Why ‘follow your passion’ is the worst career advice ever

by Nigel Bowen
28 September 2018

I recently read a book and saw a YouTube clip that made me realise I’d long taken an arse-backwards approach to my career. The book’s author and the YouTube talking head were both arguing the same thing: to follow your passion is not an effective way to create a financially viable – or even personally enriching – career. More on that momentarily, but first a personal anecdote.

The unanticipated joys of drudgery

My last job as a wage-slave was at a prestigious magazine. During my time there I got to go out drinking with Christopher Hitchens, interview Matthew Weiner (the creator of Mad Men) and kick back at exclusive resorts frequented by minor royals and major celebrities.

Outwardly, I was living the dream and, sure, the job had its moments. But it also involved working 60-90 hours a week, subsisting on a modest salary, dealing with office politics and having next to no autonomy.

Nowadays, I work for myself and spend my most of time writing about topics such as changes to superannuation legislation, the tax-deductibility of insurance policies and the latest advances in cybersecurity. I haven’t hung out with a famous person or gone on an all-expenses-paid overseas jaunt in half a decade.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I now earn around twice as much and work half as hard as did back in my magazine days. More unexpectedly, I’m much happier than was the case was back then.

Putting the passion cart before the marketable-skill horse

I was inclined to write myself off as a freak until I saw the aforementioned Mike ‘Dirty Jobs’ Rowe clip. Rowe talks about an individual who decided to make a mid-life career change and launched a septic-tank-cleaning business. Rowe relates that this person explained his decision thus, “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed and then I went the opposite way. Then I got good at my work. I began to prosper. Then one day, I realised I was passionate about other people’s crap.”

Yes, I’m aware that the plural of anecdote isn’t data. But the academic research that has been done suggests that the shitflicker and I are the norm rather than outliers. The holy trinity of career satisfaction comprises:

  1. Having some autonomy
  2. Feeling competent
  3. Deriving a sense of relatedness from your labours.

It turns out all those inspirational fridge magnets exhorting you to follow your bliss were wrong. Starting out passionate about your career path isn’t a good predictor of how satisfied you’ll end up feeling about it down the track. Conversely, it’s amazing how much ardour one can develop for seemingly banal tasks that pay well and attract appreciative customers.

The craftsman’s mindset

If you’re reading the Rachel’s List blog, you’ve no doubt opted to follow your passion for being a writer. I’m not going to try to convince you to transition into the sewage business. But I am going to suggest you consider exploring writing opportunities you’re not (currently) passionate about.

Cal Newport, the author of the aforementioned book, suggests embracing a craftsman’s rather than a passion mindset. The passion mindset is all about what the world can offer you (e.g. exotic famils, convivial chats with celebrities, the opportunity to set the political agenda, a front-page byline). The craftsman’s mindset is about what you can offer the world. A craftsman (craftsperson?) focuses on acquiring rare and valuable skills without worrying too much about whether exercising those skills fills them with a warm and fuzzy sense of self-realisation. Or results in admiring glances from friends, family members and peers.

The takeaway

What Liberal Party Prime Ministers like to refer to as the iron laws of arithmetic mean that chasing after glamour writing gigs – the type many are passionate about – is likely to end in tears.

Granted, a handful of individuals – the Annabel Crabbs, Susan Kurosawas, Kate McClymonts and Helen Garners of the journalistic world – hit the jackpot. Many more – especially following the collapse of the media industry’s business model – end up as underpaid, underappreciated and overworked foot soldiers who’ll never get the big break they’re hoping for. Many, many more fail to get a foot in the door in the first place.

It’s the exceptional winners of the game who get all the attention – not the vastly larger number of frustrated drones or passed-over rejects. The technical term for that is survivor bias and it’s this logical error that explains the persistence and popularity of the ‘Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ credo.

If you believe you can out-compete the starry-eyed, sharp-elbowed multitudes to become one of Australia’s foremost politics/showbiz/travel writers, then more power to you. But you might want to consider heading the opposite direction to the mob and set about transmuting ‘crap’ work into golden business opportunities.

I’ll end with three tips for those willing to countenance a down-to-earth approach to their career goals.

