Good Advice and Bad Advice

I watched two talks giving career advice on the weekend. They were both great. They gave the opposite advice.

Jonathan Adler is a creative who started as a potter and has built a business employing hundreds of people. He always wanted to be a potter but was put off by discouraging comments from a teacher. Problem was, he couldn’t seem to do anything else. So he returned to his one passion, pottery. He made the decision to just do what he wanted to do and see what happened. People liked what he did for its style and originality and he has been very successful, in artistic and business terms. He says “I wanted to follow my heart and not be strategic and throw all preconceived ideas away”. This is the “Follow Your Passion” school of thought.

Cal Newport is an author who ‘debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion is good advice”‘. He has taken and academic and scientific approach to studying career success, and has come to the conclusion that Follow Your Passion is a flawed cliche and that pre-existing passions have little to do with how most people end up loving their work. He advocates choosing something and allowing passion to grow in the process of developing expertise. This is the “Follow Your Passion is Bad Advice” school of thought.

I find this debate disturbing, so I had a think about what was bugging me. From a personal point of view, I spent a long time pursuing a sensible career, but it didn’t lead to passion, it led to unhappiness. So I am not convinced that the sensible approach is necessarily going to be fulfilling. Now I am engaged in an experiment that could be called “Follow Your Intuition” so I guess I am operating more in the Follow Your Passion camp at the moment. But I don’t think thats the core of what bothers me about this debate.

As soon as I started blogging about intuitive decision making, I became aware of a sense of responsibility to people who might read what I am writing. Its a tool I am using, because the time is right for me to do that, but the time or the tool may not be right for other people. So I am not going to make a poster with “Follow Your Intuition” blazoned on it, because just now it might be the worst thing you could possibly do.

And thats my problem with the “Follow Your Passion” debate. Its the assumption that any catchphrase can be regarded as intrinsically good or bad advice, regardless of context. Cal Newport is right, most people don’t start out life with a clear passion that can lead to a rewarding career. But some do. Jonathan Adler did, and if his pottery teacher had said “Follow Your Passion” it would have saved him a lot of time messing about in dead end jobs. If a high school student walks into a career counsellors office and describes their passion for a sport or art or anything else, and they have the skill, drive, ambition and singlemindedness to pursue that passion, then what they need is encouragement.

On the other hand, many people don’t have clear passions, and it seems artificial to be doing mental exercises to “Find Your Passion”  so that you can then “Follow Your Passion”. Maybe if a student walks into the career counsellors office with no passion, no clear direction or interests, the more pragmatic approach of choosing something viable to get started on is more useful, particularly if that student is seeking to be a success in the traditional terms of status and wealth.

Its not a competition about which advice is good or best, its about choosing an approach that suits the person, their abilities, values, stage of life, tolerance of risk and so on. Catchy sayings are helpful tools if they enable use to pursue our goals, but more important is the ability to use our discernment in knowing which tool, to pick up or put down, at any given time. Jonathan Adler and Cal Newport are very different people, with very different styles, mindsets, and values. They each give excellent advice for people like themselves. The mistake is in thinking that the same advice is going to suit everybody.

For myself, I know that I have taken a risk in moving from a career in which I have a lot of “career capital” into a new field. It is costing me money in lost earnings that I may never recoup. But I see it as a valuable investment in learning about myself, and even if I do return to a traditional job, I will return a different person. People spend money on travel to broaden their experience. I see an experiment in following your passion as a career option as another kind or journey, another of life’s adventures. You won’t know if you don’t try.

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