Buzzwords are all over tech, but one that has been turned into a sort of a standalone pseudo-religion is the concept of “passion.” Startups love talking about how they’re passionate about their app and the culture they’re fostering that only welcomes those who are also passionate. Just about every self-help business book has at least one chapter dedicated to “following your passion.”

And, of course, my fellow millennials have latched onto this concept with reckless abandon. I could go on about how that leads to a perpetuation of the “special snowflake syndrome” that my generation is so famous for, but that’s not what I want to focus on here. Instead, I’d like to challenge the value of passion, inspiration and all those other tingly weasel words that have become so pervasive.

If you’re someone who uses the word “passion” on a regular basis, I’d like you to think for a moment about what that actually means to you. It’s a textbook example of a nebulous idea.

For some, it means being so fired up about something that you wake up every day at the crack of dawn ready to engage with it. A few are so hardcore that they believe sleeping is time that could be better utilized pursuing said passion (wrong). For others, it’s some activity that is an integral part of a person’s identity that may or may not be something they’re spending all of their time on. But these always seem to just be a ramp up to the very core of what passion is. It is this core that is intangible, a sort of metaphysical unicorn prancing around on the rainbows within people’s minds.

Yeah, whatever that means!

Yeah, whatever that means!

It is this core idea that causes the most problems in people’s lives. While it’s often viewed as the spark needed to drive success, it is, in my humble, biased opinion, the exact opposite. Allow me to explain.

Passion Breeds Procrastination

One of the biggest problems with this “passion mania” is that we’re constantly bombarded by this idea that every waking moment should be spent living within the warm embrace of whatever it is we view as our passion. We look on Instagram and see pictures of Richard Branson high-fiving blue whales just a few hundred meters from his private island. Some guy (or gal) we went to high school with hit it rich with affiliate marketing and now they post pictures of their Lamborghinis and bookshelves on YouTube for all to see. And so on.

We see all of these images and suddenly start feeling like our current situations aren’t that great. Just yesterday you had a boring moment, and it was awful! Your inner voice tells you that Richard Branson never has never experienced a dull second, and is probably driving race cars through Monte Carlo with the Dali Lama at this very moment. Suddenly you begin questioning all of the decisions you’ve made up to this point and start plotting out how you, too, could build a boredom-free life for yourself.

You start looking up books on Amazon, building spreadsheets, downloading productivity apps and crafting a five-year plan towards greatness. You feel proud of yourself for doing this, and go to bed that night feeling exuberantly confident in your ability to crush your goals. When you wake up the next day and start on your path to glory, you’re shocked to see how boring it all actually is. You thought you loved that subject but, now that you’re up against the reality of it, you feel slightly ill. Once again, you sense that you aren’t actually pursuing your passion, and start the process over. Continue this until you’re past your prime and decidedly bitter about how you never had a chance to do what you’re passionate about.

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This is a process that I have first-hand experience with. I’ve bounced around in quite a few industries, always looking for something that really set my heart on fire. To my own surprise, what has ended up providing me with the most happiness isn’t my choice of business sector, but the routines that I built for myself along the way.

Take programming. When I first started to learn how to program, I found myself dedicating a good chunk of my time to it. As I progressed through the early stages of learning (a time in which substantial knowledge gains come regularly), I felt like maybe I’d found my true calling. But as the law of diminishing returns kicked in and I found work as a developer, I started to feel less and less enthusiastic about it. Being a developer in a professional setting is much different than being a lone programmer who’s just building applications for the fun of it. Some days, I was ready to throw up my hands and say “Fuck it, I’m never touching a keyboard again!” There are still times when I feel this way.

But I discovered a few absolutely critical ideas by going through this process:

  1. Working towards something is more important than wasting time trying to find a vocation that doesn’t involve any pain or boredom. The reality is that those careers don’t exist. More importantly, learning about a subject will rarely hurt you. For example, even if I stop working with code, having the kind of in-depth knowledge of computers that I’ve picked up along this journey will continue to benefit me. The world is run by computers, and knowing more about them than the average Joe confers plenty of advantages. My time in finance could also be described in similar terms: even though I ended up not liking the financial services industry, I learned quite a bit about economics, markets, sales and how to deal with clients - all of which can be (and are) useful to me.

