“Follow your passion” is a familiar theme for high school graduation speakers and career counselors. It was Steve Jobs‘ subject when he spoke at my daughter’s commencement and I was reminded of this phrase by a recent blog by Cal Newport in The New York Times. It’s always troubled me a little. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for passion, but for this strategy to work you need two prerequisites. First, as Newport points out, you have to know what your passion is. And second, you have to be able to at least make a subsistence living (and maybe a lot more) engaged in your passion.
I think you should follow your passion if you can, but find your passion in your work if you must. Let me relate my own story.
All through high school and college, I loved biochemistry and I was pretty good at it. My passion was to be an academic neurobiologist and I went to Harvard to get my PhD. Halfway through my degree, my passion for biology had not abated, but the opportunities and rewards of an academic lifestyle were not inviting (that’s a nice way of saying I hated academia). Thanks to a sympathetic thesis advisor, I got my degree and immediately left for a job as a computer programmer. I had worked as a programmer through college and this was in 1980 when you could get a job as a coder if you could read the manual. Since then, here are some of the jobs I’ve had:
- Computer programmer in a small consulting firm
- Started a software company with a partner
- Managed the software development of a company which provided computer-based financial planning advice to individuals. That company was acquired by Price Waterhouse (now Pricewaterhouse Coopers)
- Managed the R&D division of PW developing software to improve audits
- Left PW to join a startup as the Chief Knowledge Officer responsible for methodologies, the company intranet, and internal training
- Various consulting jobs in knowledge management and organizational design
Not much biology, huh? The fact is, I’ve never lost my passion for understanding how chemistry becomes life, but I haven’t picked up a test tube since 1980. And one of the best jobs I ever had was developing audit software for PW. I had no training in auditing (or accounting for that matter) and had the usual biases of outsiders that it is a dry and dull business. But it turns out there are fascinating challenges even in mundane issues like when to recognize revenue and expenses. (See When is Income not Income and When are Expenses not Expenses). I could never do an audit, but I had to be able to understand and participate in intellectually stimulating audit theory discussions. The key was that I was engaged in stimulating work with smart people who I enjoyed working with. Didn’t matter that there was no biology.
Yes, I admit that I am a geek and that audit theory isn’t for everyone. The point is I had no idea in graduate school that I could end up enjoying life as a partner in an accounting firm. It was a passion I did not know I had. I’ve seen all sides of the passion story. I’ve seen people who followed their passions and were happy. I’ve seen people who followed their passions and lost their families and fortunes. But I’ve seen many more people who found their passion by accident. You won’t find passion in every job – and if you are in a job for any length of time and you hate it, then get out. But don’t dismiss an opportunity because it isn’t your passion now. Like me, you may have passions you don’t know about.
Doug is an educator, consultant and serial entrepreneur with a PhD in biology who has founded or been an early executive in four companies. In the summer of 2011 he began “dougsguides” to help college students make the transition from academia to the business world. He now devotes most of his time touring college campuses spreading the dougsguides message. You can like dougsguides on Facebook, follow @dougsguides on Twitter and connect with Doug Kalish on LinkedIn. Please visit www.dougsguides.com for further resources and to follow Doug’s work.