Follow Your Passion? No. Follow The Money

You’ve heard the one about how millenials are entitled, spoiled, terrible as employees, and disrespecting of authority? How we’re all so lazy that many of us still live with our parents and that we all think we’re too good to sort the mail? At Harvard Business Review, Cal Newport argues that it all comes back to our false expectations.

Newport explains that “follow your passion,” became the rallying cry for our generation, but that the phrase creates “an alternate universe where there’s a perfect job waiting for you, one that you’ll love right away once you discover it.” The phrase made it seem like we’d be happy right out of the gates, he argues, but that was never going to be the case.

I think Newport makes a good point, but I think he misses something important by not identifying how this fantasy—that if you follow your passion, happiness and a livelihood will follow suit—pervaded. We were lied to.

You know who told us to follow our passions? Everyone. School. Society. Government. Banks. The people who encouraged us to take out student loans, the people who promised us that we’d have jobs after college with which to pay those loans back, the people who said the economy was going to keep on growing and keep on getting better. I don’t think anyone thought they were lying, but it was a societal lie, based on a broken economy.

Today’s young people made decisions based on a false promise of a false economy that has come crumbling down. I’m not that interested in the narrative that we should blush for being so gullible, hang our heads for being so hopeful. Because not everyone has been hurt by our broken economy. Just those of us who bought into it without the proper safety net.

Newport argues that the conversation about the future needs to change, that “following your passion” is over, that “we need the right direction for investing this energy.” He doesn’t suggest what this direction should be. For many young people, trying to move out of their parents’ houses and scraping enough together to make student loan payments seems to be one direction worth pursuing for now. For others, it’s taking to the streets.


31 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#22)

I actually disagree, and I say this a giant gross pragmatist and capitalist! I think the problem is narrow definition of “passion.” You may love playing baseball, but you probably shouldn’t build your education and career plans around it. Passion means taking into account that a) nobody only loves one thing and b) you should maybe figure out how likely your passions are to ever make money before you pick one.

omgkitties (#206)

@deepomega I agree, in that I don’t see why passion has to mean this all-encompassing burning desire that surely leads to a single path marked ‘ruin’, when it can be tempered with thought and reason.

synchronia (#185)

@omgkitties Yeah, the other problem is that some of your passions might be really obvious (I like animals! -> try to get into veterinary school), while others might take years of working different jobs to reveal themselves (I like being a member of an interdisciplinary team / I like analyzing data for an organization whose mission fits my values / I like being on the road all the time).

My observation is it’s a lot easier to find a job you’ll be happy with long term if you take that kind of process-oriented rather than content-oriented approach to figuring out what work you’re passionate about. Or I guess just read What Color Is Your Parachute!

Best in the accompanying-image game.

My dad always told me this (to worry about money instead of being happy), actually. He isn’t the most encouraging dude, but I might have taken his advice if he had ever demonstrated it was worth following. Unfortunately he has mostly demonstrated how to be both unhappy AND broke, despite being a lawyer which if I’ve understood my cultural memes right is usually a pretty lucrative career. I don’t think this situation is super common, but I know I at least always figured that I couldn’t do any worse than my parents if I prioritized fulfillment as they never did.

@beatricks@twitter Agreed – I was definitely NOT told to follow my passions by everyone, and often the opposite. It’s not like my parents told me to be unhappy. But my dad wanted me to be employed and smart with money. However, he seemed pretty unhappy with his job all the time, and I vowed as a kid to spend my best years doing something I loved and not saving up for retirement.

Of course, with age I realized my dad was just kind of an unhappy person and it didn’t have much to do with work. I love my job, even though it’s not my passion per se, and one thing you don’t always learn as a kid is that money can bring you a kind of safety and independence that can be a great reward. Not the only one, but still a good reward.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@beatricks@twitter Oh, nowadays there are many, many broke lawyers!

RosemaryF (#345)

As a person from the generation before yours (X), I provide this example.

My grandfather always said, “The world needs ditch diggers. If digging ditches is what will make you happy, then do it.” At no point was there the implication that digging ditches would make someone rich, only that it might make someone happy.

I always understood that money does not follow passion, but a sense of happiness would.

I chose a passion (librarian) without the expectation of money. I happen to have a position that allows me to be happy AND allows me to be relatively comfortable at time. (I can’t fly all over the world on my salary, but I can make a few road trips a year and still pay my mortgage.) Not everyone is so lucky.

@RosemaryF See this is the sort of rebuttal that is needed to all those people who say our expectations were too high. Expecting to follow your passion and be employed in some capacity that allows you not to starve is different than thinking following your passion “entitles” you to be rich/a rock star/condescending accusation/etc etc etc.

Follow your passion was always the advice I got from my parents, partly because my mother was actively prevented from doing so by her parents and always regretted it. I don’t regret the path I took (BA & MA in things that interested me, lots of cool experiences, etc) but I am in a lot of debt and a job that isn’t exactly fulfilling. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bum me out a lot. But it was literally the only interview I got out of the 50+ applications I put out. Now I don’t know what to say to my youngest sister, who is in high school and trying to figure out what path to pursue.

sony_b (#225)

I have written and deleted at least five versions of a comment. I really struggle hard with the general slams on millenials. Every older generation has some version of ‘these-kids-today…’, but then I interview them for jobs and it’s really scary. They’re not stupid, they’ve just got no hustle. I think the next (paranoid, helicopter-parented) generation is going to be in even deeper shit, regardless of the economy.