  2. Setting up routines for self-improvement has a tremendous effect on happiness. I’ve built up a pretty decent routine that ensures I learn new things, strengthen my body and expand my social network on a daily basis. This all started because I decided, for better or worse, that I would work towards becoming an employable programmer. At the end of the day, it almost didn’t matter if I succeeded at that or not - the routine I used to make that happen ended up conferring benefits far beyond my professional goals.

  3. Just show up. Too many people wait for inspiration to strike to go to work. They need to be in the right mood, listen to a certain piece of music, eat a certain food, or whatever else they feel will conjure up their creative juices. This is nothing more than procrastination, disguised as the prerequisites for artistic expression. Making progress means showing up every day and working, whether you feel like it or not. Maintaining this kind of consistently will deliver results - often in ways you don’t expect. You will have days that suck and days that are amazing, but most of your days will be average. It is this average part that most people have a hard time with, primarily because it’s so common to believe that average days shouldn’t be average. Assuming that you’ve found your passion, every day is supposed to be rainbows-shooting-out-of-your-ass-amazing. Stop believing this lie and just start working!

It seems foolish to me to describe my acquired programming skills as a “passion.” The ability to write code is more like a set of tools that I carry around to accomplish certain tasks in my day-to-day life. What might be classified a passion is my own desire to improve as a human being. I’m perfectly happy with that, and I think it makes me far more valuable and productive than those who are constantly searching for that one perfect calling in life. Perfect isn’t an idea I believe in, so I don’t think time should be wasted pursuing it.

Passion and Opportunity Cost

The most dramatic problem with this idea of passion is that it encourages people to pass up opportunities that, on the surface, don’t appeal to their ideas about what life should be like. Everyone is so convinced that they should be an astronaut, artisanal cheese maker or socially-conscious entrepreneur that it doesn’t occur to people that they might actually be happy in something less romantic. An illustration of this is how the Navy SEALs process people through their training pipeline.

Before going forward, I need to qualify everything I’m about to say: I’ve never been in the military, so I can’t say I know what it’s like to go through any military training regimen. Instead, I have had a weirdly constant interest in special operations forces for most of my life and have met some actual SEALs here in San Diego. The result is that I’ve come across some interesting insights about the difference between public perceptions of what it’s like to be one and the (vastly different) reality.

The Navy SEALs are, by anyone’s definition, badasses. They jump out of airplanes, falcon punch sharks that look at them the wrong way and spend their nights hunting down terrorists. The men who get to do this job make it through a nearly two year training pipeline that begins with the notorious BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) school. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a look at this. That video illustrates just a small piece of what potential SEALs have to pass through.

In short, anyone who wants to become a SEAL needs to survive 6 months of absolutely brutal physical and mental punishment, followed by another roughly year and a half of additional training. Before even starting, candidates have to go through a fairly long process just to earn the right to attend BUD/S at all.

Anyway, before shipping off to BUD/S, candidates must sign what’s called an “open contract” with the Navy. This means that, if they fail, the military will assign them to whatever job is required at that moment in time. So a young man may go into the Navy expecting to become a SEAL and end up strapping bombs to fighter jets (or, in extreme cases, scrubbing toilets) for the next few years. But candidates are so convinced they’ll make it through that they agree to these terms, despite the fact that there is a meager 33% success rate for those who make it to the first stage of BUD/S.

Once the candidates make it to BUD/S, an interesting thing begins to happen. Candidates who are generally physically fit enough to continue start to quit. Some are dropped due to performance problems and medical issues, but most who don’t succeed in the training pipeline fail because they flat out do not want to keep going. Proud young men, who were willing to go through a rigorous and long process just to reach BUD/S, see what their future entails and decide on the spot that they’d rather risk their future with an open contract than keep suffering.

Here’s the thing: those candidates absorbed all the hype about being a Navy SEAL, without having a firm grasp of what that really means. They inevitably believe that their passion for the job will carry them through, but when they come face-to-face with what the life of a Navy SEAL is truly like, they realize that they’re not actually cut out for that kind of work. Very few, if any, candidates show up to BUD/S thinking they will fail. They’re driven by their passion for the idea of becoming a SEAL.

