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(Don't) Follow your passion

We all want to be successful. When we do, we talk about our passions, but is that a good idea? One book from the Grand Rapids Public Library says otherwise.
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Shekinah Guyton (left) and Jocelyn Pratt

Shekinah Guyton (left) and Jocelyn Pratt /Jocelyn Pratt

Hello, Grand Rapids classes of 2015!

You’re going into your last semester as a high school student. The world is waiting out there. Many people will want to give you advice about what to do with your life. You’ll hear it everywhere.

It’s an interesting subject, and a question that everyone needs to answer at some point. Many people’s answers talk about passion, specifically finding yours and making it your profession. Few people question this advice. It’s called the passion hypothesis.

One particular writer, Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, did question it. Through his research, he found something interesting: the passion hypothesis isn’t the great advice we think it is. It is founded on certain ideas, ones that are patently untrue.

The big misconceptions of the passion hypothesis rest on the idea that people all have passion which they can turn into a lucrative, or at least a sustainable, career. You might not have a passion. You might even have a passion, but that passion might be "eating waffles." Unless there is a great waffle eating start-up out there, such a passion like that probably won’t support anyone.

The thing is that it’s fine not to have a passion. Honest. Especially when you’re starting out, most people don’t know what their passion might be. Certainly they don’t know how to express it as a career. It takes time and energy to build that understanding. Very, very few people have that starting out.

For most people, passion is instead a side effect of mastery. Specifically, If a person masters unique skills, and those skills are valuable, he or she will have passion for the work. Our focus, then, should be working to build what Newport terms "career capital," rare and valuable skills that can lead to great work.

To do this, Newport calls on us to develop a craftsman’s mentality. Passion, in and of itself, is focused inward. A craftsman’s mentality is focused outward. Rather than asking what a job can bring to them, a craftsman asks what skills they bring to the job, and how they can develop those skills. Only then can career capital be built, and great work consciously constructed with it.

Our faith in passion comes from outliers. There are people that start out with a passion, find great work that aligns with it, and become wildly successful. Most successful people, however, don’t follow this path, people like Steve Jobs.

One of the most cited instances of the passion hypothesis comes from Jobs, famously in his address to Stanford University’s 2007 convocation, that one should "stay hungry, stay foolish," and that, presumably, one should "follow their passion." But Jobs’ own life and success were not owed to this. As a young man, Jobs took work at an organic farm, dabbled in work at Atari in California, all sorts of things that made him look like a man adrift.

Newport, like any fine researcher, actually looked up the transcripts from Walter Issacson’s biography of Jobs, which was crafted from hundreds of hours of interviews with Jobs and the people in his life.

Issacson asked Jobs, point blank, whether a person should follow their passion in work.

“We [Jobs and Issacson] talked about the fact that it isn’t just about your damn passion- it’s about doing something larger than yourself,” said Isaacson. “It’s about serving this world, helping others. So if you have a whole generation of people [who've been] told, ‘Oh, just follow your passion,’ they’re going to forget that there’s some purpose in life.”

Of course, we see the end result of a career like Jobs’ but how does one start out? How does one begin to build career capital when we are young, so that we can cash that in capital later on?

One local student, Jocelyn Pratt, is interested in boutique retail and fashion. Pratt is interested in building her career capital to that end. She took an internship at a boutique, and is learning the ins and out of business through library services, books and even through online gaming. She is even making it on her own to different shows to sell products and fashions with her business partner, Shekinah Guyton. Both these young entrepreneurs are building a great deal of career capital so that one day, she’ll be able to succeed in a competitive industry.

For the vast majority of us, passion is made, not found. But if you can build a passion like that, you’ll be pretty dangerous, no matter what it is.

Disclosure: Steven Assarian is the Business Librarian at the Grand Rapids Public Library.

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