Follow your passion is a popular theme of commencement speeches. For instance, Will Shortz, long-time editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, told students at Indiana University: “My advice for you is, figure out what you enjoy doing most in life, and then try to do it full-time. Life is short. Follow your passion.”
Jeff Bezos told Princeton graduates the story of leaving a high-salary, high-status Manhattan finance job to start Amazon: “After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion.” He has also said, “Whatever it is that you want to do, you’ll find in life that if you’re not passionate about what it is you’re working on, you won’t be able to stick with it.” (Content credit to the great book ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth).
British journalist Hester Lacey has been interviewing achievers —one per week since 2011. Her column appears weekly in the Financial Times. Whether they’re fashion designers (Nicole Farhi), authors (Salman Rushdie), musicians (Lang Lang), comedians (Michael Palin), chocolatiers (Chantal Coady), or bartenders (Colin Field), Hester asks the same questions, including: “What drives you on?” and “If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?”
She’s described what she’s learned from talking to more than two hundred “mega-successful” people.
“One thing that comes up time and time again is: ‘I love what I do.’ People couch it differently. Quite often, they say just that: ‘I love what I do.’ But they also say things like ‘I’m so lucky, I get up every morning looking forward to work, I can’t wait to get into the studio, I can’t wait to get on with the next project.’ These people are doing things not because they have to or because it’s financially lucrative. . . .”
Study of Interests
“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” ~ Steve Jobs
If your passion or interest is financially lucrative, then you are more devoted to it. Within the last decade or so, scientists who study interests have arrived at a definitive answer.
First, research shows that people are enormously more satisfied with their jobs when they do something that fits their personal interests. This is the conclusion of a meta-analysis that aggregated data from almost a hundred different studies that collectively included working adults in just about every conceivable profession. For instance, people who enjoy thinking about abstract ideas are not happy managing the minutiae of logistically complicated projects; they’d rather be solving math problems.
And people who really enjoy interacting with people are not happy when their job is to work alone at a computer all day; they’re much better off in jobs like sales or teaching. What’s more, people whose jobs match their personal interests are, in general, happier with their lives as a whole.
Second, people perform better at work when what they do interests them. This is the conclusion of another meta-analysis of sixty studies conducted over the past sixty years. Employees whose intrinsic personal interests fit with their occupations do their jobs better, are more helpful to their co-workers, and stay at their jobs longer. College students whose personal interests align with their major earn higher grades and are less likely to drop out.
In a 2014 Gallup poll, more than two-thirds of adults said they were not engaged at work, a good portion of whom were “actively disengaged.” The picture is even bleaker, in a survey of 141 nations, Gallup found that every country but Canada has even higher numbers of “not engaged” and “actively disengaged” workers than the United States. Worldwide, only 13 percent of adults call themselves “engaged” at work.
So it seems that very few people end up loving what they do for a living. The advice ‘follow your passion’ is very difficult to implement for earning. It’s difficult to reconcile the straightforward directives offered in inspirational speeches with epidemic levels of indifference toward work. When it comes to lining up our occupations with what we enjoy, how come so many of us miss the mark? Should we stop telling people to follow your passion and, instead, tell them to follow our orders?
It’s Not Love at First Sight
Three-times Olympic gold medallist swimmer Rowdy Gaines, for example, told Angela Duckworth: “When I was a kid, I loved sports. When I got to high school, I went out for football, baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis, in that order, before I went for swimming. I kept plugging away. I figured I’d just keep going from one sport to the next until I found something that I could really fall in love with.” Swimming stuck, but it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “The day I tried out for the swim team, I went to the school library to check out track and field because I kind of had a feeling I was going to get cut. I figured I’d try out for track and field next.”
As a teenager, James Beard Award-winning chef Marc Vetri was as interested in music as he was in cooking. After college, he moved to Los Angeles. “I went to a music school out there for a year, and I worked nights in restaurants to make money. Later, when I was in a band, I worked mornings in restaurants so I could do the music thing at night. Then it was like, ‘Well, I’m making money in the restaurants, and I’m really starting to like it, and I’m not making anything in music’. And then I had an opportunity to go to Italy, and that was it.”
What about Jeff Bezos?
Jeff’s interest-filled childhood has a lot to do with his curious mother, Jackie. Jeff came into the world two weeks after Jackie turned seventeen years old. “So,” she told Angela Duckworth, “I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what I was supposed to do.”
She remembers being deeply fascinated by Jeff and his younger brother and sister: “I was just so curious about these little creatures and who they were and what they were going to do. I paid attention to what interested each one—they were all different—and followed their lead. I felt it was my responsibility to let them do deep dives into what they enjoyed.”
For instance, at three, Jeff asked multiple times to sleep in a “big bed.” Jackie explained that eventually, he would sleep in a “big bed,” but not yet. She walked into his room the next day and found him, screwdriver in hand, disassembling his crib. Jackie didn’t scold him. Instead, she sat on the floor and helped. Jeff slept in a “big bed” that night.
By high school, Jeff had turned the family garage into a laboratory for inventing and experimentation. One day, Jackie got a call from Jeff’s high school saying he was skipping classes after lunch. When he got home, she asked him where he’d been going in the afternoons. Jeff told her he’d found a local professor who was letting him experiment with airplane wings and friction and drag, and—“Okay,” Jackie said. “I got it. Now, let’s see if we can negotiate a legal way to do that.”
In college, Jeff majored in computer science and electrical engineering, and after graduating, applied his programming skills to the management of investment funds. Several years later, Jeff built an Internet bookstore named after the longest river in the world: Amazon.com. (He also registered the URL www.relentless.com; type it into your browser and see where it takes you. . . . )
Remember that interests must be triggered again and again and again. Find ways to make that happen. And have patience. The development of interests takes time. Keep asking questions, and let the answers to those questions lead you to more questions. Continue to dig. Seek out other people or an encouraging mentor who shares your interests. Whatever your age, over time your role as a learner will become a more active and informed one. Over a period of years, your knowledge and expertise will grow, and along with it your confidence and curiosity to know more.
Finally, if you’ve been doing something you like for a few years and still wouldn’t quite call it a passion, see if you can deepen your interests. Since novelty is what your brain craves, you’ll be tempted to move on to something new, and that could be what makes the most sense. However, if you want to stay engaged for more than a few years in any endeavor, you’ll need to find a way to enjoy the nuances that only a true enthusiast can appreciate.
In sum, the directive to follow your passion is not bad advice. But what may be even more useful is to understand how passions are fostered in the first place.