Popular career advice you might hear from your parents or a career counselor is to follow your dreams or something you are passionate about. Self-reflect and identify subject matter that drives you. The passion theory suggests planning your career around a passion, an inner motivation or desire to do something. Problem is many of us never find a passionate career pursuit.
One major flaw with the “passion theory” is that you must have some prior experience and exude confidence in something you are passionate about – you must be exposed to something before you can become passionate about it. Good parenting and teaching expose our children to as many subjects and hobbies as possible to broaden their perspective. This is why high schools teach students an array of different subjects beyond the fundamental skills of math, reading, and writing and colleges require taking “core classes” to meet their degree requirements. Being exposed to actual business situations helps too; internships are becoming increasingly more popular for this reason. An exposure to something new can be circumstantial and hard to pin down. Furthermore, most of us do not find something we are truly passionate about early in our lives so we take on the best opportunity that presents itself. The premise of the book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, suggests finding the skills you excel in and use “deliberate practice” (or an intense, committed effort) to develop these skills as “career capital” – something that adds value for everyone; your passion, something that adds value to you, should not be the deciding factor in choosing a career.
In the first chapter, Cal Newport talks about the story behind Steve Jobs who is clearly one of the most visionary thinkers of recent times. Steve never planned out his career and did not have this lifelong passion for technology. He did not go to college for anything related to computers, nor did he develop his ideas in his early formative years right after college. His interest in computers was spurred by meeting a technical wizard Steve Wozniak, and then everything seemed to snowball for Steve. He played a leadership role in delivering many innovative technology products to consumers, such as Apple Macintosh, Pixar, IPod, IPhone, and ITunes. However, his genius in information technology and understanding consumer preferences probably would not have materialized if he had not met Steve Wozniak, and took on the business arm of their partnership.
I can think of two cases in my personal life as examples.
I have two nieces who are soccer players; they were exposed to soccer because everyone in my immediate family played soccer, so my brother naturally taught them soccer at an early age. They have been playing on the same team together for years, and have developed a love for the game and camaraderie of a team. And they have developed their skills, so they are good players. However, what if they could have been great tennis players or dancers, it is almost impossible to tell because they have never been exposed to these hobbies. Becoming passionate about something means you must have been exposed to it and show some self-efficacy, so you have a desire to build an expertise with it. I spoke to my brother about his thoughts about exposing his children to as much as possible to help them find a passion and he had an interesting response. He suggested exposure to too many hobbies and subjects might be overwhelming to them and make it too difficult to identify precisely what they are passionate about. This leads to another fault with the passion theory: you can be passionate about a lot of things so how do you narrow down which one to follow as a career pursuit.
My brother is absolutely brilliant and could shine in whatever career he chooses. He went to Columbia University and majored in astrophysics because he was inspired to be an astronaut, though it was too selective – only 50 astronaut positions open up each year, and many of the positions are offered to pilots rather than astrophysicists – so he moved onto something else. He remained at Columbia and earned a masters in mining engineering, and worked with some excellent minds in the field for a couple of years. However, he really wanted to influence policy making, so he went to Georgetown University where he received his JD in law. He currently teaches law and conducts research, two things he will probably do for the rest of his life; he loves what he is doing now. Connecting the dots in a logical progression of “following his passion” does not seem to make sense in his case; rather, it seems he evaluates his current situation each step of the way and uses education as a way to expose himself to new opportunities.