How many people have told you that the key to success is to follow your passions? I’d bet it’s a lot. Giving that advice to someone who’s struggling to figure out what to do with his or her life is easy. However, that advice is actually simplistic and misleading. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of passions and think it’s incredibly important to know what drives you. But it certainly isn’t enough.

Passions are just a starting point. You also need to know your talents and how the world values them. If you’re passionate about something but not particularly good at it, then it’s going to be pretty frustrating to try to craft a career in that area. Say you love basketball but aren’t tall enough to compete, or you’re
enthralled by jazz but can’t carry a tune. In both cases you can be a terrific fan, going to games and concerts, without being a professional.

Taking this a step further, perhaps you’re passionate about something and are quite talented in the field, but there’s no market for those skills. For example, you might be a skilled artist and love to paint, or crave surfi ng and can ride any wave. But we all know that the market for these skills is small. Trying to craft a career around such passions is often a recipe for frustration. Think of them instead as wonderful hobbies.

Alternatively, if you have talent in an area and there’s a big market for your skills, then that is a great area to find a job. For example, if you are an accomplished accountant, there’s always a position for someone who can build a balance sheet. For most people in the world, this is where they live. They have a job that uses their skills, but they can’t wait to get home to focus on the activities they love—their hobbies. They count the days until the weekend, until vacation, or until retirement.

The worst-case scenario is finding yourself in a position where you have no passion for your work, no skills in the field, and there’s no market for what you’re doing. Take the classic joke about trying to sell snow to Eskimos. Now imagine doing that if you hate snow and are a terrible salesperson. This is a bad situation all the way around.

The sweet spot is where your passions overlap with your skills and the market. If you can find that spot, then you’re in the wonderful position in which your job enriches your life instead of just providing the financial resources that allow you to enjoy your life after the workday is over. The goal should be a career in which you can’t believe people actually pay you to do your job. A quote attributed to the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu sums this up:

The master of the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.

The wisdom of this is reflected in the observation that hard work plays a huge part in making you successful. And, the truth is, we simply tend to work harder at things we’re passionate about. This is easy to see in children who spend endless hours working at the things they love to do. A child passionate about building will spend hours designing amazing cities with Legos®. A child who loves art will draw for hours without a break. And to a child who loves sports, shooting hoops or hitting baseballs all afternoon will seem like fun, not practice. Passion is a big driver. It makes each of us want to work hard to perfect our skills and to excel.

Here is a video clip of Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize, talking about following your passions.

 

You can find many more video clips such as this one at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program's ECorner web site.

This blog post is an edited excerpt from What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, published by HarperCollins in April 2009.

 

About the Author

Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering. Her latest book is Insight Out.

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