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 (Photo: iStock)
(Photo: iStock)

Opinion | ‘Follow your passion’ isn’t always the best line to put a person on the road to success

Other factors that contribute to runaway success, like hard work, discipline and luck, are forgotten

It can be rather confusing to pick or continue a career when most of the advice out there goes along the lines of “follow your passion".

This is rather simplistic. I am not questioning whether following your passion is prudent, but all I am saying is that following your passion does not necessarily mean, as is implied or stated directly as a corollary, that success will automatically follow. Success, especially runaway success, is dependent on many things coming together, with luck and timing not being insignificant factors.

The follow-your-passion line of advice conveniently ignores one important factor: Whether you are good at what you are passionate about. The underlying logic behind advice like this is undoubtedly examples of a few individuals who had extraordinary success by pursuing their passion. Often the other ingredients that went to contributing to their runaway success--like hard work, discipline and luck--are forgotten. It is so much easier and convenient to attribute success solely to passion and dish it out as advice.

The second, and often unconscious reason, for this ubiquitous advice is that when someone asks for advice, it takes courage to reply, “I don’t know what you should pursue" or “You should figure that out yourself" or engage in a deeper conversation to help the person work out a good career path. Instead, the easy option that would also make the advisor sound cool is “follow your passion".

Now, there are four kinds of people when it comes to work. One, those who are passionate and good at whatever it is they choose. These are the fortunate few for whom work is intoxicating and a break or hobby is never needed. Two, those who are passionate but not good at it—in which case they can’t earn a living from their passion but can pursue it as a hobby. Three, those who are not passionate but good at it—they can earn a living off work though boredom may set in, which will have to be offset by hobbies or holidays. And four, the unfortunate few who have neither passion nor flair for what they do.

The first and last are clear. The conflict is often for two and three, namely whether to follow your passion and struggle to make a living or do what you are good at, make a healthy living, and fulfil your passion outside of work through a hobby.

The reality is that most of us are not fortunate enough to be both passionate about and excellent at what we do. So we fall into category two or three. In the good old days, the wise folks always recommended focusing on earning a living wage even if it was boring, and pursuing one’s passion as a hobby. Today, however, there seems to be no space for type three. It’s all about passion or nothing at all.

In fact, there seems to be little thought even for type two—the implicit assumption is that if you’re passionate about something, you must follow it and you’re automatically going to excel at it. Most successful people I have met have evolved an approach to life that revolves around trying to do something they like, but irrespective of whether they liked what they were doing or not they eventually excelled at it through sustained application of discipline and ambition. I have rarely met anyone who knew at an early age what her passion was and made it big by pursuing it relentlessly. I am not denying that there are surely some who have tasted success by pursuing their passions but I am absolutely certain that they are a minority. And frankly, what’s so bad at doing what you are good at instead of pursuing something you may be passionate about, but not necessarily good at, and hence struggling every day to make ends meet? Being meticulous, disciplined and reliable eventually sets off a chain of events in one’s life that often contributes more to happiness than simply following one’s passion.

So this “follow your passion" advice is superficial, misleading, populist, and involves incomplete disclosure. My career advice would be slightly different: If you love something and are really good at it, pursue it. If you haven’t “discovered your passion", make the best of the options life offers you by being meticulous, hardworking, disciplined and ambitious. Find interesting people to work with, people who you would respect and at the same time like to hang out with. It’s not so bad to like what you do, even if you’re not passionate about it.

T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and an adviser to several venture capital firms and startups.

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