Follow your Passion on the Side

Follow your passion and the money will follow.  So goes the advice anyway.  It’s also not very likely.  Not only not likely, but given how happiness and life satisfaction work, there’s a good chance that you’re following the wrong path.  Following your passion is great advice; just not when determining a career path.  The University of Montreal did a study on their students’ “passion” years ago, as related through the website  90% of college students were passionate about sports, arts and music.  Unfortunately, only 3% of jobs are found in sports, art, and music.  Or, as put it in a nice succinct chart:

Let’s put the math another way.  According to, the top paying bachelor degrees involve a lot of science, math, and engineering.  #1 on the list is petroleum engineer, with each of the following degrees falling in the top 10: actuarial math, nuclear engineering, chemical engineering, economics, geophysics, and cognitive science.  All of these degrees have average starting salaries of $50,000-$100,000, with mid-career earnings well into the six figures.  Degrees right near the bottom: early childhood education, veterinary tech, photojournalism, social work, and counseling.  Each of these are often high on the “passion” scale, and each of these pay $35,000 or less starting out, with not much room to improve.  Following your passion is one thing; having the money follow is another.

What Does Passion Mean

First of all, what does passion mean?  How do we figure out if what we’re interested in is a real passion or just a momentary interest?  Often, we get really excited about something early on, but can’t sustain that same excitement for the long run.  Clearly, these things aren’t our life’s passion, but how do we tell the difference?  Unfortunately, the only way you’ll ever really know is whether you still get that fire in your belly, even after hundreds, if not thousands of hours of doing the work.  If after years of doing something, you still find it interesting and enjoyable, odds are high you’ve found a passion of yours.

Rarely is there only one thing that we’re passionate about.  And for many people, there may be nothing that they’ve yet found that they’re really passionate about.  Does everyone have a calling?  I’m not so sure.  This obsession with finding our passion can make people without it feel inadequate, or even worse, force them into unnecessary soul searching and bad decisions.  Following your passion assumes that you have a preexisting passion and that you can earn money doing it.  Most people don’t have a preexisting passion, and even fewer can earn money from it if they do.  Further, our passions and interests often change through time.  Imagine the conundrum someone would find themselves in working ten years in a low paying “passion” job only to have their passion change.

There are other ways to find happiness and meaning in your work.  It doesn’t only have to be working with your passion.  In fact, more often it’s not.  As seen in the University of Montreal example, “high passion” jobs are often those most in demand.  The competition for these can be fierce and it’s never easy to break into the field.  Unfortunately, the world is filled with bills you have to pay.  Most of us will end up in careers that as young people we never thought we’d be in.

How to Find Meaningful Work

Finding meaningful work does not have to come from your original passions.  Be open to opportunity everywhere you go.  Steve Jobs was passionate about Eastern mysticism when he founded Apple.  In fact, following your passion can actually limit your options and keep you from opportunities where you may not have thought to look.  Mastering marketable skills that others find worth paying for will open doors for you.  Communication, working with others, meeting the needs of your clients, and getting stuff done will be valuable at any career.

Happiness at work often comes down to three things: whether we’re good at it or not, whether we’re helping others, and whether we have a supportive environment to do our job.  The supportive environment includes good colleagues, work that fits our lifestyle, fair pay and benefits, and the opportunity to get into a flow state from time to time.  Most often, if you do the work and are good at the work, the passion will follow.  When we’re good at something, we tend to enjoy it.  Think about learning something new when you’re early in the process.  Often, it’s very frustrating.  But as we get better and do it for a longer period of time, we often begin to enjoy it more and more.  Find out what you’re good at and eventually, it will become your passion.

Most everyone is pretty bad at figuring out what makes us happy before we actually do the thing that does.  There is no special passion unique to each individual.  The average person can be passionate about many different things, once they start putting in the work.  To cultivate passion at your current job, hone your skills and become an expert.  Then use that expertise to leverage your next step in life.  If you’re just starting out in your career or looking for a change, determine what you want your legacy to be.  What do you care about and what drives you?  Can you build a career or business around that?  Are there related efforts at your current job or elsewhere that you can work on that would give you access to what drives you?  Remember to keep your mind open to the possibilities; often you can find a job that incorporates parts of what you want your legacy to be.

In the end, all of this involves a lot of work, a lot of skill building, and a lot of trial and error.  You may have to work the 9-5 and pursue your passion during the nights and weekends.  That’s okay.  Remember, the keys to good work are pretty straightforward:

  1. Engaging and interesting: Finding something that pushes you regularly, keeps you engaged, and makes you want to continue learning will be the biggest determinant of job satisfaction.
  2. Freedom to determine how you do your work: Being able to dictate how and when you do your work is one of the most underrated perks of a good career. If you find this, think long and hard before changing jobs.  It can be tough to find again.
  3. Fits well with your lifestyle: A career that fits well with who you are and where you are in life is important.  As a father of young kids, having the freedom to come and go as needed for family activities is extremely important to me.
  4. Variety: Doing just a few things over and over again results in drudgery.  I’m grateful that my job entails looking at new stuff almost daily.  A job with variety helps keep you engaged and interested.
  5. Feedback: Getting regular feedback on how you’re doing makes your job easy.  If you know you’re doing well, you can continue on.  If you know you’re doing poorly, you can make a change.  Being caught between knowing and not can be difficult.
  6. Contributing to something bigger: Helping others or a sense of contributing will help provide fulfillment in your work life.  You don’t need to work at a non-profit to do so.  Many jobs offer the sense of contribution to something bigger than your small part.
  7. Good colleagues: Working with people that you enjoy spending time with makes all the difference.  Working with jerks, even if you love your job, is a tough slog.
  8. Lack of big negatives: A long commute, crappy or unfair pay, long hours, or job insecurity all detract from meaningful work.  Added stress from these factors can turn your dream job into a nightmare.

The Value of F-You Money

All of this discussion about passion naturally leads to the discussion on F-You money.  Having F-You money opens all kinds of doors to following your passion.  When you have no need to work in order to pay life’s expenses, you can do anything you want.  Volunteering at a local charity, going back to school, or working at the low paying but highly satisfying job are all possibilities.  Sometimes you have to put in the work first before you get to the good stuff.

There are Many Paths to Satisfying Work

Follow your passion and the money will follow is bad advice, and mostly wrong.  Often, it’s the exact opposite.  Passion is difficult to define, and many people never find it.  Or they waste their time for years only to find that their passion has changed.

Working at a career that you’re good at will help build passion.  As we gain skills and expertise, we begin to enjoy these activities more and more.  Further, working at a job that helps others and where we can find a supportive environment makes all the difference.  The majority of jobs probably don’t pass all of these requirements, which is what makes learning marketable skills so important.  Staying open to possibilities will help us ultimately find meaningful work.  And if not, having F-You money will put your passions within reach.

Keep building my friends.

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