Don’t ask, “What’s my passion?” Ask this instead

“Follow your passion” is a common piece of career advice and I think this is especially so in the social sector. Our passion isn’t just for a job, but for a cause. We want to create and see change on pressing social issues. This passion drives us to build community, to deal with the setbacks and challenges of working in this sector, and encourages us to stay in it for the long-haul.

At the same time, there are limitations to building a career around this question. It assumes passion is a single interest or destination; it ignores that sometimes the things we are passionate about aren’t necessarily the things that we want to do (or can do) for work; and it ignores the day-to-day work we do entirely, in terms of the skills and talents we want to lend to our causes.

In fact, when people want to chat with me about their passions, I rarely get questions around causes—most people know what cause they are passionate about. Instead, it’s often about work: what kind of work should they be doing to advance their cause?

This makes me wonder: Should we be asking something else?

In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore: Why Skills Trumps Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport, (whom we’ve interviewed before about his views on passion) asks a different question: What are you willing to get really good at?

I would take this question a bit further and ask, “What are you willing to get really good at that will contribute to your cause?” I think there are several benefits to asking this question:

  • It focuses on skills, which are often the biggest hurdles in finding work we love: As I mentioned earlier, most of the questions I get around passion, aren’t about a cause, but rather about what kind of work the person asking the question should explore. Of course, this means we likely have to try multiple things in order to figure this out and we might not land on just one single talent or skill we want to contribute — but the goal is still strengthening your skill set.
  • It allows us to see how our hard work could contribute to change and to our growth: It takes time to get really good at something, even if you love it. And in the context of creating change, it’s important to see how your contributions can actually help move something along. Where would your talents best be used? What kind of organization is in need of your work?
  • It gets at what makes us happy at work: We all want to see the impact of our work. And when it comes to day-to-day happiness, Cal argues that we’re happy when we’re doing what we’re good at. We enjoy autonomy and a sense of control and these feelings increase as we get better at what we do.

He digs into this a bit more in this 99u talk:

Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice from 99U on Vimeo.

What do you think of this approach? Should skills drive your job search? Add your comments below.

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  1. Pingback: Don’t ask, “What’s my passion?” Ask this instead | MyCareerTesting Social Media

  2. Thank you for exploring this topic beyond the usual “just follow your passion” stuff which is everywhere on the Internet.

    Plenty of people, myself included, do work which is often unrelated to my core passions, yet fulfil on a mission that they deeply care about. It’s the ability to contribute to a cause which we believe in that makes work fulfilling and intrinsically rewarding.


    • Sussan
    • April 24, 2014

    I’ve recently decided to “follow my passion” and look into community services and human rights. This article really put into perspective what I need to do to thrive. I’m going to start developing my skill set ASAP!

  3. Pingback: Don’t ask, “What’s my passion?” Ask this instead. | YNPN Triangle NC

  4. I love this perspective! Asking what skills are needed to get really great at moving MY cause forward is priceless.

    Many of us have come to the painful reality that what we do for a living and who we are at our core “self” is often at war.

    Asking me to focusing on actual skill sets that are required to promote and champion my cause will make the pursuit of a career within that passion much more viable.

    Thanks for a wonderful article and some food for thought! Would you mind if I share on my site?

  5. Pingback: For people interested in social change | Catalyst

  6. Pingback: Instead of “What’s my passion?” | Steven Evens

  7. When talking about passion, you may want to read the ‘When Helping Hurts’ by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. Two years ago I was in ‘Passion fatigue’ and I had to cancel a program that In was running for seven years…

    When it comes to strengthening your skills, you may want to know about what are you good at. You may want to read ‘NOW DISCOVER YOUR STRENGTHS’ by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. In the book there will be ‘The StrengthFinder Profile’ and it will tell you how it works and how to find where you have the greatest potential for a strength… It will give the five most dominant strengths from thirty-four themes of talents…

    Ben Amor, Founder
    Terra-Genesis — a human services nonprofit built from a dream..,.

  8. Pingback: Don’t ask “What’s my passion?” | schlaflosinwien

  9. I have so many passions that it has been hard for me to “go with your passion”. By adding in my extensive skill set I think I will have an easier time defining who I want/can help.

    Great take on a standard question…Thanks!

  10. Pingback: How to find the meaning in your (wandering) career | Idealist Careers

  11. Pingback: Should you follow your passion? | Idealist Careers

    • Crescentia
    • May 21, 2014

    Thank you for this thought provoking question. I recently enrolled in college to study Human Services. It has always bothered me that I wasn’t walking in my purpose or making a difference, no matter how small. While I believe that it is necessary to have a passion (for people) to be in the human services/social services field, knowing and mastering my skills is important in my contribution to advance the cause.

    • Sean
    • June 2, 2014

    In myself I’ve observed a cycle wherein increasing my skills allowed me to get emotionally invested in things in the first place. (Otherwise, the experience of helplessness I felt, when I cared about something I felt powerless to influence, was just too painful. Apathy was safer.) Then, once I identified my passions, my focus turned back to skill development according to what I needed to learn more of, in order to be effective working on things I care about. Then once again, my increased skills allowed me to believe more was possible, and refined my causes, which sent me back to skills, and so on. The more I’ve developed both of these, the more satisfied I’ve become with work and projects in general. So, in short, I think skills and passion have a complex, interactive relationship. Both are needed, in different amounts, at different times.

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  13. Pingback: ENGAGE – Wesleyan University » Blog Archive » Don’t ask, “What’s my passion?” Ask this instead (Reblog from Idealist Careers)

    • John
    • July 22, 2014

    One thing I must add is that is very important to see how we can all financially sustain ourselves as is a big must in addition to passion and skills. I wish to see more of pragmatism which can combine passion with skills and financial self-sufficiency. It is disappointing to hear of speakers and others ask, “What is the most passionate thing you would do all your life and focus most on if money wasn’t the issue?” when money is an issue to worry about in reality. Again, I wonder how to gear it around emphasis on passion with choices on making a living. Thanks!

    Any feedback is welcome!

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