Opinion: The misleading notion of following your passion in life

Contact CU Independent Opinion Staff Writer Alexis Kantor at Alexis.Kantor@colorado.edu.

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Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and best-selling author of “Lean In.” She is successful, prosperous and passionate about her line of work. In addition to her leadership role at Facebook, Sandberg is notorious for her feminist writings. “Lean In” is a book dedicated to promoting strategies for gender equality both at work and in the home.

But she didn’t wake up one morning early in her twenties and feel an urge to stand up to gender inequality. Only recently has Sandberg identified herself as a feminist. As described in “Lean In,” when Sandberg was a young adult in business school, she went out of her way to blend in with her male counterparts. If this was Sandberg at 25, what prompted her to write a bestseller that represents the paragon of modern feminism? As Sandberg became a voice of influence due to her success in technology, her passion for feminism grew. Such a large portion of her time was spent on developing business and leadership skills that she inevitably became a strong female voice.

“Follow your passion” is a famous (and dangerous) epigram of anonymous origin. The idea of people following their passion in life sounds enticing and indisputable, as if it is a fool-proof plan for a quality life or career. Yet, those who have contested this logic have found substantial success. The fact is, the vast majority of people don’t have hidden passions written in the stars waiting to be discovered that match a profession. The key to a successful career is not in courage and passion, but in practice and persistence.

People who believe passion alone leads to success and happiness are making an idealistic assumption. Even worse, people spend their lifetimes testing it out. The assumption deepens. Passion is viewed as the only thing someone needs to weather the storm when hard times come. But the truth is, passion is not an anchor. We live in a world where college students constantly change majors, and people work five to ten jobs before ever settling down. Our passions therefore stand on unstable ground.

With the popularity of the belief in pursuing passion, we shouldn’t have so many discontented workers. But we do. People back themselves into a career corner when they mistake passion for actually becoming good at their job. Passion convinces people they will find a desirable career based off of good intentions. I neither have this degree of trust in the system, nor the belief that passion is what drives a skilled worker.

I believe practice and persistence are the fundamental components of finding work you love. Passion is secondary and often irrelevant. Not only are our minds naturally malleable when we are young, but there’s also not a lot a person can do with their passion unless it is honed into a skill. The best thing is to devote time and energy to developing a range of useful skills that are derived from an inflated ambition, not passion.

I am talking about a simple flip of conventional wisdom. By focusing intentions on becoming skilled, rare and valuable, passion will find you. Treat yourself like you are your most worthwhile investment. Show the world why people need you in it. Forget worrying about how it’s all going to pay off for right now. If intentions are targeted and actions are meaningful, then there is little possibility of failure. Doors open for people who are good at what they do.

Sandberg still works for Facebook, but is better known for her advocacy work in gender equality. She doesn’t attribute any of her success in inspiring women to following a passion. Rather, she had put in the time and effort necessary to becoming great, and was then urged by her peers to shed a light on gender equality. At first she negated, claiming that she “was a tech-nerd, not a feminist.” But many people persisted. After receiving a wealth of positive reviews from men and women of all ages about “Lean In,” she honed in on her new set of powers. Sandberg is now a global force in modern feminism and motivates women to abandon their fears. I encourage you to find people like her. You may be surprised at the number of people who love what they do, but could have never predicted that’s the career they would love. Invest in yourself and be valuable to the world, and passion will find you.

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