What You Really Want: How to Test-Drive Your Passion


When I was growing up, the world wasn’t as rife with career advice as it is today. Back then, it really amounted to this: Get a job! So I did.

Actually, I got two jobs. If making some money was good, making more was better, right?

In the past few decades, we have been hit with an avalanche of career how-tos. It’s an exciting development, but it can be difficult to sift through all the information and advice.

For a good while, “follow your passion” was the prevailing wisdom. Now, of course, the backlash is starting. See, for example, a recent New York Times article which calls the concept “terrible advice.” According to the article, the problem with “follow your passion” is that many assume doing so will make life free and easy. At the very least, your passion is where your natural abilities lie, right?

Not always. Even if something fascinates you (and can support you financially — a double win), you rarely nail it on the first attempt. Or second. Or even the third. This isn’t the tired “fail better” routine, but a way to bring perspective to the pursuit of happiness.

It all comes down to this: So much of your life is spent working, so how can you make your work enjoyable? How can you balance learning new things with the satisfaction of solid execution based on skills you’ve already mastered?

Lord knows I spend most of my time working, but I enjoy pitching and developing innovative tools to make the world at least a little better than how I found it. The more I think about how passion connects with work, the more I see the relevance of advice from Innovators Anonymous: Seven Steps to Get Your Product Off the Ground, a book I coauthored with my business partner about the process of innovation.

Here’s some of the advice we offer in the book — and how it applies to your career:

1. ‘If You Feel a Bit Knocked Off Your Feet During This Process, You Are Doing It Right’

In other words, finding your passion isn’t necessarily going to be all fun and games. Some parts of the experience might really throw you off guard. That doesn’t mean you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Sure, you might want to give yourself a time limit for just how long you’re willing to struggle before you try something else, but don’t take the mere existence of struggle itself as a bad sign.

2. ‘Chances Are You’ll Get It Wrong in the Beginning, But You’ll Be on the Path to Getting It Right Later On’

You might think one field of study is your passion, only to find out that your passion actually lies somewhere else entirely. For me, when I was running a party rental shop in the Hamptons to pay for college, I realized I was adept at leading teams, handling logistics, and keeping clients happy. This was a great precursor to my current career in digital innovation, where I interface with developers, user experience designers, clients, shareholders, creatives, and the board.

3. ‘Minimize Investment, Maximize Learnings’

If you think your passion is Ancient Greek, you don’t need to enroll in a PhD program to find out that it isn’t. Instead, try studying the subject on your own. Same goes for teaching. So many people head straight for a degree program, but not all institutions require a teaching degree. Find a place where you can jump right into the classroom to see if it’s an environment you enjoy, or shadow someone who is already doing what you think you want to do.

4. ‘Learn: Listen to Your Data’

As you continue exploring what fascinates you and improving your skills in that area, take stock of where you’re excelling and where you could use some support. Remember, you don’t have to do this on your own! Use your network and line up informational interviews to see what’s possible. What’s the worst that could happen? You could find out that what you thought you were passionate about doesn’t interest you at all. Is that so bad? It’s actually a really valuable insight. So many spend their careers dreaming about what else they could be doing, but they never learn whether the grass is actually greener.

5. ‘Act: Make Your Move’

If you find that Ancient Greek is really your thing, it’s time to start researching degree programs. What’s so good about having first taken the time to learn is that you can go into your PhD program with more motivation and clarity. (Believe me, you will need both!) Same goes for teaching, programming, or whatever field interests you.

If all you’re left with is the knowledge that no, Greek is not for you, start this process again with a new hypothesis. What else might you be passionate about? Find out if you’re right.

Jeannette McClennan is founder and president of The McClennan Group.

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