Follow Your Passion: The Worst Career Advice

We’ve all heard at one point or another – follow your passion and success will come. However, according to career expert Laura Gassner Otting, this is the world’s worst career advice. We interviewed Otting to find out why this advice is so bad and what you should do instead to achieve career success.

You say that following your passion is the worst career advice. What advice would you offer for career success?

No one likes to feel limited, as if there are only a set number of pre-determined choices available, most of which represent the best worst choice.  It is depressing, it is exhausting, it stinks. We recognize limits when we are constrained by them, and we know how good being limitless can feel. We often yearn to be limitless, but, we often get it wrong before we finally get it right. Why is this? What gets in our way and stops us from living our best lives?

It comes down to bad advice that we’ve been given, sometimes by college and career counselors, and sometimes by sunset-gazing, flower-crowned young women with perfectly beach-waved hair, lounging in a viral social media meme: “Follow Your Passion!”—the spoken-word illegitimate sister of the Live! Love! Laugh! Tattoo.  It sounds all well and good, and maybe it even looks pretty in a scrolly font. It tantalizes with fleeting euphoria … before it packs a wailing uppercut of disappointment.

As anyone who has ever followed their passion will tell you, your passion will rough you up. It will disappoint you. It will play hard to get. It will gut you—and maybe your bank account, too. Doing something about which you are passionate is the holy grail, and by all means, let’s get there. But the promise of bliss, however Instagrammable, is ephemeral and insufficient. While following your passion might get you on the road, it doesn’t provide a road map.

Rather than following your passion, you need to invest in your passion—by devoting your time, treasure, and talent to leaning into the goals that you set for your particular life plan. It means throwing off everyone else’s expectations and no longer following everyone else’s path. It takes defining what success means to you — and only — and then leaning into that with all your might.

And how do you do that?  It starts by figuring out your calling, which is that gravitational force that you feel towards a cause you want to serve, a business you want to build, or a leader who inspires you.  Then, you need to determine how much you want or need your daily work to connect to that work. Third, consider how you want that work to contribute to the lifestyle you want to live, the values you want to manifest, or the career trajectory you need to have.  Lastly, decide how much control you would like to have over the amount of connection and contribution you have towards that calling. This is your personal definition of consonance, your personal definition of success.

How can one invest in his or her passion without compromising financial success?

Maybe you’re thinking, it’s all well and good for her to tell me to go out and find my calling, but this privilege isn’t available to me—at least, not immediately. There are bills to pay, children to raise, classes to take. Whatever “it” is, it’s getting in your way. Dreaming gets back-burnered, vision-boarded, bucket-listed. But there are things you can and should do today—right now!—to start the process of figuring out your calling, and they all involve increasing your optionality.

Put another way, these are classic video-game side quests. Just ask my teenage son, who first introduced me to this concept one morning when I was moaning about being stuck and unable to move forward on a project.

“Mom,” he so very patiently explained, “it’s like when you need to go slay the dragon so you can save the princess in the castle, but first you have to wait for your friends to finish their family dinner so they can log on and play with you. You can’t move forward without them. So while you wait, you can go tend your crops so you have wheat to sell at the market that you pass along the way to the castle. And when you sell the wheat, you can buy a new horse or a fancy sword that you know you’ll need later when you come upon that dragon.”

Side quests are related to your larger goal, but not on the direct path. Allow yourself to reframe your current problem as an opportunity to increase your future optionality by collecting people, knowledge, networks, and resources that you will need later. Say yes to the networking event. Talk to strangers. Take a class. Ask to tag along to a presentation. You never know who you might meet, what you might learn, where your interests will pull you, or what dragons you’ll slay.

What are some tips for making a career change?

Take time to learn both the art and the science of what you’d imagine to be your next step.  The science is free, but you’ll have to work for the art. The science is for everyone, but pursuing the art will set you apart.

In the age of the internet, and thanks to the super computers we are all carrying around in our back pockets, you can find any amount of information, great or small, or just about anything or anyone.  This means that you can read about people’s career paths, their degrees, their projects. You can watch them being interviewed, or giving presentations, or graduation speeches with their pre-packaged smarts.  But in order to truly hear their wisdom — those smarts combined with perspective from years of mistakes and tenacious do-overs — you have to go directly to the source. The science is what you can find online.  But the art is what you can get through actual conversations.

If you are thinking about making a career change, the best thing you can do is do your research in the science, but then pick up the phone or send an email or make an approach at a networking event to ask for a few minutes to talk about their art.


Laura Gassner Otting is the author of the upcoming book Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. Limitless provides the key to getting “unstuck” and achieving extraordinary results. Consider this book a high energy masterclass and brainstorming session all in one, complete with actionable tips to transform your vision for your career and do work with purpose. It provides a framework for everyone, at every age and life stage—from high school seniors and entrepreneurs to new mothers going back to work and retirees—to understand what success means for them and what to change to have it the way that works for themselves.