Why Doing What You Love Isn't A Career Plan

Man reclining on the beach with laptopAt some point, you have probably been advised to "Follow your passion." Whether you're a new grad or in midlife limbo, you've likely been told some variation of, "Do what you love and the money will follow."

Most career counselor trainings I've attended stressed that. And when the media asks a successful person what career advice they have for people, they usually echo this advice. So when I started as a career counselor, I indeed routinely encouraged people to do what they love. But now, 4,000 clients, later I've grown more cautious.

Sure, plenty of people make a living following their passion but too often, people did what they loved and poverty followed. I recall one of my first clients -- it must have been 1986 -- who was a truly devoted environmentalist. She was bright, dedicated, always trying to be on environmentalism's cutting edge: She protested against lead in paints. She built straw-bale houses. She even wrote a book. Fast-forward to 2013. She's stayed in touch with me and she's now 60-something and broke, living in welfare housing. And she's wondering, "What was all that about 'Do what you love and the money will follow?' "

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The problem is that people's passions tend to be in just a few areas: the arts, entertainment, the media, sports, helping the poor and the environment. Raise your hand if you have a strong interest in one of those: the arts, entertainment, the media, sports, helping the poor, or the environment. So supply-demand means that most people in such fields are paid little or asked to be volunteers. So unless you're a star, the odds of making a living at those are not great.

The Hard Stats:The Princeton Review reported a while back that of the more than 22 million artists in North America who called themselves professional artists, only 0.5 percent earned more than $50,000 from their art. Less than 8 percent earned even $1,000, not even enough to pay for their meals of ramen and tuna fish, let alone their rent, let alone their student loans.

Ironically, many people who do end up getting paid to follow their passion aren't necessarily happier. Indeed, because employers in popular fields know that a horde of wannabe employees are waiting in the wings, those employers can treat their employees poorly: pay them poorly, demand long hours, etc. "Do it for the cause!"

I think of the wine lover who got a "good job" in the wine industry, but he ends up spending a lot of time just pushing wine barrels around. Sure, he occasionally gets to run tastings for the rich and famous but, net, he wonders if his passion for wine might have been better addressed as a hobby.

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Rather than pursuing your passion as your career, as likely a path to career contentment is to find a less-crowded career so it's easier to find a job with work that's interesting, ethical, with a decent boss, a reasonable commute, reasonable work hours, and reasonable pay. I had a client who worked in a utility's billing department. She wasn't passionate about billing but felt better about her job than do many people in careers in areas of passion -- because she found the work not too difficult or too easy, she "got into it" -- staying in the moment and taking pleasure with each task getting done -- it was ethical work, she was making $60,000 a year, full benefits, had a reasonable commute, and great job security.

A 'More Nuanced' Approach: So now, while I'm certainly not against following your passion, I can't so blithely tell my clients to do what they love for a living. These days, I try to be more nuanced. Is following your passion worth risking the odds? Or would you more wisely do that as a sideline or hobby? Is there something else you're interested in, perhaps a little-known, under-the-radar career that fewer people are passionate about and thus has a better risk-reward ratio?

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