04 October 2016
The state of technology today makes this a very exciting time to be alive. Not only are we able to use it as a tool to make our everyday lives easier and better, it's creating all sorts of new career opportunities. It used to be that working in tech was a very specific field, but now almost every business has had to become a "tech company" because it's woven into everything we do and consume. Areas that used to be specialized, like cloud computing, machine learning and virtual and augmented reality, are becoming mainstream. There are many new career paths forming now that simply never existed a few years ago, even in our imagination. So, how is one to choose when deciding what to be when you grow up?

One way to choose is to simply "follow your passion" which is the most common career advice given by college commencement speakers. It's inspiring, even more so when the speaker can recount their own experience as evidence that the formula works. They are often people who had a strong pull towards a specific career from a very early age. Their certainty about this path served as their motivation to keep going even when they encountered what seemed like insurmountable obstacles and setbacks. They ultimately became super successful. They found this success by "following their passion", but does that make it good career advice?

Yes, but only for a small number of people. Why? I will give you four good reasons.

First, only a small number of young people have a career passion they can identify. A series of studies conducted in 2002-09 at the Stanford Center on Adolescence surveyed more than 1,200 subjects and found that only about 20% of young people between 12 and 26 have a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why. It's hard to follow your passion if you don't know what it is, or even what it looks like. For that 20%, I'd venture to guess that they aren't the ones who need to be convinced to stick with their career passion. They could hardly get away from it, even if they tried.

Second, such career passion is often related to a few very selective areas (mostly sports, art or music) that comprise only a small fraction of all the jobs available. In fact, as Benjamin Todd points out in his TedX Youth talk "To find work you love, don't follow your passion," only 3% of all jobs are in sports, art and music. So, many times personal passions may not match up with paying jobs. And, of course, that math doesn't work when trying to fit an entire population into the many job types needed to make a village. Had we all been set on becoming athletes, artists or musicians, the state of technology would look very different than it does today!
It's hard to follow your passion if you don't know what it is, or even what it looks like.
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Third, psychology research clearly shows that most of us are very poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future. There's a great book written by Daniel Gilbert called Stumbling on Happiness that explains why and how our brains are so bad at imagining the future. If we're lucky enough to know our passion today, there's a good chance it won't be the same five or ten years from now. And given the dizzying pace of changes we're seeing in technology, what makes you happy right now is very likely something that didn't even exist five or ten years ago. You can't predict something will make you happy in the future when you aren't even aware of it today.

The fourth reason is that a personal passion that brings one joy might not be as enjoyable when it becomes a job. For example, I love music and fantasize about being a professional musician every time I go to a good concert. But, in fact, I know that behind that two hours on stage there is a lot involved in being a professional musician that would make me miserable. Oftentimes, taking something that you do for sheer pleasure and turning it into something you do to make money, changes how you feel about it.

"Follow your passion" works for a very small number of supremely blessed people. Just remember that people who doggedly followed the "follow your passion" advice but ended up regretting seemingly failed or miserable careers, are not typically invited to speak at college commencements. One of the reasons commencement speakers' stories are inspiring is because they are unique.

I personally belong to what I call "the rest of us". This is the vast majority (~80% strong) that doesn't, in fact, have any burning career passion that compels us. Trying to find such passion is not a useful exercise for us. And if you are part of the "rest of us", you'll be relieved to hear that being frustrated at not being able to follow the advice of super successful college commencement speakers is not necessary at all.

What advice do the rest of us follow then?

The best advice that I have heard for the rest of us is to not try to "find" our passion but to "lose" ourselves in a good job that we can find. "Lose" not "find". In other words, give it your all in a good job that you can find, and watch amazing things happen from there. People with no particular career passion at all, other than hard work and dedication, can be very successful and highly fulfilled with their work. Be passionate in your work, instead of searching for your passion.
If we're lucky enough to know our passion today, there's a good chance it won't be the same five or ten years from now.
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I am not suggesting you take the first job that comes your way or suffer in one that is obviously a bad match. You should certainly take a job that holds some interest for you, and you can be strategic about this. A good way to find an interesting space is to identify an area that is growing quickly, that you find appealing, and that you can become part of. Up-and-coming industries and trends can be very exciting, and you can move on to new ones as your interests change.

People involved in tech are particularly fortunate in that they sit at the intersection of many growth paths. In another geek.ly expert post, Dr. Ronjon Nag makes the case that artificial intelligence is such a big, impactful technology in its own right that companies should be creating a dedicated function for it. That means creating a lot of new jobs. It's a new field that is most certainly growing quickly, many would find appealing, and will need lots of talent to fill new roles being created. This is just one example of the opportunities new technology is creating. There are literally new tech career paths every day.

The point is to choose a path and lose yourself in whichever one you take. From there the passion will emerge. Perhaps we should be advising people to let their passion follow them, and not the other way around.
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