Popular career advice given by career counselors is to follow your dreams or to follow something you are passionate about—to self-reflect and identify subject matter that drives you. The passion theory suggests planning your career around a passion, an inner motivation, or a desire to do something. The assumption is that your pent-up passion will drive you to succeed. However, there are three problems with betting your future on this approach.
First, no matter how passionate you are about a subject or discipline, there are no guarantees you will succeed. Becoming an astronaut is one of the most popular dream professions, however, it also one of the most selective professions; since 1959, only 330 candidates have been selected for Astronaut Candidate training program. No matter how passionate you are about becoming an astronaut, the odds of becoming one are stacked against you.
Second, many of us never find a passionate career pursuit. You must have an inspiring experience and show self-efficacy before any passion takes root.
Third, it is easy to spend a lot of time thinking about a dream job because you are passionate but then not effectively plan the necessary steps to make it happen. According to a study by Gabriele Oettingen: “When job seekers spend time visualizing their dream job, two years later they are less likely to have found employment in any job.”
Self-exploring subjects and disciplines that you might be passionate about is a worthwhile endeavor and understanding the underlying themes that make you happy makes you wiser. But if you do decide to follow a passion in choosing a career, you should consider the following:
Do you have the necessary skill set? It is crucial to make an initial assessment whether you have the capability to learn the skills necessary to follow your passion because if you do not, you should not make learning them a career pursuit. Many professionals have the passion to be a leader, but most do not have the necessary skills to become one, and not everyone can be a leader.
Reassess yourself each step of the way. If you cannot differentiate yourself from others in the same field or are not effectively learning the skills, you must focus your efforts on something else. It might be difficult to drop a passion after you have already invested time into learning it, so you may want to channel your passion in ways other than a career pursuit. College freshman flock to computer-programming degrees because they are enticed by technology and the abundance of opportunities when they graduate. The first few classes you take in a computer science degree are difficult math courses and theoretical programming courses, and by design they weed out students who will probably not get the coveted computer science degree. Learning skills is a significant investment, so you should cut your losses as soon as possible if you are assured of not succeeding.
Do not internalize failure. One reason why Cal Newport (in So Good They Can’t Ignore You) advises against pursuing a career based on passion is because if you do not succeed, you are left with discontent and disillusionment. You will ask yourself, Why did I not succeed? What should I do now? Becoming a doctor is a popular career dream. Getting into medical school is astonishingly difficult—fewer than 9 percent of medical school applications were accepted in 2011. For the thousands of pre-med graduates who were not accepted to medical school, it is self-defeating to think of their undergraduate degree as a total waste. To overcome this rejection, they should find ways to leverage their current skill set to find other opportunities; consider other medical related occupations that do not require a medical degree, such as selling pharmaceutical equipment. This is an advantage of a skills-based approach: when you think of your professional background as a skill set, you can absorb setbacks by taking your current skills and constructing a plan to move forward.
The passion is not all about you. You want to find a career that adds value to those around you, so you make a positive contribution. It is not all about making you happy. For example, say you have a passion for teaching high school math; you have a strong aptitude for math, however, you cannot engage a classroom of students – they do not understand your examples and find you boring. Instead of forcing your passion on others where it impedes their growth (in this case, learning math properly), you should find another career where you can best use your skills.
Do not sacrifice a stable lifestyle. If you have a stable lifestyle with your current career, you should not drop what you are doing unless you can be assured you can face failure in the pursuit of your passion. You do not want to jeopardize your well-being because of a career passion. Possible barriers in following a passion might be the financial cost of taking courses or simply the loss of income from not continuing your current job. When you provide for a family, it is difficult to decide to go back to college for a degree.
This is an excerpt from the book A Skills Based Approach to Developing a Career. ‘Passion Theory’ is one of four strategies suggested in constructing a skill set during the planning stage of the Skills Based Approach methodology.