Bad Advice from the Passionistas

In the late 70s I was friends with James and Jonathan, twin brothers who were, to put it charitably, unconventional thinkers. One had been a lawyer but they both gave up what they were doing and moved to Fort Lauderdale in their mid-20s to become lifeguards and pursue their dream of becoming world class swimmers. Since they began their careers older than most world-class swimmers who had already retired, they quickly realized that their passion was not enough to make them successful. Then they had the brilliant idea that they would swim the English Channel —doing the butterfly!

Anyone who has ever tried to swim butterfly knows that it is by far the most grueling stroke; but that was the essence of their genius: no one was crazy enough to try it, so just about any time they got in the water they broke a world record. As one who accompanied them (on a paddleboard) for a 10-mile swim along Fort Lauderdale Beach, I can attest that they were two of the most passionate and determined guys I’ve ever met. But for some reason history has forgotten them.

I’m reminded of these guys when I see yet another article or tweet that tells us the key to life is following your passion. When you read or hear advice like this, it sounds as sure as a law of physics:  all you have to do is figure out what you’re really passionate about, make sure you concentrate on it, and success and happiness will follow.

It sounds nice, but it’s also like telling a football coach that the secret to an undefeated season is to only play the games you want to play.

I don’t dispute that passion is a wonderful “thing” to have, but passion is not enough, and sometimes passion is not necessary. The way they make it sound, following your passion is a guarantee of success. (So is buying a winning lottery ticket; the only secret is that you have to buy the right one.)

An overemphasis on passion rests on shaky economic and psychological premises.

Economically, following your passion is excellent advice as long as two conditions apply:

  • There is a market for what you’re passionate about.
  • You can realistically aspire to be at or near the top of your field.

The problem is that those conditions tend to conflict. There is a supply and demand relationship between marketability and passion. Sometimes you can be at the top of your field precisely because there is no demand for it. If the activity you’re passionate about has no value in the market, it’s a sure prescription to dying hungry. You may have a smile on your lips, but very little food will pass through them.  The more of a market there is for what you do, the greater the supply of competitors who are equally as passionate about it as you are. The perfect illustration is American Idol. There is no doubting the strength of passion of almost every single one of the contestants, but the vast majority of them should never quit their day jobs. Most college athletes are passionate about their sports, but only a small minority go on to make a living playing their sports professionally.

It’s also about comparative advantage. I’m passionate about physical fitness and working out, so I suppose I could open a gym or become a personal trainer. Do you know how many gyms and personal trainers there are in Fort Lauderdale? Let’s assume I’m a better fitness trainer than average (I don’t claim to be, but this is a thought experiment, so just go with it); let’s also assume that I’m a better sales trainer than average (that one I do claim). I could try to do both, but the simple fact is that sales training pays better than fitness training, so it does not make sense to follow both passions with equal intensity.

The psychological argument is even more important. The passionistas misread human motivation: they tell us that passion is powerful because it drives us to produce our best work. I don’t dispute that passion works that way, but it’s not the only driver for producing your best work.

It’s a little insulting to imply that you need passion to do your best work. Does this mean that if we don’t care passionately about something, we’re going to do bad work? I can think of a lot of reasons that someone might give their absolute best even if they’re not passionate about something: a personal commitment to excellence, a strong work ethic, the moral obligation to give your best to your employer, and so on.

Besides, even when you’re passionate about something, there are parts that come with it that you won’t want to do, or there are days when you just have to grind through difficulties and tedium. As Dan Waldschmidt says, “A lot of life comes down to doing hard things when you least feel like it.” Determination steps in when passion takes a day off.

If you need passion to keep you going, find something to be passionate about in what you’re doing. Sometimes the best path in life is to follow the advice of the Crosby Still Nash song that says: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” If you’re in a job that you’re not passionate about, find some aspect of it that you can really grab and make your own—something that you can take pride in.

By the way, in doing a little fact-checking for this post I noticed a 2010 Wall Street Journal article that says long-distance butterfly is becoming popular. Anyone looking for a new challenge?

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