“Do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
We’ve all heard this conventional wisdom. Each of us is supposedly destined to enjoy an activity we can make a living doing. Well-meaning family, teachers, coaches, and friends told us that life’s real adventure begins the day we find our passion—or it finds us.
Reality paints a different picture. A recent Gallup poll found that only 15 percent of people enjoy their work. That’s it. Only 15% of people get significant life satisfaction out of what they do for a living.
The “do what you love” platitude has some explaining to do. If everybody knows we’re supposed to find a profession or vocation we enjoy, that number should be 99.99 percent. It’s not. Why?
I’ll tell you:
The problem with the advice to turn your passion into profit is its four subtle but significant assumptions. All four are dead wrong.
- “Do What You Love” Assumption 1: Your passions should make you money.
- “Do What You Love” Assumption 2: The more you love something, the more money you should make doing it.
- “Do What You Love” Assumption 3: The best way to make money is by starting with something you love.
- “Do What You Love” Assumption 4: If you never find what you’re passionate about, you’ll never make it big.
Calling those four assumptions childish would be an insult to children. Even a kid knows they’ve got to do things they’re not “passionate” about, like brushing their teeth and changing into pajamas.
While the assumptions look silly when called out, they sneak past our sensibilities when bound up in a truism like, “Pursue your passion and the money will come.”
Let’s briefly look at why all four assumptions don’t lead to a happier life.
OK, I’m passionate about my woman. We don’t measure the success of our relationship by how much money we earn as a couple. Financial stability is important in a life partnership, sure. Yet nobody dates or marries expecting to make money from the relationship itself. That would just be weird.
What about starting with a passion and seeing where it takes you? Well, several friends of mine run online stores that haul six-figure profit every month. Are they passionate about the products? No. They really don’t care. Some never even used the products they’re now selling before they got into e-commerce.
In fact, I know several online stores where you can get poop sent to people as pranks. Judging by the traffic these stores receive and they prices they charge, converting just 10% of their monthly visitors to customers is an easy 6 figure/yr income–and the conversion is likely more since people don’t just stumble onto a site like this.
Clearly, passion is not a prerequisite for entrepreneurship either. So where does that leave us?
Learning Trumps Passion
Most of us are not fortunate enough to stumble into a labor of love that also happens to make money and enhance our quality of life. That means we need a different way to find work with personal meaning and financial reward.
It turns out, that way has been here all our lives. It’s just gone unnoticed. Somewhere between toddler and teenager, we forgot the obvious: You are more likely to enjoy something you’re good at.
Work may not be fun at first, but we can bring fun into the work as we learn. The more we learn, the better we do, the more we enjoy it. In other words, we discover work we love first learning to do it.
I’d go so far as to say that without learning a new skill, adding to our knowledge, or gaining new experiences, it’s impossible to find our fit. As the subtitle of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You says, “Skills trump passion in the quest for work you love.”
Cal Newport debunks the common belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. He he believes that:
Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.
What’s also obvious (and often unappreciated) is that the only way to get better at something is to spend time being bad at it. You make mistakes, improve, and repeat.
Granted, making mistakes is not something people are passionate about. But to get good enough at something to love it, you have to make a lot of them. The difficulty of chasing passion before skills is now apparent.
The only 2 possible outcomes of chasing your passion
If you spend time looking for something you’re passionate about, you’ll reach one of two possible outcomes.
The first is that you succeed because by chance—highly unlikely.
You just so happen to be at the right place at the right time with the right abilities. Not only do you possess natural talent, you’re also lucky enough to stumble into an opportunity to capitalize on that talent.
These magical alignment stories are so rare they get made into movies. It’s the trope older than Hollywood—an average Joe or Jane comes out of nowhere, shows off their secret talent, and has to juggle the onslaught of fame.
These stories may be motivational but they aren’t realistic. Or, at the very least, they aren’t realistic enough for you to attempt to build a better life around.
While it can be attractive to bet on your own luck, consider this: many common jobs today didn’t even exist fifteen years ago. What potential employers, clients, and customers consider “talent” changes every few years. Trying to monetize your passion may be like waiting for a ship that’s long sailed.
To put this in perspective, I’ll tell you a short story from my days as a math tutor:
A student of mine once said to me, “My iPad is down, so I had to download the book to my smartphone to read it.” No part of that sentence besides “book” existed fifteen years ago. Now, each provides untold opportunities.
Only those who are willing to make mistakes as they learn can pick up the experience needed to get good enough to enjoy it—and make money doing it.
The second possible outcome of pursuing your passion is constant discouragement.
You must stick with something through the shitty parts and learn from necessary mistakes. Otherwise, you’ll never be more than a novice in all trades. Instead of stepping out of your comfort zone and staying there until you get better, you give up way too soon because you equate growing pains with misery. You abandon your goal because improvement is too painful, thus you never fall in love with it.
This response to pain makes sense when you think about it.
Most people who listen to conventional wisdom about work also believe that love never has painful moments. That seems sensible though. After all, if you loved this thing, why would it hurt you? The go-to answer is that it wouldn’t. If it makes you feel bad, it must not be worth pursuing. This conclusion results in giving up on a new skill too soon.
While not all skills are created equal in terms of financial leverage, spending time on a skill and progressing past the novice stage always has a benefit. If you only stick with something when it feels good, you’ll spend your life floating from skill to skill. You’ll be a jack of all trades, but not even moderately skilled at any of them.
Get Curious, Get Better, Get Paid
The missing ingredient in the purposeful work recipe is curiosity.
Let’s make learning for its own sake more important than passion. That’s how you fall in love with someone. There’s just something about the other person that makes you have to know more. That’s how it is with work. Let curiosity about the subject matter carry you.
Curiosity will drive you to do what makes you happy, but you’ll also need grit to stay the course when the learning process gets tough. Angela Duckworth explains why grit helps us develop a positive attitude and will help us find what actually makes us happy:
Grit is important **because it is a driver of achievement and success, independent of and beyond what talent and intelligence contribute. Being naturally smart and talented are great, but to truly do well and thrive, we need the ability to persevere.
Without grit, you’ll never be a happy person, even you have talent. Grit and curiosity will do more to make you happy than talent and luck.
Embrace the learning process, make mistakes, and improve, your abilities will increase. As your increased abilities give you certain advantages, you feel better about yourself and thus your ability. You’re now doing something that makes you happy.
Ultimately, the value of learning is that it allows you to contribute to the world. This contribution makes you feel good about yourself. Then you can be passionate about the skill. If you seek passion first, then you will be disappointed every time the task gets difficult and unpleasant.
A new learning curve is steep but if you don’t endure the initial suffering, you will never be good at anything. The greatest value of learning is that it creates love in yourself. This love, extended to your surroundings, makes the world a better place.
To be a happier person, don’t do what makes you happy
So don’t do what makes you happy. Instead, try your hand (or mind) at something challenging. Or pick up where you left off.
I had a knack for writing as a kid but thought nothing of it until I went back to school for physics. Writing long, complex essays on topics I had no interest in sharpened my dulled abilities. If I wanted my degree, quitting wasn’t an option. So I kept writing.
My professors complimented my papers. A few encouraged me to write outside school. I did. Yesterday, 2.000 people visited my website to read what I’ve written about breaking free from addiction, supporting their dreams with a side hustle, taming destructive thoughts and emotions, and more.
Yesterday like every day, several people reached out to me thanking me for what I wrote. It’s great that my website makes money, but to read how something I wrote changed a person’s life for the better for good . . . there’s nothing else like it. I can honestly say the struggle was worth it.
It can be for you, too, as long as you keep after it.
Stick with something and make the world a better place. The rest is up to you.