This fall, I tried to write an opinion piece on why I think “follow your passion” is bad career advice. I saved three different drafts on my U:drive under a variety of mature titles such as “Why ‘Follow Your Passion’ Sucks” and “Passion to Profit and Other Bad Career Advice.” I quit a few weeks in, realizing it was more academically “profitable” to focus on thesis instead.
Back then, my argument was as follows: “Follow Your Passion” is a rhetorical crutch we feed hungry liberal arts college students when we don’t know what else to say. It seemed painfully intuitive that everyone would prefer to do what they loved if given the option. Being told “follow your passion, and the money will come” annoyed me; I was already stressed out.
Around the same time, Fast Company published a piece by Georgetown Professor Cal Newport titled “Do Like Steve Jobs Did: Don’t Follow Your Passion.” Newport wrote, “When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated.” Essentially, Newport argues that, if Jobs had followed his passion, he would have remained an instructor at the Los Altos Zen Center instead of going on to found Apple Computers. At first, I cheered that someone was challenging conventional wisdom, but I found Newport’s conclusion unsatisfying. Not following your passion seemed even worse than following it.
For about a month, I became obsessed with the topic of careers, passion, and profitability, debating it around my apartment and over sliders at Some Crust. A quick Amazon search turned up a laughable series of books on the subject, all of which had almost the same exact title: from Turn Your Passion Into Profit to Turn Your Passion Into Profits, as well as Turning Passions Into Profits and Passion to Profits. I asked myself the same question a thousand times: what is this thing called passion, and why is it running away from me? And how does one convert it into a pot of gold at the end of the metaphorical rainbow?
English Philosopher Thomas Hobbes devoted the first part of his Leviathan to a discussion of basic human passion. Hobbes lists some simple ones: “appetite, desire, love, aversion, hate, joy, and grief.” These seem intuitively correct but too basic for the type of passion we refer to in a career setting. When people say, “Follow your passion,” they do not usually mean, “Follow your appetite.” (We do not know how successful Jobs might have been had he chased only strawberry flavored cupcakes.) Nor do most career advisers intend “follow your passion” to mean “disregard anything but desires and pleasures.” Most acknowledge that even a career in your passion will involve at least a little elbow grease.
Still, if passion is taken simply to mean an ardent desire for an outcome, children are perhaps among the most passionate people I’ve ever known. Anyone who has ever taken care of five-year-olds knows the vicious passion with which they will fight for that last ten minutes of staying up late—or the heart-in-mouth venom they can spit when the whole world depends on that second cookie. As we grow older, we learn to taper off our passions with reason. Education, in some ways, is an exercise in passion restraint. So why are we so obsessed with telling young college grads to follow these things we ourselves struggle to define?
Why did I care so much about a silly debate? In retrospect, it’s because I was terrified. I was intimidated by my undergraduate program and its notoriously successful alums. At one admissions event, the professor listed off the careers that the class of 2012 had taken: Ivy League Law Schoolers, Fulbrighters, and Deliottieans. Not to mention that one that took a year off to travel, but—don’t worry—he had already signed a book deal. PPE students spend undergrad hearing about how successful they’ll be as grown-ups, but what if you’re that outlier?
I began to ask myself the big, important questions, namely: what is a Bain and how do I get one?
Around this time, a sharp girl sent me a 600-word email from Ecuador, in which she painstakingly listed fourteen pros and cons of undergoing the junior year recruiting process. She was reaching out to me for career advice, unsure which path to chose. Her analysis was not only on point, but also laugh-out-loud funny. Still, she worried. “I may be the most impressive-seeming but unemployable person in Claremont,” she lamented in her sign off. A month later, as I read the back of her program at her memorial service in frigid Minnesota, I realized just how wrong she was about her employability.
I worry sometimes CMCers are in a rush to grow up. We’re starving to change the world by twenty, and I love that. But we’re equally starving to be able to say we have post-graduation plans. Don’t get me wrong; I am absurdly proud of my friends who have signed with the Big Three and the Big Four. But I’m equally, if not more, proud of those of us still submitting cover letters, fighting the good fight.
Today, I turn 22. I’m not employed—passionately or otherwise. ASCMC is holding elections outside of Collins Dining Hall, and in two weeks, the junior class will take over the reins of the student government. I will transition out of Forum editor and back into whatever it was I was before.
Dean Vos is already insisting that I vacate my apartment by Sunday, May 19. And when that happens, I’m not sure where I’ll go. I have no plans; no plane ticket is booked. And I’m beginning to love that. Six months ago, I would have panicked. But there’s a life lesson that wasn’t captured by the passion-career debate. The future is her own creature. Through all the change, the moments that come so quick, the future always comes as she wishes. You just have to throw your head to the sky, disregard the philosophizing, and let that be.
Because leaders or not—we are, as humans, perpetually and persistently in the making. And that is wonderful.