I’ve been reading Cal’s blog, Study Hacks, for a long time now. I have issues with him, but I think he’s right about a lot of this stuff, and I think he agrees that you were lied to. I also think his solution is great, but only for a very select, privileged few. His idea of being to good to be ignored, and his methods for getting there are useful, but really only in tech or in the higher echelons of white collar work, tech, academia, and athletics. It works for me, but it doesn’t really work for the vast majority of people for whom being the best secretary or sandwich maker or nurse or mid-level office drone isn’t ever going to really move them beyond that position career-wise.

EM (#1,012)

@sony_b Really?? I find that surprising. I feel like with the increasing importance in technology and having a positive digital footprint, my fellow Gen Yers place a lot of emphasis on self-promotion, diverse skills, adaptability, and self-reliance. I feel like the shift from a paradigm where people could expect a single career for their whole working life to one where people change careers and need to be flexible and continually learning has made Gen Y’ers super motivated. But that might just be my own circle?

sony_b (#225)

@Michelle I think it is your circle. I did paint with a broad brush there. There are certainly individuals who do everything you’re saying. My BF is one of them (he’s 30, I’m 40), so I do really believe that motivated Ys and millenials exist. :)

They just seem really few and far between. I work in tech, and I hire technical/engineering staff, administrators, and interns to work for me. (Not a huge number, my current team is six, no interns, but that’s still hundreds of resumes and interviews over the years.) The number of young, digitally savvy, degreed people who come to interviews never having looked at the website that it would be their job to help manage is astounding. I’ve also seen quite a few who are certainly motivated, but so naive and overconfident to the point of narcissism (that is a fun package deal) that I couldn’t imagine hiring them.

I’ve also been a teacher in the fairly recent past. My comment about the next generation is really rooted in that experience. My last classes of kids are now graduating from high school and the parental over-involvement was over the top insane. For every sensationalized thing I read in the Atlantic or New Yorker I have an equivalent helicopter parent story of my own. These kids are smart. they are nice. They do their best. Their parents do everything for them and it’s crippling. They aren’t allowed to fail so they have no idea what that experience is like or how to handle it.

It’s hard to say. I think that one of the things I mentioned in my first comment is true for every generation – there are a privileged few people who get to a place where advice like Cal’s makes sense. You’re probably one of them. I suspect readers of this site are likely to be, across the board. You’re seeking. You’re here, engaged in conversation and thinking about this stuff. It’s a self-selected audience participating in the discussion.

I think the complete and utter fuckedupedness of the economy makes everything worse. If there were jobs to be had at every level I wouldn’t have nearly as many totally inappropriate applicants to sort through, and there would be feeder positions I could pick and promote from. So, I will grant that the global money situation is influencing my opinion.

Megano! (#124)


novembertea (#2,203)

@Megano! My thoughts exactly…

Megano! (#124)

@novembertea I tried to articulate something more, and just couldn’t.

EM (#1,012)

My parents encouraged us to follow our passions in so far as learning goes, with the understanding that most degrees are teaching transferable skills rather than careers– so they didn’t care what I studied, as long as I was learning how to work, manage my time, research, analyse, and think critically. They were also in a position to ensure we could get through school without debt, which I know makes me incredibly fortunate.

I do think the illusion that we should be able to have the career we want without doing the boring, tedious leg work is a persistent myth among people in my generation. I think this is maybe perpetuated too by the whole Facebook tendency to try and make your life look as ideal and interesting as possible, all the time; it’s easy to feel dissatisfied with the boring parts of your job when everyone is making their career trajectory look fascinating and impressive on LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter/etc

sony_b (#225)

@Michelle I think that pop culture is really responsible for the myths about what 20-something life “should” look like more than parents. Things like Monica Gellar’s apartment and all of the YA soaps that came after the original 90210 showed a lifestyle that just is never going to happen for 99% of the audience who watch them. TV has always been aspirational, but a lot of that aspiration was sold to adults until the 80s when they figured out selling to kids was a better long term marketing strategy.

For many of the people I know, it didn’t really come together until our mid-thirties, when we could afford to buy real furniture that we didn’t have to assemble, got settled into a career, etc. But we also didn’t really expect it to happen much sooner?

oiseau (#1,830)

I got a degree in something I somewhat naively thought would be lucrative (economics)(which you need like a PhD in to have it be truly lucrative), even though my passion is for art and languages. I have a shitty job right now, so choosing something more practical hasn’t paid off so much yet but I think there’s always the ability to evolve over time. You’re not stuck doing one thing for all of eternity.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

I never studied and don’t have student debt and also have a slightly crappy/minimum wage job.
But I don’t have to do it forever – I’ve realised that what I value the most is a positive working environment and enough money to support myself. I can honestly get passionate about almost any career that will do these two things for me (hooker being pretty much the only exception, though I think you’d be hard pressed to find any positivity in a brothel).

