aleks Gorbenko

aleks Gorbenko

{a_G} | Meditations on Strategy and Tech

09 Oct 2016

Screw 'Follow Your Passion' Advice And What To Do Instead?

We have all heard this advice. “Follow your passion”.

Probably a few years ago I would totally support such advice and be an advocate of the “find your passion” movement. Not until I have actually lost the direction of where I was going and all my plans basically went to dust. Passion was lost without a sign.

So I thought “ok, I just need to find it again”.

That was the moment when I realised I have no idea how to do it or where to even start.

It got me thinking: “well maybe it is not about finding passion, but about something else…”.

Fast-forward a couple of years - I found the craft that I committed to, which is programming and I am truly happy doing it. In retrospect, though, I came to a conclusion that “follow your passion” is a bad advice that is not helpful and also misleading.

Before we move into the details I’d like to point out that this advice holds several assumptions and presumes they are true, whereas in most cases they are actually false:

  1. It assumes you know already what your passion is. You have figured it all out and all you have to do right now is just to follow it.
  2. For those who don’t know yet what their passion is, it assumes that they know how to find it.
  3. It assumes one needs to find passion if he hasn’t found it yet.

It is also an easy advice to give. Just three words “follow your passion”, that’s all. Nobody talks how to find it, or where to start, or even why one needs to find it? Do we even find it? These are the sort of questions I have been trying to answer myself and this post represents my findings.

Some of them are based on examples from my life and might be subjective. My aim is to offer another angle on this question.

Passion Does Not “Just Appear”

There is a misconception that passion is some sort of magical feeling that creeps one day into your brain and suddenly you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. It is just simply not true. And all the loud slogans “just follow your passion” make it sound as if it is easy to find it in the first place.

Not many people can give you a comprehensive advice on how to find one and where to look for it. The majority of the advice I heard and read were “just try things”, “just think about it”, “don’t know man, I just knew from the early childhood that I want to do X” or the most common one “I saw this guy singing on television and it all clicked, I knew I wanted to be a singer”. Great, that was helpful.

If you start asking people who are truly passionate about their craft, how did they found one, most of them won’t be able to tell you the algorithm of their actions like: “I did X, then Y, then Z and I got my passion”. It came to them naturally and they didn’t put too much thought on how they actually got to the point where they are. And that is also understandable. When you are doing something you love, you really don’t care where it came from, you are just happy doing it.

This also makes you think: “well ok… I might just have to wait till it finally comes”. This kind of mentality will also get you nowhere.

Passion does not arrive to you like a train to the station.

Passion is Built

Default values. You, me, we all have them. Same as the creation of a character in any RPG game, you have the default values that are assigned to you from the moment you are born. You have weight, height, strength, sex, body type, etc. As we live our lives we get to acquire new stats, like intelligence, will, spirit and new skills such as reading, speaking, programming, finance, chemistry, etc.

The important thing to understand is that you can be good at some of these skills from the start. We all have some sort of natural inclination for doing/understanding certain things better than the others. You can clearly see that in kids at school. Some are good at sports, some are at maths, some are at both. Each kid has a different set of skills/abilities starting from the first grade.

To continue the analogy, in RPG games when you create a character you also have to choose a class. Each class has its advantages with some trade-offs. For example, a warrior has increased default strength but reduced intellect, a mage would have increased default intellect and spirit, but got almost no strength and agility. By extension, each class is good at different things. Mage is good with concentration to cast complicated spells, but he is very bad at defence. A warrior is great at taking lots of damage and defending himself but he is not a fast fighter.

Each class is good at some tasks naturally and not so much at others. I think it is not that different from the real world. We don’t exactly choose which ‘class’ we get to be when we are born, but we certainly have the same dynamics in terms of which skills/strengths we show from a very early age.

So what are you trying to say?

What I am saying is no matter how a warrior is passionate about casting fireballs, he will never beat the mage in doing it. It just won’t work and never will.

Here is another example:

Presume we have this formula:

Strength x Passion = Amount of Success

Let’s say Strength and Passion would have a maximum value of 5. Which makes the maximum Success to equal 25. Now let’s take at two guys, who are equally passionate about basketball and give them both 5 for their Passion. Our first guy James is 2.05m high, which gives him quite a bit of Strength, let it be 4. Our second guy Amos is 1.75m high…that’s let’s say 3. Now let’s look at the math:

James: 5 x 4 = 20

Amos: 5 x 3 = 15

James > Amos

This is to illustrate that no matter how Amos is passionate about basketball it will be close to impossible to reach the same level of success as James has. If we take 1 point away from James’s passion, he still wins:

James: 4 x 4 = 16

Amos: 5 x 3 = 15

James > Amos

Sorry Amos :(

Some of you might say that this formula is over-simplified and I hear you. There are definitely other elements that should be taken into the equation. One of them is Environment (social, like family, friends, school, nation, culture and physical, climate, diet, location. And yes, absolutely it should be accounted for. But the whole topic of how Environment affects human development is a topic that is outside of the scope of this article and deserves it’s own.

