Doing What You Love: Good or Bad Advice?

Do What You Love (“DWYL”) has always been an elusive goal, at times seemingly attained by only a select few who are extremely talented, or lucky, or both. Is this assumption true? Is following your passion (“FYP”) actually good or bad advice?

There are various camps out there who would argue fervently for each end of the scale. I came across this presentation by Cal Newport that talks about how FYP is bad advice and it piqued my interest as I still struggle a lot with this FYP motion.

If I were to put him on a spectrum, he belonged more to the Love What You Do (“LWYD”) group, and here are his 3 points to the question of “How do people end up loving what they do for a living?”

1. Don’t follow your passion

2. Be so good they can’t ignore you

3. Go deep


I am one of the people without a pre-existing passion. It is not that I don’t have any interests or hobbies. In fact, I have the opposite experience; I like and am curious about so many things that no one thing in particular really appealed to me to the extent that I would describe it as my core passion. It is kinda like one having many friends whom you like a lot but you know you have not found the one who you singularly LOVE and want to spend the rest of your life with.

This was the way I used to think about the issue of passion; that you will know it when you find it, by the intensity of my own feelings. Stepping back now, I think I was wrong. As Cal Newport elaborated in his talk, studies after studies have shown that the peak performers in disparate fields did not all start out with an extraordinary dose of passion nor talent. They grew in passion as they got better and better. And how did that happen? By doing more and more of what they were doing. The start of how they started their passion was often serendipitous. Hence, it was not about following your passion; as if it was already there in the dark corner where it lays hidden. Rather, you discover it through chance and experimentation and by staying open.

When I think about how I met the love of my life, it was strikingly the same. We were friends first and the more I got to know him, the more I fell in love with him. And my love for him now grows daily as I interact more with him and by growing together in tandem. If I was looking for the fireworks feeling right from the beginning when we met and expected that to identify the love of my life, I would have missed the point altogether.

Yet, I was making the mistake of looking in the wrong places when it came to passion. That I imagined it was somewhere within me, to be coaxed out, or that horrors of horrors, I may find that my maker did not make me with one. Now I know that if I can’t identify clearly a passion yet, it is because I have not exposed myself enough or tried something long enough to see if I would begin to like it more intensely over time.

As much as the text on the powerpoint said “don’t follow your passion”, his concluding remarks do point to the fact that once you have exposed yourself to potential areas of interest and developed one of them into your passion, be rigorous and go deep and spend a lot of time in becoming good. That to me, is what FYP is about. The key public misconception lies in what “following” means especially when you haven’t got one clear passion yet.

Persistence & Excellence

There is a Chinese saying that says “台上一分钟,台下十年功”, which means that for every minute of performance on stage, it took 10 years of hard work to get there. Sounds very similar to the 10,000 hours theory of getting to excellence.

There are really no two ways about it. To get better, you need to be persistent in practising and learning from mistakes. What I used to struggle with is that if I didn’t yet know what my passion is, I should not waste my effort and energies on something where my interest may wane or that would lead to nowhere.

Now I realise that it takes a balance of things to get it right. I need to be able to get past the early tough parts of the learning curve, and not give up too early so that I can get to a level where I can properly discern if I like it enough to be motivated to continue learning.

I have been on a learning binge over the past few years. I took up badminton, squash, snowboarding and pottery. I took Japanese & Spanish classes 10+ years ago, keyboard & singing lessons, and till today, I have some hits and misses in terms of where interest continued.

I would say that some of these are really hobbies that offer purely enjoyment where I have no yearnings to turn pro. Pottery is something which started lukewarm but is starting to warm up quickly and I am starting to dream about how I can make awesome pieces of expression. I know now that whether this will turn into a true passion depends on whether I have the tenacity to keep practising and finding joy in the process. 

Going Deep: The Practical Issues

People who promote LWYD sometimes talk about how not everyone is privileged to be able to pursue their passion and make it into a form of living. Just look at the struggling artists and musicians in every major city. Or the ones who struggle to put food on the table and juggle demands of family and work to the point of exhaustion.

These are all true facts and realities of life. However, our life is our own and only we can decide if there are really no choices. When I look around in a wealthy city like Singapore where I stay, are there really no other choices for these educated individuals with opportunities all around them? Can we not waste away these opportunities that others can only dream of, and really try to do something with our lives than to resign to a mundane existence of life?

There are a lot of fear and insecurities going on internally. I have these in my head from time to time too. What if I fail? What if it leads to nothing? What if I am just wasting my time? What if I degenerate into a mess of life? What if I run out of money?

I have learnt that confronting these sounds of fear is a daily exercise that is akin to strengthening your muscles. If you believe you can’t, it would be true. It takes a lot of energy to move ahead in uncertainty and keep moving in the face of fear. It is much much easier to just not think too much, stay in the comfort zone. For some, this is enough. There is no deep seated desire for a more passionate form of living. And that is a choice and that is one that each can also make for themselves.

For myself, the deep desire of living a life passionately cannot be quelled. The yearning is clear and strong and I have to feed it. If it is the same for you, we must not give up too easily! We only each have one life. But one with endless possibilities and that is what we should remember always. 

How to DWYL

This is the million dollar question. Having the passion, being tenacious, being extremely talented is really not enough in and by themselves to be able to make it a form of sustained livelihood. What it takes is an additional skill set of being able to promote your own work and find the right place of application. Be it in the form of employed work or doing your own thing, understanding how your work will fulfil a need out there in the markets is key.

This goes into the realm of commercial and dollars and cents and can be a very daunting field to all of us. I am still figuring out the strategies and answers myself and I hope to share that with you when I get a better picture. If you have tips to share, do share them!



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