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Why you shouldn't follow your passion


Are you barking up the wrong tree by leading with what you love in life, rather than what you're good at?

How often have you heard someone say, "Follow your passion," the implication being that at the end of the passion rainbow sits a pot of gold full of happiness, health and prosperity? It seemingly makes a lot of sense. How can you go wrong doing what you relish? Take a few risks, dedicate yourself to a goal and all will be great, grand and glorious, right? Well, not surprisingly, I have a contrary perspective—in fact, I want to call total baloney.

Rarely is it that simple. For one thing, most of us don't have clearly determined passions and even fewer of us understand what passion really is. How can we follow something we can't identify? To follow our passion would require that we identify it as such or rely on blind luck to lead us. Not so easy given that passion is really an emotion and fluctuates with age, opportunity and influence from others.


Built on a shaky premise

As Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Business Plus, 2012), says, the advice to follow your passion "assumes that you have an identifiable preexisting passion, and if you match this passion to your life ... " well, it isn't so easy. It becomes an old saw built on a shaky premise.

The thing is, being passionate about something doesn't mean we'll be any good at it. Instead we must study, practice, strengthen and build on what we do and shape those skills into a passion for our work. It means becoming passionate about what we do, not just doing what we have a passion for.

"Follow your passion" may actually be some of the worst advice you can take or give. I know it sounds good—who doesn't want to get paid for doing what they love? The reality, though, is that first you become really good at something and then you grow passionate about it. The reverse rarely works.

Something magical will happen

Here's a personal example: When I was a youngster, I loved baseball. I knew batting averages, ERAs and team rosters three layers deep. I learned to stand like the great Mickey Mantle and copied Whitey Ford's pitching form. Few kids were more passionate about baseball than me. But there was one small problem: I sucked at the game. So my passion quickly turned to indifference and my new passion became football. And then later it was music—ultimately all with the same unfortunate results.

You see, it hadn't occurred to me that I actually had to practice. I was passionate! I figured something magical would happen. Unfortunately, you can search the halls of Cleveland, Canton or Cooperstown and you won't find my name. Had I understood the chicken-and-egg concept of passion and excellence, I might have looked into sportscasting or writing with better results.

Is it really a passion for the veterinary profession?

This yin and yang is very much a part of our profession. The truth is that for most of us, our passion was never the veterinary profession itself. Rather it was the delight of interacting with animals, the challenge of problem-solving, the fulfillment of treating and preventing disease and, yes, in some cases, financial reward. Veterinary medicine provided a way of getting really good at those things and allowed our profession to achieve those passions.

Have you ever been interviewed by a youngster whose parents said, "She wants to be a veterinarian more than anything"? No, she doesn't—she wants to work with animals, is intrigued by your stethoscope and realizes that becoming a veterinarian will make that possible. The parents have skipped past the fact that she loves animals or science. How many youngsters started out thinking they were passionate about being involved in organized medicine or public health or wanted to own a large practice? Rather, they worked at skill sets and parlayed their actual passion into becoming veterinarians.

Do what you do well

So why do we focus on following an imaginary emotional goal? One reason is that people have told us that wanting something badly enough will make it come true. "You can be anything you want to be," they say. Really? It feels good to do something we enjoy and hopefully life will reward us, but take a look at the talents and skills required to be a musician, an athlete, a dancer or that old standby, the president of the United States. Really?

I will be frank—I hope you grow to love what you do and spend your life doing what you love. I hope that elusive thing called passion works its way into your life's work. But in reality, unless I'm your parent or Dr. Phil, I don't care! I want you to be good, well-prepared, knowledgeable and as much of an expert as possible, regardless of whether you're doing my taxes or operating on my back. I don't pay you for being passionate or happy—I pay you for excellence and I expect you to pursue that as your passion.

So contrary to what your high school guidance counselor advised, don't pursue your passion. Look at your interests, talents and skills and pursue excellence—your passion. Do what you do well and get better at it. That will be recognized and rewarded internally where it really matters.

Had I followed my own advice years ago, I might have found myself sitting where Bob Costas sits, instead of wishing I could see the TV better.

Dr. Michael Paul is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies. Got a question for Dr. Paul? Ask him on Twitter @mikepauldvm. Your question could be answered in his next column.

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