Why Passion Is Meaningless To Career Success
Until you've done anything
Let’s put passion on trial.
Some people tell us to follow our passion, and it’ll carry us to career success. Others say it’s the worst advice ever.
Both arguments keep popping back up so let’s settle this.
Imagine, now, your most ambitious career goal. The biggest one.
And let’s do this — to control for our differences, let’s call achieving that goal career success.
Because we all have different definitions for ourselves — income, freedom, title, meaning, responsibility, change created, lives impacted. That’ll keep us from getting into the what makes us happy or meaning of life.
Let’s agree that career success plays a part in obtaining those things, and work on that first.
So, the most important question is — would following our passion help us achieve that goal? To get there.
Anything other question is a distraction; and is working on the wrong problem.
Which is usually what happens. So let’s attack the right problem and work backwards from career success.
Reverse engineering it, we actually two obstacles to overcome — what’s the extra thing that’ll keep us going during the hardest times ; and what will make us keep showing up?
Passion can help with one of those. So it’s a coin flip if that’ll be enough to determine career success. And tapping into passion has more to do with timing than just being a factor or not.
“The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery.” — Seth Godin
What are people really telling us when they recommend following our passion?
It comes from a good place. They usually want the best for us.
But, starting with passion as the solution doesn’t start by solving a specific problem for us — something we’d never do if we were selling it like a product.
What people really want to say is, “do something you love so much so you’ll keep going when you get your ass kicked.”
Because if we don’t, we won’t spend the extra time to ideate or experiment. To spend the thousands of hours we need for mastery. The places where we usually find a big breakthrough.
And, because they want the best for us, they also don’t want us to hate the day to day of our careers.
But how often do we hate something we’re awesome or successful at? It happens, but it’s definitely the exception.
Which is the insight worth attacking. That’s where our control comes in — our own definition for career success.
Telling us to follow our passion is the easy way out, avoiding the hard part about advice how to succeed.
And passion plays a part. Just not when and where we think.
Sometimes we think is passion is actually just the first thing we like. Or have an interest in.
Here’s why that’s not it.
I’ve played that one all the way through. And got to test it against my will.
In Navy flight school, the F-14 Tomcat, Maverick’s jet from Top Gun, was my top choice. My “passion” at the time.
After the first hurdle in flight school, I finished number one and was selected for jets. The “passion” was on track.
In the next phase, where we were selected for our specific aircraft, I missed the top spot — which was the only guarantee of getting exactly what I wanted. So I was at the mercy of a placement committee to fill available spots. And ended up with me not flying Tomcats.
Which felt like everything at the time. I was crushed for about a day.
Except that it didn’t matter.
Not after a road trip from Pensacola to Biloxi to gamble and shake it off. And not in a way that would impact the trajectory of my career and life. The only things that actually mattered were ahead.
Instead, I flew the S-3 Viking. Still a jet. But, uglier, slower and less glamorous. And I loved every second of it. My new “passion.”
Until the Viking was retired by the military two years later.
And I found myself flying the P-3 Orion. Which wasn’t a jet. And even less sexy. Definitely not a passion the first time I stepped foot in it.
But, that’s where I actually learned everything that mattered to career success. And gained everything it took to move towards achieving it.
And where I started to catch on about what shapes a passion.
Some people talk about passion being the thing to make you jump out of bed to go to work.
Which is not exactly how it works; we don’t all get to just have a passion — to be born with it.
To pick a career that’ll immediately inject that electricity.
That’d be too easy; and success would be too accessible.
What’s more realistic is we have to get in the game to compete for a passion — to do what it takes to get past “The Dip.”
“The Dip is the set of artificial screens set up to keep people like you out.” (1)
Passion is a feeling or emotion. What actually matters is finding out how to build that feeling.
Does it only come from things we start out interested in? Or does something else play into it?
The Next Right Thing
Here’s what I really got by not being selected for what I thought was my passion at the time: irreplaceable friends, some of my best mentors, unimaginable career opportunities.
And the perfect fit between opportunity and my strengths. An easy fundamental to find.
It took going through a second “Dip” transitioning to a corporate career from the military, to figure out — we don’t chase passion, it pushes us.
I definitely didn’t go from flying Navy aircraft and the personal staff of a three-star Admiral to a sales job because of passion. But a marketing career and passion were on the other side of that “Dip” along with career success.
Am I all the way there? Nope. But on the side of the curve passion couldn’t have gotten me to.
It seems too hard or too harsh to lay out what it really takes to build a passion so a lot of people skip to the end when and tell us to follow our passion.
But the passion isn’t what gets us started, because it’s not actually there yet.
Passion is what gets us through — it’s the accelerator.
It means everything to career success. Just not in the way we’re usually told.
It’s earned. Payed for.
It always sounds so awesome when people talk about it.
And it’s the thing that pushes us to do 1% more of everything for 365 days a year that adds up. After “The Dip.”
Taking us from average performance of the middle to top 5% — career success. Which is exactly why it’s not free.
The deep feelings associated with passion — they aren’t powerful because of something we’re born with. They’re created. Built.
We don’t just ‘have’ a passion. And can’t just decide to have it.
We create it.
By using what it takes to get us through the dip — faith, courage and focus.
Into The Unknown
Going somewhere new is what it takes to get to the top 5%. Usually even the top 25%. No matter which definition of success we chose.
And we have to have the faith, courage and focus to take on the uncertainty of “The Dip” to build up all the emotions to create a passion.
Otherwise, we’re the middle of the curve and a replaceable cog in the system. Without control. And without a large piece of the happiness or meaning equation. Which is a large piece, and I’ll leave the rest of it to the experts.
Usually, not getting what we think we want — which we mistake as our passion — is actually what builds the toughness it takes to go through a “Dip” and develop something that actually is a passion.
“The Dip creates scarcity; scarcity creates value.” Which is exactly what we want to be. Because it leads to career success.
And we won’t earn career success until we put in enough work to become something scarce.
Passion requires payment or manufacturing. Otherwise, all we have is infatuation and we’ll get devastated the first time we get knocked down.
And, imagine this.
Even if we were magically given the most ambitious career goal we imagined, we would’ve left something behind we need most — the people that fuel the feelings that make up our passion.
(1) Seth Godin, the dip, 2007