It’s an often quoted phrase, “follow your passion,” and it’s becoming even more prevalent career advice for both career changers and job seekers who aren’t sure what they should be doing. The idea being that if you follow your passion you’ll ultimately find a line of work that is fulfilling for you.

Online entrepreneur communities are rife with motivational quotes from successful individuals, across a range of backgrounds and industries, all with a very similar message: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

But how true a message is this really?

Even when we’re doing what we love, we still have to put in the hard work that’s required to make it an ultimate success. There are so many other factors that go towards making what we love into a full-fledged career. And let’s not forget that once we’re doing what we love for work, it can quickly lose its edge as being something we’re so passionate about (especially when we’ve got to do that tax return or deal with a difficult client!)

While “follow your passion” is imbued with a wonderful positive sentiment, and it is a great place to start if you’re struggling to carve out a career you enjoy, it is also an extremely simplistic ideal that requires much more thought than initial impressions allow for. What many “passion-pusher” entrepreneurs often aren’t quoted on is the sheer amount of time, failure, wrong turns, rejection and absolute determination that was required to make their passion work for them as a successful career.

It’s an observation that’s now backed up by psychological research. Psychologists at Stanford and Yale-NUS College examined theories of interest, more specifically fixed theory (our passions are inherent and hidden within us) and growth theory (passions are something to be developed and nurtured over time). Over the course of five individual studies with the same participants, they found that those who had tested positively for being fixed theory inclined developed less and less interest in articles and media that weren’t linked to their designated interest.

Lead researcher, Paul O’Keefe, advises on the implications of the results:

“Telling people to find their passion could suggest that it’s within you just waiting to be revealed. Telling people to follow their passion suggests that the passion will do the lion’s share of the work for you. A growth mindset makes people more open to new and different interests and sustains those interests when pursuing them becomes difficult.

As someone who works with creative students on career development, and just what ‘following your passion’ really looks like as a career path, I have to add that this form of careers advice is also exceptionally lazy. If I told my students to go and follow their passion, without any other structured advice, guidance or support on how to do that, it would actually end up quite detrimental to their overall development in the long term.

What I absolutely encourage everyone to think about instead is:

  • What drives you, and what doesn’t? What makes you hate work?
  • What gives you a sense of purpose, and allows you to feel you have made a contribution to your community?
  • What aspects of work do you feel most proud of when you achieve them?
  • What aspects of work/projects get you really fired up?

Better than “follow your passion,” these questions actually allow you to think strategically about tangible actions, behaviours, and outcomes that relate to work, which will give you a much more structured approach to thinking about where you can place all of these things within a career.

Your next steps could look like the following:

Play Hard, Work Harder

We aren’t all born with some innate passion that suddenly blossoms when we’re at school. Our passions are magnitudes, and some of them don’t actually belong in the workplace, and you shouldn’t be attempting to make a career out of them.

Our passions can instruct us in many ways and it can a few years of work and career changes to really uncover what this looks like in the workplace. Once you’ve spent some time thinking about the questions above, and identified some potential avenues: work at them! Work at them and become the best you can be at them. Become a master of what you enjoy in the workplace.

The benefit here is two-fold. If you work so hard at it and don’t get sick of doing it, you are onto something good. The second benefit is that by working hard at something you enjoy, people can’t ignore you. Your enjoyment will show, and that’s when others will be interested in what you’re doing, and how they can help you do more of it.

Want proof of this? Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ is a fantastic read. You can access an excerpt over on the New York Times website.

Immerse Yourself in Your Passion

Ideas are just that; ideas. If you really want to learn more about what a potential passion career you’ve got your eye on might look like, you need to transition your ideas from theory to reality. A great way to do this is by undertaking some voluntary work, or internship, within the industry you’re interested in.

It’s very easy for us to view our passion career from a distance with rose-tinted glasses, but actually taking the icy cold plunge is what will really let us in on some of the realities we haven’t thought about.

If you’re harboring thoughts of becoming an artist, writer, or musician, then my friend the leap can be a little scarier. You’ve got to put the work out there. You’ve got to be open to rejection and being told your work is no good. If you can make it through that, you can make it into a career.

Make sure you utilize this experience to ask questions, research how others got there, identify skills and knowledge gaps and make plans for how you’ll address them. And while you’re at it…

Get a Mentor

What better way to get yourself grounded and ready to step up into developing a passion into a career, than by working with someone who has been there and done that.

Choose a mentor wisely. They’ll need to be someone you respect and trust, and who can offer you extreme honesty. A mentor who just tells you what you want to hear is not really a mentor. You’ll need someone who can say it like is, and tell you if something isn’t working.

Knowing your passions is great, but not knowing them is equally as exciting. Ensuring you’re operating from a growth mindset is a sure way to keep finding new doors, windows, or caves through which to step through and discover more about yourself. Mix all that with a healthy dose of determination, creativity, skills, experience, and strategy and you’ll be well on your way to a career you can be proud of.

Have you managed to build a successful career based on your passions? What’s one key thing that helped you get there?

About the Author

Elaine is a passionate careers educator, writer and learner. Since graduating with a degree in Psychology she has been fascinated by the different ways we learn – both academically and socially – and how we can utilise our experiences to become more authentic and fulfilled versions of ourselves. Her particular career interests are within personal and professional development, emotional intelligence at work, and the meaning of fulfilling work. Find more of her work on her website: