Following your passion is terrible advice. ❎
But everyone tells us it’s the only way we’ll ever get the job ‘of our dreams’, or ever enjoy what we do. It’s what Steve Jobs said at the 2005 Stanford graduation ceremony: ‘You’ve got to find work you love’, or even the philosopher Alan Watts: ‘What makes you itch?’.
Yes, we want to be passionate in our jobs. But it’s not by finding your passions first and then looking for ‘the perfect job’ that you’ll find a career you’re passionate in. There’s a lot more you can do to make sure you find the right career.
This post is based on William MacAskill’s great book Doing Good Better, where he gives career advice to other people who want something more solid than ‘find your passion’.
Why ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice
- It suggests that passion is all you need
It’s not just about the passion. If a basketball fan starts playing basketball but works with people he hates, isn’t paid well or finds the work meaningless, I bet you he won’t be liking his job. 🏀
Passion is not the only thing you want to be looking at when picking a career, you also need to look at the conditions you’ll be working in, or ‘Hygiene’ factors.
- Many times, our passions don’t fit the world of work
A survey was done on the students of a Canadian university on their passions. 84% of the students said they had a passion. And 90% said those passions included sport, music and art. Awesome! But only 3% of jobs are in those industries.
Obviously, we have a little problem here.
- Interests change
What you’re passionate about now, you may not be interested in at all in the future. It would get pretty awkward if you spent 5 years studying medicine, to then realise that you don’t actually like medicine anymore. Oops. 🙄
- Humans are bad at predicting what makes us happy
You may think that a job as an astronaut may make you the happiest person on Earth. But, according to statistics, it’s highly likely that you’re wrong. Because as I said before, many times it’s the conditions of the job (co-workers, environment, location, commute) that bring happiness, not the job itself. Double oops.
Ok, so ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice, but what should I do instead? Will MacAskill gives us a good framework to help you find a career you like.
Here’s some real career advice
First of all, studies have shown that there are 5 things that bring people satisfaction at their job:
- Sense of completion
- Feedback from the job
So after going through the steps below and singling out a few career paths that interest you, use the above 5 factors to compare each job to another.
Treat your career like a scientist, continuously testing hypotheses and investigating which career path would work for you.
1. Look at your track record and make a list
This isn’t as easy if you’re just starting out with your career and don’t have much experience in the career field (like me, at 20). But really it’s pretty simple; look at the different things, projects and activities you’ve done in the past. Maybe you liked a certain class at school, or you like a certain sport, or you like an activity (travelling, for example).
Then, make a list of all the career paths you might be interested in following – when I did this, I ended up with about 12. Go crazy, let your mind go wild. What is it that you really want to do? It could be anything from being a spy, to a scientist, to a pilot, to a software engineer to a diving instructor. Let the career aspirations (or dreams, as society calls them) go wild. 🧠
2. Talk to people on the job and investigate
So you now have a list of different hypotheses. What does a scientist do now? They investigate. Go through each hypothesis and learn as much as you can about that career path. Do some research online, look at the degrees that you might need, the different activities and skills that the job may require.
Another great way of investigating is simply talking to people on the job. Ask them whether you would be a good fit, ask the main reasons why people leave the job. Ask them about their experiences and reasons for working in this area. People are more than happy to share their story – all you have to do is contact them and ask to meet them for coffee ☕. You’re at a crossroads in your career and you’re asking for directions – that’s all.
The problem with ‘follow your passion’ is that it assumes that all you have to do is look inwards and you’ll have all the answers. When really, as I said before, in order to find something that personally fits you, you need to investigate first. Find out as much as you can about the job, and then see if this is something that you would be interested in. Later we’ll cover an example of how a typical 23 year old may go about this.
3. If you care about impact, measure it
Will’s book is all about how to make an impact in the world, in the most efficient way. This really depends on whether you care about making an impact or not. If you do care, here are three ways to make the most impact:
- Being employed in an efficient organisation that solves some of the world’s most pressing problems
- Earning a lot of money to then give to efficient organisations
- Influencing others (e.g. politicians)
I won’t be digging too deep into making an impact in this blog post, but for more information go check out the 80,000 hours website!
4. Measure how much career capital you will build up
So you’ve now investigated and done some research on your different career paths. You may have eliminated a few because you realise you wouldn’t be interested in what the position actually entails.
The next thing that is important is to find a career that allows you to build future career capital. This means a portfolio of what you’ve achieved so far, connections within your industry and important skills.
This means, you want to find a career that allows you to:
- Keep your options open
- Build skills
- Build experience
So, for example, studying something very specific such as maritime law won’t allow you to keep your options open, and you won’t be building skills in other areas. An example of something that builds tremendous skills, experience and keeps your options open is consulting. It may not be your passion, but it will give you more opportunities to explore your passion in the future.
I’m a bit lost, can you give an example?
This can be slightly overwhelming and pretty life changing (it was for me when I read it!). So Will describes an example in his book that explains how a typical student or young adult can go about figuring out their career. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s pretty much the same story.
Peter is graduating from university with a degree in Political Science and Psychology. He doesn’t really know what he wants to do (surprise, surprise), but he knows that he wants a career that is personally satisfying and that makes a difference in the world.
- Look at your track record and make a list:
He originally thought he would go on to grad school to study political science because he enjoyed the research projects, but after reading this amazing career advice, he decides to widen his search. Instead of trying to figure out what career path fitted his current passions best, he drew up a list of fifteen possible options across a range of areas.
- Talk to people on the job and investigate:
Of these 15 possible options, he talked to people in those field, did his research and chose the ones he thought he would perform best based on his skills and experience. This ruled out some options: consulting would involve a lot of travel, and he’d hate that. Medicine would require a lot of retraining, which wouldn’t be worth it. He narrowed down his options to 5 possible candidates (or hypotheses):
- Grad school
- Law school
- Non profit work
- Computer programming
- Market research
- If you care about impact, measure it
He decided he wanted to make an impact later on in life when he had the skills, and not right now since he wouldn’t have much of an impact. So that ruled out non profit work. He figured the other paths could make an impact since he would be earning more money which he could then donate to efficient charities.
- Measure how much career capital you’ll build up:
He then looked at law school, and realised that it would commit him to one path with a very specific set of skills, and he’d also end up with quite a bit of debt. Software engineering and market research would give him long term skills and he’d learn more, which he could use by working in non profits later. He would also be earning more, which means he would also be making an impact by donating his money.
Will says that Peter spent his last year in university learning about computer programming, and went on to get a job as a software developer.
Your path may not be as straightforward as Peter’s, but the framework is still extremely useful. The reason it’s important to keep your options open is that your career is a constant work in progress, and that you need to know how to constantly be readjusting and learning new things.
When you are uncertain about a career, reduce the uncertainty and investigate as much as you can (I call this exploration). This means talking to people, doing internet research and testing through student internships. Single out the options that you think are your personal best, measure the kind of impact you’ll be making and take into account the skills and career capital you’ll be building.
I believe the career advice in the book is absolutely life changing, and thanks to Will, I’ve readjusted what I want to do in the future, just by taking into consideration the skill and experience I want to be building. If you want more excellent advice and actual actionable steps to figuring out your life, I recommend, of course, reading his book Doing Good Better, and checking out the website 80,000 hours and Effective Altruism.
Isn’t it great to think that, yes, there is a clever way to build a career that I love? 😍