Don’t Follow Your Passion

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Please don’t quit your job to follow your passion.

It’s the worst advice out there.

I’ve personally see it ruin so many great careers. (Singapore really doesn’t need yet another cupcake bakery)

Over the past ten years, I’ve worked with over 10’000 jobseekers. I’ve studied careers and people from start to finish.

There’s a consistent formula for getting to the top.

Here’s how you engineer a great career:

1. We don’t know what makes us happy

Humans are terrible at knowing what makes us happy.

Take this story from Janie, an American entrepreneur based in Colorado.

“For years, I had this dream of starting my own bakery. I had imagined myself dancing to work every day, bringing joy to the world, one cupcake at a time. It turned out to be the opposite. The hours were long. Profits were non-existent, and my staff kept bailing on me. I was trapped. One of my happiest days of my life was closing that bakery down.”

I always recount Janie’s tale to people who want to follow their passion. We have lofty dreams about how great our lives will be once we do X. The research says otherwise.

Happiness is an odd creature. The more you chase it, the harder it is to be happy.

2. You need to acquire skills. It’s going to be painful

To be happy at your job, you need to be great at your job.

This means putting in the hard work to reach that level of competence.

Humans though, always find excuses to avoid doing the hard things. We’re constantly searching for the path of least resistance.

Just last week, I took a call with a prospective client. He’s a finance manager with over ten years of experience at a major US Tech MNC. He’d been stuck in a senior finance manager role and wanted to switch industries from Tech to Pharma, in order to be promoted to finance business partner.

That didn’t make sense to me.

I asked him why.

“I’m very intimidated by the tech industry. It’s moving so fast. I still don’t understand those cloud products. I think moving into the Pharma industry will be easier. I can reach business partner faster”

That made little sense to me.

This prospective client had ten years of experience in the tech industry. Heading into the Pharma industry meant learning the ropes from scratch again. He’d need another five years at minimum to even be considered for a business partner role.

The truth is that this candidate was lazy.

He wanted the rewards of a high paying job, but without putting in the work.

What he should have been doing was working with his colleagues to understand the tech industry, and it’s cloud products. That’d put him on the fastest path to compete for a senior role.

The job market is always going to reward candidates with great skills.

The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase

3. Success leads to passion

This idea is stolen from Scott Adams. Here’s his thesis:

“When it started to look as if my cartooning venture might be a success, my passion for it increased. I realised it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, my passion moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success”

I’ve personally seen it occur in my own career. When I was a fresh graduate from NUS, I had no passion whatsoever for HR or recruitment. It was just the first well paying job that I got out of school. But after so many years of working hard, and succeeding, it became my passion.

Don’t follow your passion; rather, let it follow you.

4. Competence leads to success. Not necessarily happiness

There is a caveat. Merely success, and it’s resulting passion, will not bring you happiness.

Just look at lawyers and investment bankers. They’re great at their jobs, passionate about the industry and yet, they’re all miserable!

To be truly happy, you need autonomy.

No amount of money can make a human being happy to do soul-crushing work. Sure, it can make you happy for a short while, but then the hedonic treadmill kicks in. And then all you’re left with is a job that makes you miserable.

Find work that gives you the flexibility to organise your time.

This entire essay reminds me of a friend, Harry.

5. Meet Harry

Harry was one of the first clients I placed when I started my career. I headhunted him to join a boutique M&A firm.

He was amazing at his job. A+ references, stellar performance, high salary – he was killing it.

2 years into the new job I placed him in, he quit and left the finance industry altogether.

At age 40, Harry started his own software company.

He went from earning 300k+/year to earning 30k/year.

The reason? He was tired of adhering to schedules of his clients. He had no freedom.

Starting his own software company gave him control over his life again. He’d already built up a small nest egg. His priorities had changed.

Mind you, starting a software company wasn’t Harry following his passion. Rather, he recognised that software companies were going to take over the world. He wanted to be part of this new wave. This pay cut was necessary to build the hard skills (see #2 above), as part of a longer-term strategy to have a great career.

The first few years were tough. A lot of long hours and large uncertainty. But this year, he’ll pull in over a million dollars in net profit. It’s higher than he could have gotten had he stayed at the M&A firm. Better yet, he’s got great hours. Working 9 to 5, often from home.

Harry’s new career ticks all the boxes that make a great job. I’ve never seen him happier.

He’s put in the effort to build a high earning career that he’s now passionate about.

Conclusion

So in summary:

1. Acquire valuable skills. Fight through the pain.
2. The more competent you are, the more you’ll enjoy your work.
3. Manufacture freedom in your job.

That’s a lot of work.

I didn’t say a great career would be easy.

Further reading:
So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
Motivation Hacker by Nick Winter
Career Paths by Michael Siebel

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Adrian Tan

Former Headhunter


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