Don’t ‘do what you’re passionate about’ – part 1

I knelt down, grasping the cool, steel barrel, and slowly screwed it into the gun. One year of planning was coming to climax. I performed the final checks…there would be no witnesses. As I lined the target’s head up in my sights, I released a sigh of satisfaction. I had found my passion. This was what I was born to do. I pulled the trigger.

Common advice in choosing a career is “do what you’re passionate about.” An article on lifehack begins: “If you could do one thing to transform your life, I would highly recommend it be to find something you’re passionate about, and do it for a living.” The first paragraph of the major careers advice book Career Ahead ends “You owe it to yourself to do work that you love. This book will show you how.” But what happens if your passion is for beautifully executed contract killings?

“Do what you’re passionate about” and “do what you love” are not a good rules to follow in career choice. You can be passionate about something – being a hitman – that there are good reasons not to do. In the case of being a hitman, it’s because the career causes harm. Similar cases could arise if the career radically under-uses your potential, rather than being actually harmful. And what about if you’re passionate about a career, but also terrible at what it involves? Suppose you adore playing basketball, but you’ll never be selected by a team because you’re also extremely short.

On the other side, there can be careers that are

even if you’re not passionate about them. Consider a former world-expert astrophysicist who has become a librarian, because she found the work too stressful, and so, lost her passion for studying astrophysics. One day, NASA arrives to recruit her. A large asteroid has been detected that will probably hit the Earth. Since this scientist’s speciality was asteroid deflection, NASA believes her efforts will increase their chance of saving the world. Should the scientist turn down the job because she’s no longer passionate about astrophysics? This is the oft used movie plot of the hero coming out of retirement and rediscovering their calling, as explored in Rambo III and The Dark Knight Rises.

Similar examples can also be made for “do what you’re good at”. Not only might you be passionate about your work as a hitman, but you could be the best hitman in the world. Does it follow that you should make it your career? Being good at a career doesn’t mean you should do it. Suppose you want to pursue professional philanthropy. you happen to be extremely good at low-paid factory meatpacking and below average at medicine. being a doctor isn’t what you’re good at, but should you skip medicine in favour of meatpacking? it can be better to take careers you’re not good at.

At this point, you might protest: sure “do what you’re passionate about” need not apply in every case, but it’s still a good rule of thumb: it’s a good heuristic. But even this is not the case…

Continued in part 2