How to Overcome Career Barriers in a Passionate Life

When it comes to advancing in a chosen career, one of the most significant barriers that people experience is getting started. If they get far enough to start on their professional or personal endeavor, the risk of getting distracted is always present. Obvious distractions like social media and technology aside, there is one that you may be overlooking, and that is your passions.

Increasingly career and life design experts have encouraged people to spend their time and money finding ways to get paid while following their passions. While this lifestyle sounds like a nice premise and is certainly useful to some people, it comes with consequences that can make the way forward less clear.

Awareness of the dark sides of a passion lifestyle and the ability to overcome them while remaining focused on priorities is paramount to achieving progress. Below we will examine the rise of the passion lifestyle, its consequences, and methods you can implement to retain control of your professional future.

The Passion Lifestyle

As people increasingly came to believe that it was possible and preferable to get paid for participation in personal passions, more people have chosen this path. Now we see endless literature, social movements, and groups designed to promote this lifestyle. There is an army of advocates who insist on pursuing freedom and self-determination around a passion, instead of conformity to the demands of an authoritative force such as a manager. Freedom is what is being sold and who could argue with it?

Why is the passion lifestyle growing? Maybe it’s technology, maybe it’s the influence of Hollywood productions that make life seem more exciting than it is or needs to be. Maybe it’s an emptiness that people increasingly feel, or maybe it’s something else entirely. While this movement is healthy and appropriate in certain circumstances, what gets overlooked are the times it is dangerous advice.

If you have ever pursued a passion project or tried to get paid for your passion, you have likely encountered obstacles. This will be particularly true if you have attempted to replace your day job.  Below are a few limitations of letting your passions dominate your career choices and activity. After analyzing the problems, we will outline actionable steps to compensate for the drawbacks associated with the passion lifestyle.

Problems with Pursuing Passions

“When Passion is a prison, you can’t break free.”

Jon Bon Jovi

As we learn from experiencing life, love, or from the Bon Jovi song, passion can be a magical thing, but it also has the potential to usher in periods of stagnation or entrapment.

Mental Mind Games & Negative Self-Talk

As people pursue their passions, they will confront not only the difficulty of such tasks, but the mental test of your will and self-esteem. These constant moments of reckoning test individual resolve and self-esteem. They happen to be inevitable so we must be ready for them. You will have lots of ups and downs in any career journey, no matter who you are.

The danger is that when people fail to “pass” these tests, they tend to view their lack of traction as a symptom of their own failure, rather than a misalignment of initial expectations. Usually it is much easier to adjust initial expectations than it is to pursue a whole new career.

Passion prison, can't break free, Passion Lifestyle

The impacts of negativity bias on human behavior is also well documented. Negativity bias observes that when all else is equal, negative information is far more interesting than positive information, so we tend to indulge in it more. Sadly, the same thing can be said about the dialogue we have within ourselves. Examples include statements like, “how could I be so stupid,” or “ugh I always do this wrong,” or the most insidious of all, “I am just not good at ___.” Getting a project off the ground or transitioning into a new career is challenging enough without bad habits like negative self-talk.

You Get Paid for your SKILL, Not your level of Passion

To make the passion lifestyle work financially, you must be able to find people who are willing to pay you money. Consumers have specific wants and needs which companies are designed to meet. Companies need employees to solve their problems. Passions aside, the fact is that you need to meet the needs of either employers or consumers.

Job Interview, Skill Development, Job Searching

It is possible to work at a company while operating a side business, in fact it is more common now than ever. The side project is more likely to fulfill your passion, whereas the job is more likely to fulfill your economic needs. Regardless of who you want to get paid by, your pay grade will depend primarily on your skill.

The Glorification of the Long Term, Lofty Goal

We tend to admire people who set out with a lofty goal, focused on it, ignored the noise around them, as they ultimately achieved fame and fortune. Therefore, we hold professional athletes, actors, famous authors, and musicians in high acclaim. Many of these individuals will tell you to follow your passion since it worked so well for them but is this the reality for you?

