This instead.


“Follow your passion” is common advice these days. It’s good advice if and only if you understand who you are.

Today, I’m going to walk through how it can lead you awry, like it did for me. And I’ll explain why I think focusing on building skills can be a healthier way to look at your career.

I always subscribed to the Steve Jobs view on things, summed up perfectly by this quote.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

I started my software career at Google. But I was never one of those people who knew I wanted to be an engineer from the age of 5. I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t start programming until I was 18, and that was only because I thought computers were marginally cooler than everything else.

So I worked hard, got out of school, and wound up at Google.

Google is a great company, and I would highly recommend working there. You get to play with technology that exists nowhere else in the world, and I worked with some of the brightest people I’ve ever met.

Nevertheless, I was extremely unhappy. I made great money, and I lived a comfortable life, but I was never satisfied. Granted, a lot of this was early 20’s angst. Like most millennials, I was entitled and unwilling to pay my dues. I expected success to come immediately without experiencing the necessary work and pain.

But I was also unhappy because I was working on such small things. Sure, I was working on big name products, but my impact was small, like it would be at any company the size of Google. That’s what you sign up for when you work for a large organization. You get twice the pay for 1/10th the impact.

The obvious solution to this is to go work for a startup. So that’s what I did. I left and founded my own.

I was following my passion right? I was doing exactly what Steve Jobs recommended I do. My passion was entrepreneurship and starting companies.

Or was it?

I wanted to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. I wanted to be the guy who owned the universe, working on “things that matter.” I wanted to be the one with the biggest impact, the one who disrupted an entire industry.

But here’s the problem:

I was miserable again in no time. Now I wasn’t making any money, working 12 hours a day, dealing with all of the sales and marketing I had taken for granted at Google. Depression came calling, and I felt myself sinking lower and lower emotionally.

The so-called “meaningful work” that I was trying to find had evolved into never ending bug fixes in email software. Far from making a dent in the universe, I was bogged down in the day to day of software. The software didn’t feel new and sexy at all. It was the same thing I had done for the large company, just for much less pay.

And what exactly is “meaningful work” anyway? I realized “meaning” is completely subjective. To some people, Facebook is the pinnacle of “good work”, whereas others would argue Facebook is the latest step in the de-evolution of our culture. Apple is the best company in 100 years to some, but to others it’s another signal of our rampant materialism.

So where did I go wrong?

For me, “follow your passion” was not the advice I needed. I should have started with “find yourself” and then maybe I could have discovered my passion from there.

Why did I want to be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg? Why was it not enough to just be me?

When I left Google, I had no idea what I wanted. Sure, I thought I knew, but that wasn’t me. That was the self that thought I needed to be a particular somebody or do certain things in order to gain acceptance in “special” circles.

This is the biggest problem with the “follow your passion” advice.

Most people are just like I was.

They don’t understand who they are or what motivates them.

So when they try to follow their passion, it ends in disaster because they have no idea what their passion actually is. What’s worse is that they think they know! They don’t realize that the “passion” they’re pursuing is some latent crap leftover in their personality from childhood.

Are you living someone else’s life?

Maybe you got into your career because you fear not doing it. You fear what your parents or significant other will think if you quit. You fear the potential loss of status or having to start over.

This fear comes from what psychologists and spiritual people call “the false self.” Ideally, we would all find our “real selves”, but this isn’t easy.

So what do we do? If “follow your passion” is bad advice, is there a better way?

Realize that for many people, passion comes later. It comes after you’re established in a career that pays you well, gives you a lot of validation, gives you a certain amount of control, and leaves you optimistic for the future.

Along these lines, this book resonated with me:

Cal Newport argues that most successful careers are built not on passion, but skills. People with skills get into lucrative positions with a lot of freedom and control. Many times, they never had an innate passion for their job. They didn’t wake up at the age of 5 wanting to be a writer, computer designer, or biology PHD.

They worked hard, achieved success, found themselves in awesome situations and decided they really liked their jobs.

Cal even argues that this is true for Steve Jobs. Arguably, Jobs didn’t have an innate love for computers when he started. He stumbled into it, got some success, and continued on from there.

I know the same applies to me.

Today, I work in another large engineering company – not as large as Google, but with a similar bureaucratic structure. I work on many of the same things as I did at Google.

The difference is that I have 5X the satisfaction.

I built skills that allowed me to jump into a great new position when my company didn’t work out.

As a result, I love programming. Every day, I’m so grateful that I work in software. My hours are fantastic, and I get to sit around solving puzzles all day. I get tons of validation from my group for fixing hard problems.

Imagine that, I went from being one of the most unfulfilled people around to one of the most grateful.

I have a genuine passion for my job now, even when I started passionless, and I completely stumbled into it.

It also doesn’t hurt that I understand myself much better than I did before.

I didn’t need to follow the whole Silicon Valley narrative to get fulfillment. I just needed to figure out myself, accept that person, and realize that he is okay.

This is not a rejection of Silicon Valley. I’m not trying to discourage you from starting your own company. I’ve actually never been so bullish on tech entrepreneurship – whether you’re bootstrapping or raising money or just messing around on the side. There are amazing opportunities out there waiting to be plucked.

But if you find yourself thinking you have to do something because “that’s what you’re supposed to do”, even when you have doubts, then you need to stop for some self examination.

You could benefit from finding a glimpse of “the real you” behind the layers of bullshit that were stacked on by your parents, society, friends and colleagues.

In my case, I had to start a company to strip away some of that bullshit. Maybe you’re the same.

Coming back to the Steve Jobs quote, maybe this is what he meant when he said:

If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it

Ultimately, you won’t know what’s in your heart until you realize who you really are.

Maybe finding yourself and finding your passion are one and the same, but you can’t obtain one without first having the other.

Photo Credit: alemdag