Is “Follow Your Passion” Really Bad Advice?

It’s graduation season, and honored guests clutching honorary degrees are speechifying at commencements all around the country. In a recent story on National Public Radio, quotes from celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Bloomberg all included the same catch phrase: “Follow your passion.” The exhortation has become so common that the news story was about one poor Ivy Leaguer who found himself unable to enunciate his passion.

Fortunately, the fact that he made it as far as graduating from an elite institution probably bodes well for his chances of eventually doing, and being able to afford to do, what interests him. For the rest of the class of 2013, like those for several years before them, the ability to follow their passion will often be impeded by their desire to eat.

unemployment-line-now-hiringUnemployment for new college graduates remains stubbornly high. In a luncheon with an official of the Federal Reserve a few week ago, he noted an anomaly. Unemployment is at the highest sustained rate in 70 years, while the number of help wanted ads are also at an all-time high. The reluctant conclusion is that we have a workforce unable to fill the positions available. From an employer’s perspective, I see three reasons for this disconnect.

1. Just a “college degree” isn’t enough

For years, I and many other employers would use “college degree preferred” as a litmus test to identify people who could set a goal, plan to reach it, and accomplish what they set out to do. With the advent of helicopter parenting and institutional success measured in six-year graduation rates, a Bachelor’s degree often means someone who had the financial means (or the debt capacity) to hang around long enough to amass 120 or so credits. Two day a week class schedules and having mom fill out your course choices online (or pay a consultant to do it for you) doesn’t develop much strength of character.

At the same time, technology and pressure on profits have caused employers to back away from being the trainers of first resort. For many jobs, like entry level sales and retail branch management, systems have replaced decision making, and those jobs can be “dumbed down” to people who don’t have a degree-holder’s salary expectations.

2. A college degree isn’t what it used to be.

The quest for paying customers has caused colleges to expand to unprecedented levels. Here in Texas, UT now operates 9 campuses under the UT brand, enrolling 192,000 students. Texas A&M runs 8 more, with 83,000 enrollees. No one outside of academia pretends that all of those students are receiving the same level of education as ten or twenty years ago.

A part-time employee of mine showed me her class schedule a few years ago. By credits earned she was a junior, and taking upper level courses. Her choices included titles like “The Role of Women in Architecture,” “Non-traditional Literature,” and “Minority Contributions in American History.” When asked why she wasn’t focusing more on her business major she replied “Because these are all required for graduation!” I’m all for expanding people’s horizons, but not at the expense of teaching them what they need to know.

3. There is no “right” to succeed in your passion

The Constitution enshrines the “pursuit of happiness” as a basic human right. It does not make it anyone’s obligation to ensure that you succeed. We’ve raised a generation to believe that success is the inevitable outcome of effort. In a recent interview with a couple who were protesting high school teacher salaries, they complained that their wages were insufficient to support $300,000 in student loan debt. His Master’s degree was in comparative literature. Her PhD was in philosophy. Who told them that was a good investment?

Employers are scrambling to fill positions in programming, engineering and skilled trades. They share stories of graduates with little or no pertinent skills who want to focus their job interviews on salaries, advancement expectations and benefits. There is a fundamental disconnect between what our education system is providing and what our employment market is seeking. Perhaps “Follow your passion” isn’t the best advice we could be giving.


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5 Responses to Is “Follow Your Passion” Really Bad Advice?

  1. Ray says:

    Brilliantly put. It is exactly the same in the UK. Graduates with no experience of the real world assuming because they have a degree employers will welcome them and throw money at them. We have all time highs in numbers of graduates but the majority of degrees are in media studies and the like that are of little use to the average SME who will have to invest considerable sums of money to train them and educate them in what business really needs.
    We have the same ‘Follow Your Passion’ message across here and a dumbing down of standards where school children and college graduates are not allowed to fail. They have no idea what failure means or how to deal with it and are now facing it. Many sadly are being woken up with a jolt and big debts for a degree that isn’t worth anything.
    On top of that many SME’s and bigger businesses have job vacancies we can’t fill because the applicants have little to offer and expect too much.

