We've Been Doing Passion Wrong

The least useful and yet most overused piece of advice I've both proffered and received is, "Follow your passion!" Hearing that as a high school student is about as helpful as a tissue paper rain jacket. Everybody loves to tell you to follow your passion but nobody seems to have any equally simple advice for how to a.) figure out what the hell your passion might be, b.) how to make money doing what you're passionate about, or most rarely, c.) what the word "passion" even means.

I've been guilty of using this frozen-dinner-like piece of advice myself. It's ever so easy to pull it out of the freezer, peel off the plastic cover, and sprinkle it with whatever your unique spice happens to be. In the end, it's still a frozen dinner and nothing like what you really want. "Follow your passion," is the limp chicken and mystery lump of vegetables of the helpful advice world.

I'm here to do my best to try to fix that mistake.


I still think building your life's work around a topic or a profession that you're passionate is a pretty damn good idea. If you're lucky enough to lose yourself into the flow state doing something that someone will be happy to pay you for, you've got yourself a pretty sweet situation. If you figure out that your passion is helping people while also cutting them open, please, please, please follow that passion into a medical career (or forensics). However, most high school students (and even college students) cannot clearly articulate what their passion might be. And that's perfectly fine as well.


Here's why that advice still works. Everyone assumes that when they are told to "Follow your passion!!" that "passion" equals some sort of job or vocation. Law, teaching, medicine, archaeology, hula-hooping -- these are passions. However, let's start thinking about passion in a completely different way. Instead of using "passion" to mean some sort of job, let's reframe it to mean "passion of process."

Being passionate about doing things well. Passionately developing an autotelic personality. That's what "Follow your passion!!!1!!" should mean. When you focus on developing your ability to do everything well, everything becomes your passion. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done extensive research into what he calls flow and he's concluded that learning how to enter that state can be learned. And, luckily, nearly anything can become an activity that induces flow.

Let's not worry too much about what we're doing. All you high school seniors can stop getting that queasy feeling in your stomach every time a well meaning adult asks you what you're going to do in college and then blasts you with a steaming pile of, "Well, follow your passion!!1!111!!" when you predictably answer that you aren't sure. Find something that seems semi-interesting and then work on developing your passion for the process of doing it well. Learn how to enjoy everything whether that's writing an English paper, conducting field research, working in the cafeteria, or doing surgery on rockets.


Because, here's the secret that not many people are telling you: the economy isn't going to go back to "normal." This is the new normal. And that means you need skills that can transfer across careers and across disciplines. Less and less of us are going to school to do one specific job. Instead, we're learning how to do things well. We're learning the more general skills of critical thinking, writing persuasively, communicating effectively, and thinking broadly. These are skills of process, not product.

Passion-of-process over passion-of-vocation has been the center of my writing and own life experiments for the last several years. It's an idea that I'm going to come back to over and over again. I firmly believe that a focus on developing an autotelic personality (basically, doing things because you receive intrinsic motivation in doing them) is the key to living a fulfilling life. This skill can be taught and developed -- and I hope to show you how.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably like what Cal has to say over at Study Hacks. He is another writer that thinks "follow your passion" is sub-par advice and has a lot of good things to say about learning to work effectively.