Focusing on a goal that is 5-10 years away is fine, but most people are either not adaptable enough or they lack a robust understanding of why such a long-term sacrifice is justified. There is a chance that circumstances will change and even if they do not, passion can cloud your ability to see career options that are consistent with your most important life priorities. Are you adaptable enough to make wise decisions based on your priorities when they conflict with a long-term outcome you are attached to?

The Static Nature of Long Term Goals

It is possible to “live to work,” and it is possible to “work to live” but which one is most important to you, and most importantly, why? Many people work a regular job and “work to live” whereas the passion lifestyle crowd tends to adopt the “live to work” mantra. Have you considered the sacrifice that comes with a “live to work” lifestyle? When do you work? When do you play? How does the need for a certain amount of money impact your ability to carry out your passion(s)?

Further, when we set out for a goal, clinging to our initial desired outcome can be detrimental if the goal is out of reach. Since we are taught to make up our mind about what we want to do early in life and never waiver until we achieve it, we put pressure on ourselves. The pressure is hard to identify or reject because it is socially constructed. Since we are repeatedly encouraged to have it all figured out, and we glorify those who do, it is easy to see why so many people follow suit with the mindset.

Passions are Ever-Changing

If you have lived as an adult for more than 5 years, you probably have realized that life changes rapidly and often unexpectedly. Think back 5 years ago. Were you passionate about the exact same things you are passionate about now? Are you passionate about anything at all? Rest assured that many, if not most people are not passionate people. You just don’t hear from them very much.

For the passionate among us, if you were passionate about something that guided your career choices 5 years ago, will you still be passionate about it 5 years from now? Be honest with yourself. This is an important question because staking your future on a present-day passion can be short-sighted and come with major long-term opportunity costs.

Solutions to the Obstacles of Passion

A useful survey from VitalSmarts, a leadership training company, sheds light on which factors played the biggest role in contributing to success.** The survey showed that nearly half (46%) of respondents attributed their success to positive habits compared to decision-making, (25%), talents (20%) and luck (6%).

Decisions and habits are undoubtedly related since habits are a product of small, seemingly insignificant decisions that add up over periods of time into routines of significance. If we believe that talent is something that can be developed, it would seem that decisions influence habits and these habits are what ultimately lead to success. One could also argue that the better your habits, decisions, and talents are, the more likely luck is to find you.

If daily decisions are instrumental in moving us toward our destiny through the development of habits, talent, and sometimes luck, what guides our decisions? What guides this process? Here are some steps.

Define Priorities, Values, and Purpose

Most people have a vague sense of what they want and it exists passively within their mind. The passion is more of a dream or a wish than a goal. These individuals are susceptible to Bon Jovi’s “passion prison” unless they are able to actively, rather than passively engage with these desires. How do we transform career preferences from vague and passive into specific and active?

First and foremost, write these things down. Once they are written, revisit them routinely. Put this on your calendar and develop a structure. Formalize your priorities by making a list of career preferences in your next job using the below table as a guide. Try weekly or monthly, whichever works best for you.

If you are starting a company, how about doing the same thing based on how you want to structure your lifestyle? Try the following framework to start, but take the initiative to make it your own so it works for you.

FactorMust haveNice to havePrefer not to haveCan’t have
Same or no less than 10% decrease in payX   
An entirely remote job X  
Sales-related duties  X 
2nd shift hours   X

To make headway, the passion or dream must be monitored, written down and turned into a plan. Once it is turned into a plan, it must be revisited frequently. It is essential to try different things and see where it may take you.

Acknowledge the Negative, Accentuate the Positive

We know that daily habits are the biggest predictor of success according to VitalSmarts and endless other stacks of literature. In order to overcome the negativity bias one must learn how to identify the positives.

“We become what we think about.”