  2. Lara August says:

    I need to take a deep breath before replying because there is some truth in what your are saying, but there is also fault to the logic. It might just be the title that rubs me wrong.

    We have had trouble hiring recently. There are literally a hundred or more applicants for each position, and few are actually qualified. However, these aren’t even for entry level jobs – we are requiring a minimum of 3-5 years of experience for most positions, and they STILL aren’t qualified. I think that this is because most SMBs can’t or don’t provide proper entry level training. My own management team even came to the realization that we were not in a position to hire recent grads, due to a combination of our lack of internal training resources and the cost/lack of availability of those resources externally. So my business is admittedly perpetuating the problem. So on the point at colleges aren’t preparing students adequately, I agree, but I think both colleges and businesses need to adjust.

    Now on to the point about passion. When I was headed to college, my dad pulled me aside and asked what I wanted to study. A straight A student, I replied, “a doctor or lawyer, and I’m leaning toward law.” I’ve never seen such a look of disappointment on his face. To everyone, including myself, I was an artist. I had always loved art and excelled at it in school and in competitions. He asked why I didn’t plan on studying art and my response what that my art teachers warned us not to wind up as “starving artists”. One of my favorite teachers recommended that I study business if I wanted to be an artist. My dad was then disappointed in my teachers and mentors. He hauled me over to the early-stage dial up Internet access that we had at home and managed to find a really cool chart showing income ranges for various professions. He showed me very wealthy and very poor salaries for each position. And then he asked, “where are you going to fall on this spectrum if you are doodling in the margins of your law books? Are you going to be one of the greatest lawyers?” He was right. I was meant to study art. I have an older brother who is a journalist. We have both “made it” in or professions and are at the top of our income categories, and I am thankful to my father for being so supportive of our dreams.

    I don’t believe that passion and entry level job preparedness should be inextricably linked in this discussion. I can’t give up on the idea of self-actualization, but maybe those dreams do need to be tempered with encouragement to pursue a double major or minor in something that will help with the first few years out of college. If I had received a business degree, it certainly would have made entry level job searches less painful, and would have benefitted me in my role as a business owner. Maybe in 1996 that wasn’t as crucial as today. I think the caution is: let’s not overly stifle the passions of an entire generation and wind up with a well-trained entry level, and later, horribly mediocre working class.

    • John F. Dini says:

      Of course we haven’t stopped needing artists, or journalists, or philosophers. I think “follow your passion” has been overused to the point where kids leaving for college just pick their favorite extracurricular activity or high school class and choose that as a “profession.” If you love philosophy, or art, or music, then by all means go for it. But “love” means you read about it on your own, practice it instead of going out on Friday night, and focus your decision making in higher education on schools where those who excel at it go. You don’t pick a mediocre course load at a local diploma mill and think that six years later you’ve earned the right to a job. One major problem is that there is no vetting process. A basketball player finds out whether he can make the grade at each point of passage. If he is passionate, he may still play basketball for a Division III school and enjoy it, but he doesn’t think that’s going to put him in the NBA. Unfortunately, there is no vetting process for philosophers until much later, when they can’t get a job.

  3. Brad Elmhorst says:

    I encouraged both of my children to find work they were passionate about. Both found desired career paths in their senior year of high school, both went on to college and graduated within their chose fields. My Occupational Therapist, immediately employed after college worked two different positions (clinic based & home health) prior to finding, four years and a marriage later, her passion as a neo-natal OT. My Film Editor, living at home worked contract jobs throughout Texas, worked in a warehouse, odd jobs and faithfully made monthly payments on his student loans, while living at home. Two years & 5 months elapsed until he found a full time editing position.

    My point in all this is following a passion has to be balanced/realistic and adaptive. Following one’s passion is not bad advice. It just needs to be balanced with the individual’s commitment (true passion, not a passing fancy) and their resources to stay the course and adapt.

  4. Zbig Skiba says:

    A wise man once said “I think owning a business is the most interesting thing you can do.” That sounds like passion to me. As does “Awake at two o’clock.” And since when is entrepreneurship a profession with a strong, predictable income stream? Sounds like lots of people following their passions.

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