Why “Find Your Passion” Is Bad Advice

Some of you may have children graduating from high school or college this month. You may have the urge to give this advice: find your passion. Or, equally unhelpful, “Discover your awesomeness!” or “Be the best you you can be!” Don’t do it. I know it sounds all super-positive, but what do these phrases mean? Nothing. And, to a young person who may be struggling (as we all do at times) with existential angst, they can add a lot of unnecessary pressure.

Telling a young person to find his or her passion or to follow a passion implies that a person actually has a passion and has enough life experience to know what that passion is. It feeds in to the myth that there is that one, perfect, glitter-coated occupation or life’s work out there somewhere and, if only we could find it, we would live happily ever after in rainbow land forever and ever.

A better piece of advice might be the one that The Dowager Countess gives to Edith on Downton Abbey — “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. The first one and the next and the next, until at last we die.”  While this may sound a little negative, it all hinges on your definition of the word “problems.” Problems can be creative challenges. Problems can help us define who we are and they help us become the person that we never thought we could be.

Assuming that young people can know exactly what they want, and then achieve exactly that thing may be doing them a disservice. It may be closing them off to a slew of opportunities in life that they may never know until they slog through a few disappointments, rejections, failures and happy or sad accidents.

Assuming that young people know themselves well enough to be their best, most authentic self truncates the journey of self-knowledge that is life. I hate to think that I was my most awesome, authentic self at age 18 or 22. Let’s just say I had a lot of work to do on myself then, and I still have a lot of work left to do. Human beings are messy, continually evolving creatures, which isn’t a bad thing.

When my children were mulling over their post-college lives, the only advice I could give was to move forward, to do something, which would eventually lead them to the next thing. Maybe they didn’t have a passion, but they could identify some things they liked, so that was a start. Our society tends to focus on the end result, the final goal, the product, when, really, the joy is in the journey, or the process.

Rather than suggesting that my children look within, I’ve told them to look at people they admire and whose behavior they respect and to emulate those people. That’s kind of the opposite of “finding their authentic selves,” but it may be more worthwhile to look at ways we need to grow and change. Looking outward to others can help us learn.

My son’s trajectory has led him on a corporate career path through jobs that were similar, but with different companies, until he found a company that he really likes. My middle daughter worked for a non-profit through Americorps and then a foundation and, through those experiences, figured out what she really wants to do. She is now in graduate school working on a master’s degree, doing something she truly loves. The path to get there, however, was not a straight one.

My youngest is graduating with an MA in Spanish Literature this weekend, which is what prompted me to write this blog. As she left college, she was anxious about her future, and was considering several options, one of which was to continue in school. It turned out, she loved advancing her academic career, but was terrified about teaching college students. With no other choice besides quitting, she forged ahead and taught her first Spanish I class and loved it. If my advice to her had been to “follow her passion,” she certainly never would have taught that class. Not everything has gone smoothly through her two years in graduate school, but she has learned and matured through the process. She was accepted into a Ph.D. program in comparative literature at the University of Illinois, and will start there in the fall. Without taking some chances, challenging herself and trying some things she really didn’t want to do, she wouldn’t have gotten her current offer.

It’s hard for me to admit that I can’t control most things in life – and, as much as I would like to sometimes, I certainly can’t control or dictate my children’s lives. But I can remind myself that sometimes the best learning comes from starts and stops. From failures and successes. Maybe the best advice to give this graduation season is “Try it. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Categories: Editor’s Blog