When charting a direction for our career, it’s easy to feel caught between a rock and a hard place.
After all, the current landscape of career advice seems to divide us into two opposing camps:
- The ‘follow your passion’ camp: this side reassures us that everything will fall into place if we lead with joy and ‘follow our bliss’ – loving what you do naturally paves the way for success and accomplishment. Simply put, the core idea is Passion —> Mastery
- The ‘master your craft’ camp: but society is also enamoured with the idea of mastery. We’re told to stay the course and put in our ‘10,000 hours’ – not enjoying our career early on doesn’t matter, because passion emerges from years of disciplined labour. Simply put, the core idea is Mastery —> Passion
In my experience, both sides of this debate push us into a narrow view of work.
In this article, I look to reconcile these perspectives. First, I’ll lay out a few arguments on each side, then I’ll offer my own view. Hopefully, it’ll help you cut through the noise 🙂
In favour of ‘follow your passion’
Collectively, we just cannot seem to reach a consensus around the whole ‘follow your passion’ idea (honestly – Google the phrase to see what I mean).
Perhaps people are put off by the more spiritual/bohemian crowd that congregates around this movement. I think that’s a shame, because there are powerful arguments in its favour.
My definition of ‘follow your passion’ encompasses any career/life decision made primarily from a place of genuine passion, inspiration or joy. Whether or not we attain mastery (by virtue of some external metric) is of secondary concern.
Some even argue that being at least somewhat passionate is a prerequisite for mastery; follow your heart, and watch as a hunger to perfect your craft grows from within.
The second argument is a temporal one: starting from a tender age, most of us are indoctrinated to achieve today, and enjoy life later. One day, when we’re at the ‘top of our game’, we’ll have more time, money, and autonomy/freedom – then life will be great, right?
We hear time and time again of stories that expose the falsehood here: clichés of the wealthy CEO who feels empty inside, or the distinguished neurosurgeon who has a miserable personal life.
Renowned coach Michael Neill writes that success built on unhappy action is like opening a birthday present – except when you open the box, it’s empty.
If instead, we bake passion and enjoyment into our path from the very beginning, we can savour in them right now. After all, ‘now’ is all we truly have. If we defer passion and contentment to the future – when we’re more accomplished – aren’t we awaiting a payoff that may never arrive?
Related to this is an even deeper point: who do we become on the journey? How ‘alive’ can we become by toiling away at work we’re bound to by ‘duty’ alone, contributing in ways that don’t speak to our emotional core?
Perhaps all the people we love and encounter need more from us than that. Perhaps the most worthwhile thing we can do is engage our hearts. A wonderful quote by Howard Thurman summarises this sentiment:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
In favour of ‘master your craft’
For good reason, the ‘master your craft’ camp also garners plenty of support. (To be clear, by ‘craft’ I’m talking about any skill for which a person can be paid – whether physical, intellectual or emotional in nature).
For starters, isn’t it wise to be more pragmatic about our path? By relying on emotional whims such as ‘passion’, don’t we risk becoming a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’?
The reality is that we live in a specialist culture. This didn’t emerge accidentally, but from very real market forces. And when it comes to the marketplace, those who prioritise mastery will command more compensation and greater autonomy. Understandably, these are important goals for many people.
I was first introduced to this line of thinking by Cal Newport in the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. He argued against the ‘follow your passion’ philosophy, claiming that it gets people into trouble by making them undesirable to the marketplace (think the ‘starving artist’ archetype).
Newport also outlines an alternative, mastery-driven approach to careers and job satisfaction. Here’s a snippet from the ‘Career Craftsman Manifesto’ found on his blog:
“Mastery is just the first step in crafting work you love. Once you have the leverage of a rare and valuable skill, you need to apply this leverage strategically to make your working life increasingly fulfilling.
It is then — and only then — that you should expect a feeling of passion for your work to truly take hold.”
Perhaps there’s also an ethical argument to be made about following market demand: shouldn’t we look to maximise the amount of ‘social good’ in the world through our endeavours?
