Don’t follow your passion

By Marc Andreessen:

  • Thesis: “Do what you love” / “Follow your passion” is dangerous and destructive career advice.
  • We tend to hear it from (a) Highly successful people who (b) Have become successful doing what they love.
  • The problem is that we do NOT hear from people who have failed to become successful by doing what they love.
  • Particularly pernicious problem in tournament-style fields with a few big winners & lots of losers: media, athletics, startups.
  • Better career advice may be “Do what contributes” — focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs just one’s own ego.
  • People who contribute the most are often the most satisfied with what they do — and in fields with high renumeration, make the most $.
  • Perhaps difficult advice since requires focus on others vs oneself — perhaps bad fit with endemic narcissism in modern culture?
  • Requires delayed gratification — may toil for many years to get the payoff of contributing value to the world, vs short-term happiness.

(1) Doesn’t “Do what contributes most” often overlap with “Do what you’re best at”, which often overlaps with “Do what you most enjoy”? In other words, isn’t the way to contribute the most often by doing what you’re best at and most passionate about?
(2) Many people make the mistake of defining what they most enjoy in terms of the topics they love (such as “I love politics”), rather than the types of task they love doing (such as “I love writing” or “I love problem solving” or “I love working with people”). See The best career advice you can give in two minutes.
(3) Even if “Do what contributes most” often overlaps with “Do what you’re best at and most enjoy”, there’s a crucial difference. “Do what contributes most” is about the difference you make to other people, whereas”Do what you’re best at and most enjoy” is self-centered.
(4) In his remarkable biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin describes how numerous people’s lives were transformed by the Rebbe. The Rebbe saw his role as helping people to fulfill their unique potential to make the world a better place. People who met with the Rebbe were struck by his utter selflessness, total focus on them, and deep understanding of their unique capabilities. But the meetings were often disconcerting. He would challenge each person to assess whether they could contribute more. This is entirely consistent with Marc Andreesen’s point.

4 thoughts on “Don’t follow your passion

  1. The issue with following your passion is that we have “wrong understanding of the word passion. We think it means what we’re really interested in or what we really like – it’s a fundamentally selfish definition. In reality, the word “passion” comes from the latin “passio” – which means suffering. If what we mean by “follow your passion” is “follow your suffering” then I think that is actually great advice, e.g. “do what you are willing to suffer for”.

  2. Andreessen’s addressing a straw man, which is what happens when you boil down philosophy to a bumper sticker or 15-minute Ted talk. Yes, not everybody will be able to do what they love. There are trade-offs to everything. That is what adults do.

    But it’s better to pursue a career that suits your interests and abilities (and passions) than otherwise, all things equal, and pursuing one’s passion to its logical conclusion will leave you in much better position than ‘settling’ early and not testing oneself.

    I think the actual key is to figure out what is the center of one’s life. Is it career/professional passion? Spouse or family? Making money? Where one wants to live? etc. Once we know what matters most, all the other decisions we make should be with that core principle(s) in mind, which makes everything easier.

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