But we have spent the last three years doing research with academics of University of Oxford and most importantly we’ve coached hundreds of people on how to make real career decisions. All this research and thinking has led us to the conclusion that careers advice today focuses on the wrong thing.
Throughout most of history people basically did what their parents did. Some people in the 1980s thought: “The greed is good” and they focused on making money.
But our generation grew up with some different careers advice and that’s that you should follow your passion. You can see that use of this phrase increased dramatically from the mid-nineties. But today I think we need to move beyond “follow your passion” as the careers advice to focus on, and instead of asking what our own interests and passions are, we should be focusing much more on what we can do for other people and to make the world a better place.
OK, so let’s go back to my decision: How would “follow your passion” apply to me? I think what “follow your passion” tells you to do is three things: The first is to identify your greatest interests; second, find careers that match those interests; thirdly, pursue those careers, no matter what. Finding a fulfilling career is just a matter of having the courage to pursue your passion.
In my case, I was interested in martial arts and philosophy, remember? So, which career should I pick? Any ideas? I should obviously become a shaolin monk, Buddhism and martial arts, together.
OK, so, what’s the theory behind this advice? You get passion match, then you really enjoy your work, you’re really motivated. So you’re more likely to be successful. And if you are successful doing something you’re passionate about, then you have a fulfilling career. And, spelled out like that, this really does sound like pretty reasonable advice, right? I can get maybe — behind that.
But let’s just think about it in a bit more depth. Turns out if you follow your passion, you’re probably going to fail. Why do I say that? Let’s look at the data.
A survey of 500 Canadian students found that their greatest passions were ice-hockey and dance. 90% of them, they were passionate about sports, arts, music, something like that. But if we look at census data we can see that only 3% of jobs are in art, sport and music. So it just has to be the case that even if only one in 10 people followed their passion, still the majority would fail to be successful. So this first step just doesn’t work.
I think the second step is also not reliable, in that even if you match your passion with your work and you’re successful, you can still quite easily fail to have a fulfilling career, that’s because you might not find the work meaningful. This was a bit like me deciding not to go into finance. I thought, while I was interested in it, maybe I could be successful, but I wouldn’t make a difference. So maybe it would still end up not being fulfilling. So I think the second step doesn’t work either.
Now, at this point you probably — you might be thinking: “OK, sure, passion isn’t the only thing that matters, if I follow my passion, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, but maybe at least makes me more likely to succeed and to have a fulfilling career. As career advice, this is the best we can do.” But I think that is wrong as well.
Picture to yourself now the most assertive person you know, who’ s really passionate about selling and persuading and they’re really extroverted. Surely someone like that should go and, go and become an advertising accounts manager, like a Mad Men, or they should become a car salesman, or something like that, something which involves selling and being extroverted and talking to people.
Well, it turns out that would be a really bad decision: Analysis of the Terman study showed that really passionate sales people, really persuasive, assertive types who went into those kinds of sales jobs, actually ended up more likely to burn out and in fact died younger than normal people who take those jobs. Following their passion actually made them more likely to die.
And more generally, researchers have tried to show for decades that there’s a strong relationship between interest match and how successful and happy people end up in their work. But so far they failed to show a strong connection between the two. I think this isn’t because your interests just don’t matter, but it’s just that when it comes to real career decisions, your interests are just not a decisive factor, other things matter much more, like what your skills are and what your mindset is.
Indeed, we think our interests matter a lot more than they do, because we really underestimate how much they change. Just think about your own interests five or 10 years ago and how different they are from today. I mean, back then, you were probably this tall and you’re probably interested in completely different things. Five or 10 years’ time you will be interested in totally different things again. All this means that your present interests are just not a solid basis on which to choose a career.