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

I never get tired of responding to these condescending articles. First of all, I’m pretty sure that an entire generation can’t actually be “wrong” about their approach to life and careers. We’re responding to the world we were raised in and unfortunately that’s a world in which a lot of expectations were fostered which would turn out to be false. However, I think the most frustrating part of this narrative is this recurring argument that young people thing they’re too good/creative/winsome/charming to climb a career ladder. To start in the mail room as it were. Listen, point me toward the mail room, no problem. The issues is that sorting the mail doesn’t pay enough to support any lifestyle other than living at home. As a matter of fact, sorting the mail is probably now the job of the unpaid intern whose parents can afford to to support him while he climbs the first few runs on the old corporate ladder. It’s not the work I take issue with. It’s the lack of potential. I don’t mind starting at the bottom but I can’t stay at the bottom indefinitely because there are boomers parked in every other position unwilling to make room. Work is one thing, but i’m not convinced that investing in this system is going to pay any kind of dividend in the future.

wearitcounts (#772)

@EvanDeSimone THIS. yes. i started at entry-level and now am just above. i have applied for a great many opportunities above where i am now, but guess who has/is getting those jobs? overqualified people slightly (or much) older and slightly (or a lot) more experienced than me who are no longer a flight risk because with this economy, they are happy to do that work. i take no issue with making an upward trajectory from the bottom, hitting every point. the issue is — all the points are suddenly taken.

KPeeps (#1,140)

@EvanDeSimone YES. I’ve never met anyone in my generation that has said, I’m too good for this work. I have met plenty of people that say I CANNOT afford to take this job because I have to eat.
Nearly every one of my peers has taken some kind of unpaid internship. They’ve all got loans. I graduated from my journalism school about five years ago with 20 other people. I can think of one or two who still have a jobs at an actual news outlet and do old fashioned reporting. Everyone is hustling, doing freelance work, blogging, documentaries, or they’ve given up the journalism dream altogether and moved on to something else.

novembertea (#2,203)

I’m recently graduated, 45k in gvt student loan debt, jobless, living with my parents, and my dad just got laid off today.

How was YOUR day?

wearitcounts (#772)

@novembertea i’m so sorry, that’s terrible.

Hey guys the early 1990s just called, they want their perceptions about twenty-somethings, their job market, their Middle East wars, and their fears of Asian economic domination back.

@stuffisthings They said we can keep Will Smith though.

OllyOlly (#669)

Sweeping generalizations aside, I think abandoning passions is dangerous. My family has always tried to follow a passion meets pragmatism appraoch. My brother wanted to study art, but my parents told him he must have a plan for getting a job if he wants to (since we are a lucky few whose parents pay for college), so now he double majors in art and environmental engineering. I think his artist background will bring him some unique skills for solving practical engineering problems.

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

The thing about passion v. pragmatism is that there needs to be balance. Part of growing up means that one realizes that it’s very difficult to have it all at once; at some point you’re going to have to figure out what’s most important to you – do you want to live comfortably now or is it more important to pursue the passion full-time?

I think part of the issue with the current generation taking issue with the “we were told to follow our passions and the money would follow!” message isn’t a generational malaise but more of people being at an age where they haven’t realized that one often can’t have it all at once and are figuring out what their priorities are; I bet that the current Millenials will say the same thing about the next generation in a few decades. As someone commented in a previous post, you can have a job to pay the bills while pursuing your passion on the side. It’s only a job. It’s not permanent and it’s not your life.

(* This assumes that someone is financially able to think about pursuing one’s passion, etc.)

probs (#296)

There’s some element of truth to the dude’s argument, but Logan’s on point that these ideas had to come from somewhere. Who were the bad guys in every movie from the 80s and 90s? Money-oriented people. What was the fatal flaw of every dad in media in that time? Worked too much. What embodied existential hell? Cubicles. So yes, there was some dark recess of my brain that was surprised when I took an office job and discovered that people are no less human/beautiful/interesting/real because they work in a cubicle and drink a lot of coffee and talk about coffee, instead of skipping off to paint in a cottage by a meadow just as the credits start rolling to ensure that economic reality never dirties the fantasy.

But mostly it’s just dumb. I dont’t know a single person who hasn’t or isn’t working a job because it is a job.

never (#2,071)

Should I be angry if someone tries to follow her passion for a bit, starves, and decides to try doing something more lucrative? Or follows her passion and does end up being innovative, a boon to society, drenched in money? How is the journey of following one’s passion and either sticking with it or changing tracks only applicable to one generation? Why would it be a social ill? Isn’t that something young people have done in every generation?

Anyway, if the Millenials are so maddeningly footloose and fancy-free, doing whatever non-skill-based thing they feel like and expecting fabulous wealth to follow, what’s up with the glut of broke young lawyers?

I think that it’s a shame that the cost of living is so high that money has to be such a large priority in the vast majority of people’s lives. I wish that we were less money-obsessed and that idealism were taken more seriously. But in the current climate, that’s like asking a heroin addict to stop being so fixated on shooting up.

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