Do What You Love and Starve

Forget the inspirational mumbo jumbo. In reality, following your passion can be a risky career move.

If the personal growth industry had a motto, it would be "Follow your passion" or "Do what you love and the money will follow."

Sure, if your passion is a rare one, like entomology, or even a moderately common one like accounting, money may follow. But if you are like the many people whose passion is shared by half the continent -- for example, activist or performer -- you're in trouble. Millions of people are competing passionately with you for the small number of decent-paying jobs. That's the reason the word "starving" so often precedes "artist."

Following your dream isn't all it's cracked up to be. Fact is, most wannabes aren't happy. In addition to the constant rejection, they feel unproductive. And when hired, they worry that they're just one wrong word from being unemployed again.

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Even if you manage to land a longshot dream career, it may well turn out to be less than dreamy. You may be treated poorly: low salary, no job security, unreturned phone calls, etc. That's because bosses know they have little to lose. Coveys of wannabes are in the wings panting for your job. I've spoken with hundreds of people in so-called dream careers and often they're less happy than are people in more mainstream ones. If being a movie star is so wonderful, for example, why does it seem that half of them are in and out of rehab?

Keys to career contentment

My advice? Unless you're a driven superstar, pick a non-glam career that you'd be good at. Then do a competent job search so you have multiple job offers. Pick the one offering as many of these characteristics as possible:

  • Moderately challenging
  • Meaningful work
  • A kind, competent boss
  • Pleasant co-workers
  • Learning opportunities
  • Reasonable pay
  • Reasonable work hours
  • A short commute

A job with even half of those will make you more likely to love your job than if you had pursued a longshot career. Learn more about how to choose the right job for you.

Sometimes, finding career contentment is simply a matter of diving into whatever job is available. Gary had graduated from Michigan State with no clue what he wanted to do. His cousin told him that a job was open in a dashboard manufacturing plant. He wasn't passionate about dashboards; who is? But he was tired of living on his parents' sofa, so he took the job. Because he was bright and curious, he asked lots of questions and soon he became the go-to guy on the factory floor. Soon after that, he got a promotion and a raise. Before he knew it, he felt passionate about his career.

Feeling expert at something -- even something as mundane as dashboards -- and being recognized for that expertise, is more likely to create career passion than going after a lottery-odds career.

All the pleasure, none of the pain

Still hankering for that longshot passion? Do it as a hobby. Mine is acting. Because I act in community theatre, I'm not competing with pros so I can land good roles fairly easily -- I've gotten four in the last two years. That gives me pleasure that most professional actors never get; most of them don't get as many good roles in a decade.

Can't stomach relegating your longshot passion to hobby status? Give it a fixed amount of time, more or less depending on how much more training you'll likely need to reveal your professional potential. Circle that date on your calendar. By then, if you're starting to earn even a subsistence living from your passion, great. But if not, it may be time to accept that your longshot dream isn't your career; it's your sure-shot hobby.

Perpetuated myth

How did we buy the hype that if you do what you love, the money will follow? Whether it's Oprah, The Big Idea, or most other media, they're selling the dream. Being realistic isn't inspiring; it doesn't yield ratings. So, when you see some actress, athlete, or corporate titan crowing, "I did it. You can too," remember that for every one of them, there are thousands of wannabes still waiting tables whom the media would never feature.

Career counselors and publications deserve some blame too. They too are endlessly spewing the "Do What You Love" mantra. Oh, how I wish career gurus were held to the same standard as physicians. If a doctor prescribed a treatment that required years and a fortune without disclosing the tiny odds of it working, he'd be sued and lose in any court of the land. Yet career gurus urge people to follow their dreams with no mention of odds, and suffer no reprisals when, years later, their customers are still in McJobs.

Perhaps the best career advice I can give you is to paraphrase singer Stephen Stills: If you can't do the work you love, love the work you do.

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,