  • Cashed-up banks, super funds and insurance companies spend vast sums on content marketing. Investing a little time and effort into mastering the basics of how banking, superannuation and insurance work can generate a massive ROI
  • As the fourth industrial revolution accelerates, those writers able to explain new technologies in an accessible and engaging manner will be able to name their price. If you’re looking for somewhere to get started, there is plenty of lucrative work available right now for those with an understanding of cryptocurrencies, open banking and Australia’s burgeoning fintech sector
  • As a general rule, the more obscure the industry and dry the content it requires, the more you’re going to be able to charge. As far as I’m aware, there’s no agency or even individual writer that specialises in providing content to this nation’s septic-system providers and cleaners. Whoever seizes that opportunity could feasibly build a six-figure revenue stream almost overnight. It’s still early days for Australia’s content marketing industry, meaning there plenty of blue ocean to splash about in for enterprising types willing to swim outside the flags

Newport ends his book with what he describes as an incredibly subversive idea: “Working right trumps finding the right work”. That has turned out to be my experience. It just might turn out to be yours.

Do you subscribe to the ‘follow your passion and the money will follow’ mindset?

Nigel Bowen

12 responses on "Why ‘follow your passion’ is the worst career advice ever"

  1. Steve Colquhoun says:

    I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to find clients in areas I truly enjoy, and the type which are high on many people’s bucket lists. I’m still trading on some big brownie points earned in my last few full-time gigs, but I know they won’t last forever and eventually I’ll be replaced by younger, pointier-elbowed versions of me. A few weeks ago I started a regular gig that’s a long way removed from the above, and not nearly so shiny, but in which I take a great delight in burrowing into the subject matter and creating something that (I hope) sparkles. Who knows, maybe septic systems are next! Well said, Nigel.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      You can have septic systems, Steve – I will take fintech

  2. This post is full of pragmatic advice which in the real world trumps passion each time. I’m intrigued enough to look into the fintech and insurance sectors. Thanks for a great post Nigel.

  3. Nigel Bartlett says:

    I love this no-nonsense approach to being your own boss in the writing world. I share Nigel’s experience of the misery of working for a glamorous title. Seeing the way he’s built his own niche and thriving business has been inspiring.

    An excellent piece, by someone with an excellent name.

  4. Nigel says:

    Thanks, Steve! Glad to hear you’re doing well since moving on from your erstwhile exalted station in life!

  5. Nigel says:

    There’s gold in them thar fintech hills, Rashida!

  6. Nigel says:

    It’s almost as if we worked at the same ‘glamorous title’, Nigel!

  7. I couldn’t agree more Nigel – especially as another person fortunate(?) enough to write about superannuation… I think #3 in your holy trinity is critical: whether it’s sewerage systems or super, you do have to care about what you write about and feel that it brings value.

  8. Embittered, Mascot says:

    Thanks, Richard. Yep, things like septic systems and super are important and often surprisingly interesting when you drill down into them and realise the impact they can have on people’s lives.

  9. Willow says:

    This is spot-on – I traded being an arts/entertainment editor and news reporter in a major reional daily newsroom for writing in the construction industry [among other things, and yes, there has been the odd thing about septics involved!} It took a few years of really diving into the whole sector and applying the “ëveryone has a story, my job is to make it a really readable one” principle but after a decade of beavering away, I am very content with my gigs and still find new things to get excited about [like the rise of tech in the sector]. I also find it is a sector that isn’t as emotionally draining and fraught as prior lives covering politics, the arts and regular news [ambulance chasing, for example].

  10. Nigel says:

    Thanks for the positive feedback, Willow!

  11. Sarah Jane says:

    This is sound advice for those who are preoccupied with making a lot of money from their passion. But I am uncomfortable with the implication that earning a lot is linked to happiness. For me it is not. There are people who write in fields like social justice, environment and climate change who do so out of a sense of civic duty and a desire to be compelling storytellers to effect social change. For those people, there are other models of work for those who have a desire to write for good. For instance, get a well-paid job in a reliable industry, and write in your spare time – or, simply make do with a modest wage. I do exactly this, and it provides the greatest job satisfaction I’ve ever had. I I am much happier than when I was in a high paid job largely devoid of passion – and I certainly didn’t do my best work in those roles. Many would then say that writing is a hobby for those who don’t make a lot of money out of it, but I disagree. The most important works I have ever completed have been badly paid. So in my circumstance, following my passion is crucial to a happy life, and if I only get paid a modest amount, then it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I also disagree with the maxim that success is measured in material goods. The most successful – and happiest – people I know get by on a meagre wage, achieve incredible things in their lives, and they wouldn’t have it any way. Why does a career have to be lucrative to be desirable? So many times in my life, I’ve been told not to pursue work in a worthy field that I’ll “never get a job in”. I’ve always ignored that advice and have still found decent work. Persistence is the key and it has reaped many great rewards.

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