Wed. Apr 24th, 2019

Follow your passion is, at best, confusing career advice

Passion is good but it takes time to find it, especially at work.

Like many millennials, I have received career advice along the lines of “follow your passion”, which roughly translates to following my inner calling. Although it sounds great, it’s hard to understand, deconstruct and put into practice.

The term “follow your passion” has increased nine-fold in English books since 1990, according to Finding a Fit or Developing It, a research paper published by Patricia Chen, Phoebe Ellsworth and Norbert Schwarz. One can’t help but notice the dissonance between the emphasis on passion at work and the lack of avenues to build meaningful careers.

Personally, I am motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Ikigai, which is at the core of my mentoring community’s mission. Ikigai is a Japanese concept pertinent to the future of work. It means “a reason for being”. Ikigai is seen as the convergence of four primary elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for.

Unfortunately, most education today is not designed to inspire ikigai in students. Institutions do their best to standardize creativity and mass-produce mediocrity, leaving Jack a dull boy and Jill thoroughly dissatisfied.

As a young professional, it can be deeply unsettling to graduate from such an education system and then be bombarded with “follow your passion” advice. How are we supposed to follow our passion without any institutional, cultural or systemic encouragement, career support or mentoring? The situation is particularly acute in Asian countries. While many of you may point out that great innovators have emerged from this region, it is worth noting that exceptions don’t override norms.

Stanford University’s professors of psychology Carol Dweck and Greg Walton published a paper in Psychological Science where they argue that passions aren’t found; they are nurtured and developed over time with the help of micro-experiments, grit and resilience. If we quit every time we find a stumbling block and blame it on lack of passion, we are in for a rough ride.

For me, micro-experiments have helped discover my strengths and mental models. I have realized three things. First, passions can change (they often do). Second, we constantly underestimate the change we will go through. Third, accepting change gets harder every year.

All these points underscore the importance of being the architect of our own career but it is easier said than done. Someone rightly said that India has 1.3 billion cricket coaches. I believe, India also has 1.3 billion career coaches. Everyone has a very strong opinion on careers. Everyone has one super successful friend or relative who followed their passion and conquered the world. And everyone thinks this success is easily replicable.

I have personally suffered from such well-meaning but intensely confusing career advice. That’s why I set up Network Capital—a global community for sharing skills, insights and getting career advice from a portfolio of experts. Every day students and young professionals pose questions to each other and established leaders in their field of choice. They learn with and from each other, through stories of success and failure.

One of the most important skills of the 21st century will be the ability to continually reinvent oneself. That’s why we need to build and be part of diverse learning communities. Personal responsibility coupled with shared accountability of communities will help us embrace the future equitably. And that’s when “follow your passion” will have concrete meaning.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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