Napolean Hill

The nature of human emotion eliminates the possibility of perfection, however the needle must be moved in the right direction. We must accentuate the positives because the nature of the negativity bias will not allow them to accentuate themselves. Taking small steps toward achievable outcomes on a journey that is consistent with your personal priorities, values, and even passions is an excellent place to start. It is impossible to understate the importance of mindset and attitude.

Go “Deep Diving” with Your Passion

A practicality test and deep exploration of your passion will move you away from the dreamy, passive contemplation that plagues so many and holds them back. Some form of action around trial and error is wise.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Prominent life design thinkers, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans teach the art of prototyping a plan towards a desired outcome over a period of time. They say that the key to a successful prototype is to closely monitor how things went and adapt accordingly. Did you enjoy the period of time? What did you discover? Who did you talk to? What did you learn? What will it take to succeed? Most importantly, ask yourself “what can I do next?” When you get in the habit of asking yourself what you can do next, based on an evolving definition of success, you no longer need to worry about failure.

How does that sound? If you prototype, you achieve “failure immunity,” as Burnett and Evans put it. Implementing systems like this lead to active, not passive discovery of what your future can hold. Once you prototype the ever-changing ideas you have, you have taken a huge step towards the ever-important process of adaptability.

Adaptability, Action, and Removing the Pressure of Long-Term Goals

Most conventional career advice does not address how to interpret the frequent inputs that come up during a career search. Oftentimes these inputs can help us identify opportunities that align with a brighter future. When you prototype, you get lots of inputs. When you passively contemplate or dream about a better future in which you live out your passion, you get no inputs – just more uncertainty.

Conventional wisdom does not encourage individuals to adapt to new information, new opportunities, and the knowledge gained during the process of career development. In fact, we often cling to our goals even when a better opportunity lies right in front of us. Our pride blinds us. We don’t want to look like a failure to others.

If we accept that we do not truly know all the right answers for our future, we can interpret inputs as they come in around personal priorities and values instead of lofty, difficult to achieve goals. All we can do at any stage is make the best decision possible with the information we have at the time. Fixating on one long-term job opportunity because we feel passion for it can lead to decision paralysis and less clarity.

Goal Alternatives, Prototyping, Accomplish Goals

Relegating yourself as a failure because you did not become what you said you would become 5 years ago because you felt that you had to pick something you are passionate about is self-abusive and unfair. Since we do not and cannot truly know with certainty all the answers for what is best for our long-term future, we can pretend that we do to our own detriment.

Accumulate Skill and Know how to Speak to It Professionally

Since we have already established that employers and customers want someone with the skills to meet their needs, we know that the accumulation of skills must be a priority whether you are employed or self-employed. If you are seeking career momentum, developing skills you can use in your day to day is never a bad place to direct focus.

Get to know who you are as a professional and the value you can bring to a company. The better you get at communicating your abilities and how they meet potential customer or employer needs, the better your chances of success in your career become. All the passion in the world could never replace marketable skills. Passion should be no more than the fuel that helps motivate you.

Remember you can live your passion at work or outside of work. When you deep dive and learn about your options, you identify skills you already have and learn how to put together successful job applications or have meaningful conversations with important stakeholders. This is where real, everlasting progress is made over time.

Career Idea, Career Empowerment

Many people who have achieved what they consider to be success will tell you that there are other things in life of greater significance than passions. Financial well-being, peace of mind, healthy relationships, and spirituality are a few examples. As we’ve established, passions can provide energy and motivation, but they can also cloud our judgment, leading to a subtle subversion of items that are more important to our life as a whole.

It is critical that we develop awareness of and hold our personal priorities, values, and mission front and center in everything we decide to do in our lives, and careers. Find a process or system that allows you to focus on what is most important to you personally and professionally.

Work with a Career Coach, read books, test out different approaches, do whatever it takes to stay focused. When you revisit your priorities regularly you will be able to accurately seek opportunities that will lead to positive career momentum.

Your career development depends on your ability to recognize opportunity. Do not allow passion to make you blind to what is best for you.

*The song is (of course) “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi.

**Here is a link to the VitalSmarts survey which has some good information and tips.

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