Following Your Bliss? Make Sure You Have a Good Map


“Follow your bliss.”  Joseph Campbell, author

“Do what you love and the money will follow.”  Marsha Sinetar, author

“Passion is the genesis of genius.” Tony Robbins, motivational speaker

“[P]assion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.”  Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs"

I’m with Mike Rowe  on this one.

“Follow your passion, do what you love” is not always the best career advice. As Rowe points out, what happens when you are passionate about something you’re not particularly good at? He uses himself as an example. As a young man, his passion was to work as a tradesman, like his grandfather. He eventually realized that, despite his passion for handiwork, he wasn’t really all that handy.

My own career is another example. I followed my passion for biology all the way to a Ph.D. and a postdoctoral fellowship, mainly because it took me that long to realize that although I’m smart and I love science, I don’t have what it takes to be successful as an academic scientist.

Both Mike and I were able to find other work that we love AND excel at – and so can you. As he says, “Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, 'Don’t Follow your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.'"

Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, ‘Don’t Follow your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.’
— Mike Rowe, "Dirty Jobs"

Sometimes it’s possible to create a career by taking a step back and asking, “Where is the overlap between what I’m good at doing, and what I love to do?” I brought my passion for science with me into a career in nonprofit management, starting with a job at an independent research laboratory that required my skills in writing, project management, and facilitating and fostering collaborations. Later in my career, when an academic research scientist referred to people like me who had left academia as “failed scientists,” I could honestly say to him, “I am still a scientist. I don’t do research, and I am working in science in some way nearly every day.”

When considering a job or career change, you need to answer some questions honestly, without regard for how you think you should answer:

  1. What kind of things do you like to do?
  2. What are you really good at? What are your strengths?
  3. What kinds of, and how many, people do you like to work with?
  4. What kind of physical work environment do you prefer?
  5. What kind of cultural work environment do you prefer?
  6. How do you want your work to relate to the other facets of your life?
  7. How much in the way of money and resources do you need to feel secure?

This isn’t a linear progression, it’s a Venn diagram. When you can find the place where some or all of these preferences overlap, you are well on your way to finding work that you’ll enjoy.

It may be that what you love to do is not what you are particularly good at. In this case, you could explore what (if any) overlap there is between the two. Sometimes the choices are fairly obvious. If you are a skilled wordsmith and like to write and you are passionate about science, then working as a science writer or journalist might be an excellent choice.

If there are no overlaps that point directly to a new job or career, this is your chance to be creative and possibly entrepreneurial. Where can you identify or anticipate a need or a problem in the areas where your passion lies that will require your skills and abilities to fill or solve? Mike Rowe has a talent for performing, and brought that talent and his passion for the work of tradespeople together to create a successful TV show and a nonprofit organization that encourages young people to train in the trades.

It may be that you’re good at what you love to do, but is not going to provide the financial resources or security you want. Sometimes it’s possible to both follow your passion while earning a living doing something else. In this case your goal may be to figure out what kind of work you can enjoy doing for pay (even if it is not your top preference of things to do), and that also gives you the time, energy, and resources to do what you love, prefer, and want to do. I know an amazing singer and songwriter with a substantial local following and recognition among other musicians. Despite her outstanding talent and hard work at her craft, she’s not (yet) broken into the big time with her music. Knowing she couldn’t make enough money as a local performer to pay the bills, she started a business cleaning houses. Working as a housekeeper offered her the scheduling flexibility she needed to continue to play her music, paid well enough to meet her needs, and gave her work she enjoyed. She told me, “I love going into a place that’s a mess, making it shine, sparkle, look and smell good, and then walking away knowing I’ve done good work. I get real satisfaction from that. The actual work of cleaning is very relaxing for me. People ask me if I sing while I clean. I don’t, but I do whistle a lot, because I’m happy doing what I’m doing.” If she could make enough money playing music to quit cleaning houses, would she? Probably, but in the meantime she’s found a solution that suits her fine.

Crafting a satisfying career requires balancing passion, practicality, and capability.

It also requires letting go of “shoulds” – what you think you should do, what other people think you should do, and what you think other people think you should do. Following a career path because it is what you think you are supposed to do, or because it is what people like you do, or because it is what people in your family always do, is a guaranteed formula for disgruntlement, disappointment, and despair. This is where the honesty comes in.

If you truly don’t enjoy working with groups of people, then following your family tradition by joining the ministry is probably not going to bring you much satisfaction, and may bring you so much stress your health will suffer. You may have to disappoint your family’s expectations. And if theology is your passion, a career as a scholar might be more suitable.

If you have an acute sense of smell, then pursuing a career in organic chemistry research is probably not the best choice of work environments for you, no matter how much you love the theoretical side of organic synthesis. A career in the fragrance and flavorings industry might be a way to combine that capability with your need for a less offensive olfactory environment.

The earlier in your career you ask these questions, and answer them honestly, the less time you’ll spend following your bliss down blind alleys or wondering why the work you love isn’t paying the bills.

Want to explore this some more? Consider investing in a coach  - it's really an investment in your future.