The “Follow Your Passion” Career Advice

From what I can tell, there are two types of parents out there when it comes to advising and strategizing with their kids when it comes to selecting a major in college and finding something to do with your life after that.

First, you have the “follow your passion” camp.

What this camp gets right is that what you do in class, and what you do for a living, will occupy half of conscious life. It becomes as much who you are as what you do in those eight hours of free time. It is a paramount decision because the seeds of building a fortune start with selling your time as labor for money. From there, it’s all about creating a difference between what you spend, and what you earn. Unless you have rapid career and salary advancement to a point to a point that you start getting stock grants and guaranteed pensions, it is going to be this difference between what you spend and what you earn that will serve as the raw material for building something great. It’s the marble stone that you hope to spend your life turning into your version of the statue of David.

If you are lucky enough to have a job that you truly enjoy, then it’s okay to take a slower path to financial independence. You can do things like purchase $2,500 worth of Exxon stock and know it will turn into $1 million forty-four years from now if the past forty-four years serve as prologue, because you wouldn’t structure your life any differently if you got financially independent at thirty or forty years old; you’re already spending your time the way you choose.

Also, your lover, family, and friends will all benefit from the “carryover effect” if you are doing something that makes you happy during your working hours, because you’re not coming home to whine about your co-workers, talk about how your boss doesn’t get you, and then fall asleep at 7 PM watching reruns of Matlock because the day left you fatigued. Instead, someone with a job they truly love gets to go through life with their cell phone always plugged into the charger. When people around you start to feel a positive energy, sense of vibrancy, and even adventure and mischief just by being in your presence, then you are actually executing upon the most important element of success: a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop.

And, of course, someone doing what they love is going to find career advancement so much easier than someone who is just occupying space because it’s a job. Picture two guys, recently out of college, with a job on Wall Street. One of them hates the circus of trying to appease folks who want stocks to go up linearly in a neat and tidy fashion every year, and as soon as it is 6:30 PM, he gets out of the office so fast you’d wonder if the building caught fire.

Contrast that with someone on the other side who loves this stuff. He studies the difference between Citigroup’s stock price in the $40s and its book value in the middle of the $60s, and figures it’s an intelligent risk to purchase the stock and see what happens if/when Citigroup finally passes the central bank’s stress tests next year as it currently the most capitalized large bank in the country. Someone obsessed with studying “margin of safety” doctrine and applying it to real life is going to have an easier path to career advancement because his passion translates into a better work ethic which leads to better productivity which produces better results which then tilts the odds in your favor for promotion.

The other camp, meanwhile, focuses on money over passion. It’s about finding a list of majors with the lowest unemployment rates and highest expected salaries, and then forcing yourself into one of those endeavors. This comes with a lot of problems because it’s hard to go the extra mile over long periods of time for something that dissatisfies you, and your job then becomes an energy drain rather than a source of power, so that your relationships with others suffer because you’re starting to build a negative energy loop where the negativity from your job can then cause negative with your personal relationship, which can then spiral to more negativity at your job, and down it goes.

Here’s where the advice about “follow your passion” needs to get modified: If following your passion leads to a standard of living that is unacceptable to you, then you need to start weighing passions against salary expectations.

If your passion #1 is to be a petroleum engineer making $120,000 per year and your passion #7 is to be a doctor making $200,000 per year, there’s no reason not be a petroleum engineer if you know that you can do just fine, thank you on $120,000 per year. But if your passion #1 is to be a poet clawing for $15,000 in a good year and your passion #7 is to be a petroleum engineer making $120k, then get ready to start drilling holes into through the rigid mantle of the earth, because that is what will give you the greatest amount of happiness, all things adjusted.

That was a mistake I made, and you can learn from it if you haven’t locked yourself into a major. During my freshman year of English classes, I was killing it in my literature courses, with all my grades there generally being As. I also took geology. I liked it, but not as much as English, and pretty much everything I submitted got an A-. I loved going on hikes and identifying the different rocks in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I liked chilling with Kafka and Dickens a little bit more. So I got an English degree.

That was dumb. All of my classmates that have geology degrees were getting offers from Exxon, Chevron, and Conoco—and I think one of them got enrolled at an energy company with a pension plan—I didn’t know that could still be a thing. Meanwhile, and this is quite sad, I don’t know of anyone that graduated from the English department that gets paid to write and draws a salary above $30k with benefits for doing so. The differential in earnings outcomes for the two majors is so substantial that a small difference in passion should not take precedent. The hard part, though, is realizing this by age 18 instead of 22.

Choosing a career just for the money will lead to permanent dissatisfaction because you will mentally con yourself into thinking it is just temporary, and when that internal placebo proves false, you wake up and realized you spent your life’s energy doing something aimed at pleasing someone or something you can’t articulate and leaves you feeling unfilled.

Then, all you have left is the two-step analysis: First, you ask yourself the question: What is my passion? What brings me happiness and fulfillment? Then, you figure out if the salary you could draw from it leads to a standard of living that is acceptable to you. If the answer is yes, great, go for it. If the answer is no, move down the passion list one by one, until you arrive at something you are passionate-ish about and gives you the quality of life that you enjoy. It’s a process, but the important thing is to be brutally honest with yourself, and remember that you never give up the right to make a change when you find something that will make you happier over the long-term in a more sustainable fashion.