Passion and Strength example is made here to illustrate the basic relationship between a strong commitment to a particular craft and one’s maximum ability to perform in this craft.

Simply searching for passion is aimless activity. Using your strengths to optimise your choices

We can conclude:

Passion is not found, nor you are found by it. Passion is built on your strengths.

Reverse Passion-Success Algorithm

There is a direct relationship between your success in a particular field and your passion and the conventional thinking about the process of getting to success is:

  1. You find passion
  2. Work hard
  3. Become successful.

And it logically makes sense. Or does it?

The real process is actually reversed. Think about it. You first work on something. You then start to see that you are actually pretty good at it and it comes to you naturally with seemingly no extra effort. Moving forward, the better you are at something the more passion you start to feel to that thing that you do. The more effort you put it, the better you become. Eventually, it turns into a snowball that grows exponentially. And it all started just because you tried and did well. You first had to be successful on your own little scale to develop a passion for your craft.

Here is a personal example. Two years ago I would never believe that I would be a software engineer in two years. But I am. And I am truly fascinated with programming and building software.

I also did not just “start programming” out of the blue.

I found some resources online where I could learn some simple things that I needed for my SEO job at a time. I started the course and I… “got it”. I understood it. I have found it interesting. I started solving very simple tasks, writing one line of code at a time. Every time I would solve it correctly I would feel a rush of dopamine through my veins. For some reason, I was ok at understanding it and solving these small tasks. I liked it. The more complex tasks became the more I was getting this feeling of having a superpower. I liked it even more. The snowball went from there. After a while, it turned into an obsession up until the point where I decided: “Ok, I am going to make a career move and become a programmer”.

In retrospect, I have noticed two things. Firstly - I had a need to learn for my job and I started to learn to program as a side project. Secondly, I didn’t have this “aha moment” on day one. My interest grew gradually because I was “getting it” and I could do some basic stuff with my new skills and knowledge. The more skills I acquired the more I liked it as I was able to do more complex and interesting things with it.

Expecting a passion to develop on day one is the same as expecting to become a professional dancer on your first dance class.

Passions Change

If there would be Terms and Conditions for human life, there would be a point: “Your passions are subjects to change. Embrace it.”

When I was 17 I was passionate about the food and beverage industry, cooking, Michelin Starred restaurants and luxurious service. This passion lasted till I was 22. I am now a software engineer and couldn’t be  happier. I love what I do. Writing software and cooking/serving has virtually nothing to do with each other (well, almost…). Yet, I had a passion for one, then another field. It didn’t happen suddenly as well. I left hospitality without knowing what to do and it took me a while to realise my strengths and make a move in the technology sector.

Your passion will (most likely) change and it’s OK. You might be saying: “well what about famous athletes, craftsman, chefs, writers that remained loyal to their craft till their last breath?” Yes, it is a valid point, but don’t forget that it is more of an exception from the rule than the rule itself. On average a person changes several careers over the course of his life. Some people are passionate about each career, some are not.

The bottom line remains - don’t think that your passion will last a lifetime, it will change, probably several times. And you better enjoy each time it changes and not forget that losing your passion could be a great chance to rediscover yourself.

Change Your Perspective

Firstly, don’t wait for your passion to come.

Forget about the whole passion business and focus on your strengths. Dig deep, take an hour or two or a day and write down what you think about your strengths, what they are and how did you use them in the past? Don’t just answer the typical interview question “what are your bigger strengths?”. You are not preparing for the interview. You are finding who you are.

Secondly, use the tools available to you to get more insight. I can’t recommend enough the Strengths Finder 2.0 book/online test (you get the test code in the book to use it online). I am encouraging you to order it today, pass the test, and analyse the results thoroughly. The creators of the book have analysed more than 10,000 executives in all sort of fields and boiled down the research to 33 different strengths that people possess in different ratios. This test will help you to find your top 5 and can give you some hints at industries where your type of strengths fit well.

You can also try Mayers-Briggs Type Indicator Test. I got some insight from it and hopefully, you will too. Here is one place you can pass it online (10 min). Here is the alternative.

Thirdly, ask peers for feedback. Go straight and ask “Tell me what you think I am good at? What are my strengths in your opinion”. Listen carefully. Don’t interrupt, just note it down. This is data collection, nothing more. For one reason or the other people will share their opinion. Look for patterns and common things they say. It should shed more light on your strengths.

Finally, change your mindset:

Don’t Follow Your Passion, Build It On Your Strengths Instead