It’s a particularly tough situation because there isn’t a way to know ahead of time if you have the mental architecture to make it through, and Navy SEAL training is designed to find SEALs, not make them. Candidates who can hack it but don’t like what they’re doing suddenly have two fairly bad choices in front of them: either continue on and potentially make a living doing a dangerous job they hate, or drop out and face the possibility of becoming a military janitor.

Even if someone does enjoy that sort of work, the cost can be tremendous. Aside from the obvious danger of being killed in the line of duty (a sacrifice that many SEALs have made), major problems with pain and injury (particularly knee and back problems) are common. SEALs and other military personnel spend long stretches away from home, and miss out on major life events such as births, graduations, weddings and so on. For some, these costs, once seen in person, might end up being too much. Not to say that there aren’t plenty of satisfied SEALs in the world (I’m sure there are), I’m just pointing out that people get blinded by their own perceptions about what it is to be something without taking a moment to comprehend what it truly means.

This is why, in my opinion, passion can be so counter-productive. When people decide arbitrarily that they’re passionate about something, they turn down opportunities to explore things that they might end up really liking. Being an accountant might sound horrifying on the surface, but maybe it’s something you’d find enjoyable in practice. Public perceptions of being an accountant mean that many people would never even consider it, even if their personality would end up perfectly suited to that kind of work. The end result is that opportunities are lost because people blindly follow whatever sets their emotional neural circuits on fire and not what they would actually be suited for.

Take a moment to think about what it would be like to actually do what you dream of doing and consider the downsides. Here are a few examples I can think of that strike me as common “dream jobs”:

  1. Fighter pilot - Pros: fly cool airplanes, wear bitchin’ aviator sunglasses, get to call everyone “Goose” without explanation. Cons: years of difficult training, highly dangerous, long stretches away from loved ones (especially true in the Navy).

  2. Rock star/movie star - Pros: tons of attention from whatever sex you’re interested in, worldwide fame, wealth, access to any kind of intoxicants you like to ingest at the drop of a hat. Cons: zero privacy, constant scrutiny from critics, stalkers, everyone you know probably wants something from you.

  3. Successful entrepreneur - Pros: make your own schedule, work in underpants (if that’s your thing), don’t have a single boss to tell you what to do, can tell people you’re an entrepreneur. Cons: make your own schedule to fit the 12+ hours of work you have to put in 7 days a week, investors and clients who tell you what to do, people will constantly approach you with pitches.

Maybe these cons still don’t dissuade you. That’s fine - I’m not saying anyone should give up on their dreams just because there are downsides. Instead, I think it’s worth considering an alternative way of viewing opportunities that isn’t so tainted by the popular notion of passion. It’s far more constructive, on both a personal and professional level, to be open to changing your own personal goals based on what’s placed in front of you.

The Solution

The best way to avoid getting sucked into any of these traps is to do two things:

  1. Explore. Try out new things that you wouldn’t normally consider. If someone offers you a job that is unfamiliar in some way (sector, occupation, whatever), don’t dismiss it outright. Don’t set large goals for the future - set some small ones that revolve around making yourself better, and focus on doing that perpetually. Life rarely works out how you want it to, but it can be satisfying if you’re willing to work on understanding and improving yourself on a regular basis. Don’t get so blinded by the idea of being passionate that you think you need to love every moment of every day. It’s not going to happen.

  2. Get to work. Stop fluttering around trying to find “perfect” solutions to your problems, both personal and professional. Nothing is perfect, and any type of job you pick is going to have downsides. Believe it or not, even Richard Branson has boring moments and Navy SEALs still need to clean toilets. Decide on a direction and head towards it. Maybe you’ll hate it, and maybe you won’t - either way, at least you’ll be doing something and not wasting time trying to find a perfect path.

Bottom line: if you’re going to have a passion about anything, be passionate about working on yourself and exploring the world you live in. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into this idea that passion will get you to where you want to go. Chances are very good that you won’t get exactly where you’re going, and it’s more important to find ways to smile through whatever speed bumps you come across.