Don’t follow your passion

Over 230 posts into a blog that's broadly about travel and doing your own thing, and we've never used the phrase "follow your passion". Or, for that matter, "do what you love and the money will follow".

If Rob followed his passion, he'd be going for a lot of walkies.
If Rob followed his passion, he’d be going for a lot of walkies.

(Although I've just ruined that now.)

The sentiment of those pieces of advice is pleasantly fuzzy and aspirational, but it's never struck me as being very useful: doing what you love is all well and good, but how will the money follow? Does the world just thrust money into your hand when it sees how personally fulfilled you are? Or, assuming you have to do something to bring the money about, what do you need to do?

There's also the assumption that you have a passion to follow. Back when I was in a job that I didn't find fulfilling, it wasn't that I had an all-consuming desire to do any particular other thing instead: I just knew that I didn't want to be doing what I was doing right now.

So if I'm not alone in finding the advice to "follow your passion" to be unhelpful, what should we be doing instead?

Why following your passion is unhelpful advice

If we assume for a minute that you do have one thing that you love to do more than anything else – like acting, or painting, or playing a particular sport – many successful people will tell you that all you need to do is pursue that thing relentlessly. But there's a kind of survivorship bias at work, because as Marc Andreessen once said, the problem is that we tend not to hear from people who have failed to be successful by doing what they love.

(It's also very difficult for someone to pinpoint why something has gone well for them – which is why successful people also point to "hard work" as being the answer, not realising that many people will have worked equally hard and not been successful for some other reason.)

Not only that, but your passion might not be something that's valuable enough to other people for you to get paid: however much you love basket weaving, it's not going to make your millions. And if it did somehow blow up and you found yourself running a multi-million-dollar basket-weaving empire, would that be what you wanted anyway? Even if the business was based around something you loved, you'd still end up spending most of your time on the business of the thing rather than the thing itself.

I'm not saying that following your passion (if you have one) is universally a bad thing, but there's a high likelihood that you're setting yourself against worse odds than you anticipated – or that success won't look like you expect it to anyway.

Cultivating a passion

And what if you don't have a passion to follow? The idea that you must have one cause to wholeheartedly devote yourself to stresses people out, and you can easily spend years slowly going nowhere while you pass over things you enjoy but don't feel that elusive passion for. After all, if you really like writing but there are days when you don't feel like it or it doesn't come easily, that can't be your passion – right?

It doesn't help that successful people often mis-remember why they started out in the first place. Cal Newport points out that Steve Jobs, who told students in his famous Stanford commencement address that they should search for their passion rather than settling for anything else, wasn't all that interested in computers at the point of co-founding Apple Computer. He just spotted an opportunity to make a bit of money from computers – and his main interest at the time was in eastern mysticism.

Over time, of course, Jobs came to be obsessed with technology and design. His story is an example of why Cal Newport's advice is that rather than searching for your passion, you should cultivate your passion. He believes that passion is developed from achieving great skill and expertise in something, and benefiting from the satisfaction, autonomy and prestige that comes with it.

As he puts it:

Don't follow your passion, let it follow you in your quest to become useful to the world.

How I found what I love to do

When Mish and I first quit our jobs, we didn't really know what to do next – so we spent time trying out lots of different things. Without being aware of it, this was the perfect way to cultivate a passion.

I had always enjoyed writing, but I tended to favour long, convoluted sentences with lots of obscure vocabulary – more to show off how clever I (thought I) was than to get a point across. So we started blogging just for the heck of it, and I got weekly practice in how to write to convince and entertain. If we'd just given up after a couple of months it wouldn't have mattered, but we enjoyed it and kept going.

I was also quite interested in real estate, so I started writing a blog about that too. As I got positive reactions from people who were reading my posts and my own mastery of the subject grew, I became more and more…well…passionate about it.

Now, I combine these two new passions: I write books about real estate and we co-own a business based around helping other people with their investments. And while two years ago it never would have crossed my mind to do it, I now can't think of anything I'd rather do.

If I'd sat around waiting to discover my passion, I'd still be waiting. Instead, I pursued what seemed to be a relatively interesting option at the time, and everything flowed from there.

What this means for digital nomads

What does this all mean for aspiring digital nomads – people whose goal is to live life on their own terms, pursuing whatever it is that they want to do?

Firstly, if your passion is "travel", you can't expect anyone to pay you to do it. You could start a travel blog, but as it's just not that valuable to people (a lack of travel information isn't a problem the world has right now), it's likely to be a slog.

If you do have a passion that's more marketable (like design or programming), then you should still expect a significant time-lag between getting started and earning a decent amount of money. Even if you've already honed your craft within a corporate environment, it will still take time to build connections, learn your way around the industry and get yourself out there.

And if you don't feel like you have a passion at all?

Then make sure you're financially and mentally prepared to spend time developing different skills and seeing what makes you excited and keen to spend more time on. It's possible to learn just about anything for free, so dive in and see what you enjoy the most: we experimented with photography, journalism, programming and ecommerce before we settled on copywriting (for clients and ourselves) as the skill we would continue to develop and make our living from. We did enjoy writing to start with, but it wasn't a passion – although it certainly became one as we've got better at it and deeper into it.

Don't panic!

If you do have a passion, by all means follow it: you'll learn more about yourself and the world than you would from just sitting in an average office job. But unless you can find a way of making it useful enough for people to pay you to do it, happiness and success aren't guaranteed.

And if you don't have a passion, don't worry. Take the time to experiment, focus on producing something of quality that's useful to people, and let your passion find you.