With this line of thinking, romantic notions of ‘passion’ fall by the wayside behind pressing issues faced by humanity. For instance, if someone has a flair for environmental science, should they really devote their life to teaching ukulele on YouTube?
But in my opinion, the most significant point is who mastery shapes us to be. Having the experience of perfecting a craft can build our self-reliance and self-esteem. We become stoic and resourceful in the face of life setbacks, which has a positive effect on the people in our lives as well.
Besides, doesn’t mastery rarely come without passion? It might be nearly impossible to spend 10,000 hours doing something without feeling at least some degree of passion.
The organic approach: Beyond ‘passion’ and ‘mastery’
Having started my journey as a doctor, I used to be a ‘master your craft’ enthusiast. I didn’t join medical school from a place of inner passion, but rather one centred on pragmatism, achievement, and doing something ‘virtuous’.
This wasn’t sustainable for me personally; I eventually stopped working as a doctor. But being someone who values both passion and mastery, I felt torn.
- “Am I abandoning the medicine ship too early, before I’m at the top of my game?”
- “Is it unethical or self-indulgent not to use my training/skillset where there is great demand for it?”
My own answers at the time were tinged with scepticism of the ‘master your craft’ camp, leading me directly to the other side: the ‘follow your passion’ camp.
I started listening to my heart intently:
- “What truly makes me come alive?”
- “Which activities make me forget about time?”
- “How can I channel those activities into a meaningful career?”
Those were significant questions to reflect on, but I didn’t want them alone to determine my next steps. While I wanted to prioritise joy and fulfilment from day one, I also wanted to find something I could commit to. I wanted to master a valuable and in-demand set of skills.
This compromise represents my ideal scenario, but there’s a key missing ingredient to making it work: my commitment to cultivating and acting on a deeper purpose.
Ultimately, why prioritise either ‘passion’ or ‘mastery’ alone, when both will grow organically from the seed of truth? That way they don’t need to be forced.
If ‘follow your passion’ means putting enjoyment first, and ‘mastering your craft’ means putting achievement first, the organic approach means elevating our most inspiring, resonant core values above either of them.
If we don’t do so, we’ll always be a slave to what we do and don’t enjoy, what the market demands of us, or the fluctuating satisfaction that comes from getting good at something.
But if we do commit to some purpose – ideally a purpose that transcends our personal concerns – then going the extra mile to perfect our work becomes the fruit of heartful devotion, rather than stoic discipline alone. And while surface passion might ebb and flow, a deeper sense of meaning will be at work within us – our endeavours will feel worth it.
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
~ Friedrich Nietzsche
The organic approach will bear other fruits too, beyond passion or mastery alone; perhaps the person we become will impact those around us in ways we can scarcely anticipate.
If we connect with the meaning that underpins our ambitions, how far we prioritise mastery or passion becomes less important.
That said, I only include my perspective for your interest – don’t let it become yet another conceptual prison for you.
The main thing to remember is that for each of us, a different belief system will work best, because we each have an individual nature:
- Some of us are highly analytical.
- Some of us are more intuitive.
- Some like to work with machines.
- Some like to work with people, or animals.
- Some love numbers, while some love to think in abstract/artistic ways.
My own nature is such that neither ‘follow your passion’ nor ‘master your craft’ work for me – but maybe they’re a good fit who you are and the life you want to create:
- Do you value the pursuit of mastery, for its own sake? If so, excelling in your chosen field will probably light you up and provide all the fulfilment in the world. Maybe that’s just how you’re geared – to push yourself and see how much you can achieve.
- Is it more important you feel passionate from the start? For certain people this will be the right way to go, based on their values and their nature. Again, this is totally fine. It’s who you are.
Or, are you somewhere in the middle?
If you’re struggling to figure out which one to prioritise, maybe it’s because neither camp fits your basic nature. In which case, maybe it’s time to dive deeper into the meaning behind the struggle.
Maybe it’s time to consciously look at who you are, what you stand for, and then act accordingly.