They say follow your passion and the money will come. But this is dangerous advice for young Singaporeans to follow.
Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. A familiar saying, and a dangerous one. The majority of people who follow this advice will end up disillusioned. Free markets are cruel, and consumers or bosses frankly don’t care much about helping you realise your full potential. You need to change course.
Here’s why you shouldn’t follow your passion, and how you can still do what you love:
Passion is Not Easily Monetised
Contrary to what self-help books tell you, passion is not easy to turn into money. This is why there are more passionate people who fail than passionate people who succeed. The main issues to know are:
- Some Passions Won’t Make You a Living
- This Advice is Often a Cop Out
- Passion does not Equate to Happiness
- Passion is Meaningless Without Skill
- Passion First is Putting the Cart Before the Horse
Some Passions Won’t Make You a Living
It is true that if you follow your passion, money will follow. But the question is, how much money?
If you are like most other people, your passion will be specialised. Passions tend toward the niche, such as postmodern pottery or custom motorcycle accessories.That often translates to a small customer base, with slim profit margins and no room for growth. Even if people find fascinating, that doesn’t mean they’re willing to pay for it.
But what if you’re lucky? Some passions do have mass appeal, right?
Sure, if your passion is in developing game apps, being a fashion blogger, or creating videos on YouTube. It may make you a lot of money. But then comes another problem: passions with wide appeal is the bandwagon everyone wants to jump on. There are so many people trying to capitalise on it that you face massive competition.
If the service you provide is highly in demand, you can bet other competitors will soon be rushing in to undercut you or outperform you. So you’ll do better than people with niche passions for a while. But give it a few years, and you’ll find you’re also operating on razor-thin margins.
This Advice is Often a Cop-Out
“But, but…” you protest, “All those famous people on TV and in magazine interviews say passion was the cause of their success!”
It’s time for a brutal truth here. “Passion” is a generic Public Relations answer. Famous people often have publicists and media training, and a common bit of advice they receive is to attribute their success to their passion. Why?
Imagine you’re a famous tech wizard, the next Steve Jobs. When someone asks you why you succeeded, what answer makes you most endearing to the public? What answer is short and punchy enough to make a great three-second sound bite on TV?
You could go into hard facts about research and technology, but that’s not accessible to most listeners, and it’s too long. You could say you were just lucky and the market was right, but that downplays your company’s success and your brilliance. You could be honest and say you’re smarter or more skilled than most people, but that makes you look snobbish.
So the answer your publicist would advise you to give (or even write for you) is to talk about how you were passionate. It’s an inoffensive, feel-good answer.
So by all means, have passions. But take it with a pinch of salt when someone rich or famous tells you passion is the main component to success.
Passion Does Not Equate to Happiness
A lot of people forget that your passion can make you miserable, and there is a limit to how much misery you can handle.
“Suffering for your art” is the best-known example of this. You could be absolutely obsessed with running your own dance studio, yet be suffering every single day when you’re struggling to keep it open and balance the books.
Sure, you may be willing to work till four in the morning servicing your three customers, or living off S$7 a day after paying rent. But it’s toxic in the long run: most of us have more than one passion or dream.
If your current passion throttles your life goals of visiting a particular country, retiring by a certain age, raising a family, etc., then it quickly becomes a race to see which burns out first: your passion, or you.
On the other hand, if you do it the other way…
Passion is Meaningless Without Skill
Passion is not a replacement for skill. If you are skilled but not passionate, you can still make a passable living. If you are passionate but unskilled, all that passion is just meaningless.
Here’s a challenge by Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban:
“Think about all the things you have been passionate about in your life. Think about all those passions that you considered making a career out of or building a company around. How many were / are there ? Why did you bounce from one to another? Why were you not able to make a career or business out of any of those passions? Or if you have been able to have some success, what was the key to the success? Was it the passion or the effort you put into your job or company?”
(And remember, when successful people claim it was purely passion, see point 2.)
To put it in perspective: imagine someone who loves piano music, and really wants to play it. The passion is there. But what happens if they try staging a live performance with no training? It will fail regardless of how much they love it, because passion does not tell you which key to press next.
The same applies to business and work. You may be extremely passionate about social media marketing – but if you lack the ability to write well, your passion will not materialise to pick the words for you. You may be passionate about cars, but we’re sure you won’t dream of starting a mechanic’s workshop without engineering knowledge.
In short, chasing your passions is something you need to do at the tail end of your pursuits. You should be spending time and money on skills first, many of which may only be tangential to your passion. If you want to run an art gallery, for example, it might mean forking out money for a course in business accounting before taking that viewing trip to Venice.
Even if you insist on pursuing your passions, you won’t get far without devoting as more time to building the supporting skills you’ll need.
Passion First is Putting the Cart Before the Horse
Most of the time, you don’t get good at something because you like it. Rather, you like it because you get good at it.
Here’s some advice from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert:
“For most people, it’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion… The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded… In hindsight, it looks as if the projects that I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.”
You will understand this if you happen to be good at your job. It’s possible to enter the logistics business or the insurance business with little in the way of passion. But if you develop the skills you need to do well, and you perform better than others, your passion will probably grow to match it. Most people like to do what they are good at.
Conversely, if you develop the passion before the skills, then see points 3 and 4. Chances are you will struggle, fail, and your passion will sputter and die out.
This suggests you shouldn’t worry too much about being stuck in a job you hate. Most of the time, if you put in serious and effort and rise to the level of an expert, you will start to love your job.
Now, You Have Two Options
You can either insist on pursuing a passion you currently have, or work hard on something lucrative, and get so good at it, you foster a passion for it.
If you want to chase an existing passion, be prepared to spend a lot of time on things not apparently related to that passion. You should learn HTML for your online portfolio, even if you hate tech and love painting.
If your chosen passion is not lucrative, try not making it your job. Work as something else, then use the money to indulge or advance your passion.
Otherwise, put exceptional effort into your work, and you will grow to love it when you lead the pack. Sometimes the harder you work, the less it will feel like work.
Pro-tip: sign up for courses to take your passion to the next level and make it lucrative. SkillsFuture credits can be used to fund this, and if the course costs more than S$500, you can top it up with a personal loan for education.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.