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Articles / Preparing for College / A Counterpoint to Pursuing Your Passion

May 6, 2014

A Counterpoint to Pursuing Your Passion

Over the years in my work as an independent college admissions counselor, one of my most frequent admonitions to college-bound students has been, “Follow your passion." In my own life, too, I have followed my own advice and found happiness and success. In my case, though, it took me until almost mid-life before I came into the fullness of my life's work enjoyment.

I often think back to my days as a high school student in an attempt to identify with the young men and women whom I advise. Maybe a better way to put it would be, “I often think back to my daze as a high school student." Pun definitely intended. At that time in my life, I had several “passions": tennis, girls, and driving. Believe it or not, I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a professional tennis player. Back in that era of the mid-Sixties, my tennis heroes were Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, and Lew Hoad. (Don't feel bad if you don't recognize any of those names.) My tennis dreams were an analog to other young people's hopes of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or politician. The tennis phase eventually passed.

Then I found myself infatuated with science. I set my sites on MIT and told anyone who asked me what I wanted to do with my life that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. That sounded really impressive, but I honestly had no idea what all that entailed and my only credential was an “A" in senior year physics class. My Robert Oppenheimer revelries also passed but then morphed into an interest in computers, which were just then beginning to dominate the world and were as large as industrial air conditioning units (and just as noisy). I recall traveling to Pittsburgh with my Dad for an interview with an admissions dude at a place called Computer Systems Institute, which, I have just discovered thanks to Google, now resides comfortably in the dustbin of history, along with the IBM 360s that took up so much room back then. I was accepted, but chose not to go. Good decision for me, but I didn't know it was good at the time.

So, in order to cut short this painful stroll down the “Remember When?" memory lane, let's just fast-forward through my college years, the Navy, several decades of various corporate tours of duty, and land on the past bundle of years where I have found my wheelhouse, the one mentioned in my opening sentence. I presume that from my high school years straight through to moving into my wheelhouse, I was in one way or the other following opportunities that presented themselves and then applied to them whatever talents I possessed. The process was one of passions and skills.

By the way, the picture I have chosen to include as the symbol of this article illustrates the musical term “counterpoint," defined as “the art or technique of setting, writing, or playing a melody or melodies in conjunction with another, according to fixed rules." You'll also note the word “counterpoint" in this article's title. The meaning here is “an argument, idea, or theme used to create a contrast with the main element."

I see life as multiple “themes" (in my case, think of tennis, computers, physics, etc.) that “play" against one another in a kind of fugue of future fortune (to coin an alliteration). For the purposes of my point today about a counterpoint to following your passion, I'll emphasize the meaning of contrast (counterpoint) to the “main element" (following one's passion). This contrast comes from an article I discovered by Betty Liu, anchor of “In the Loop" at Bloomberg Television. The article is appropriately counterpointedly titled, Why Jeffrey Katzenberg Thinks You Should Stop Following Your Passion. Why does Katzenberg propose such “heresy"?

Apparently, Liu's article shows that Warren Buffet and I think alike:

Warren Buffet gets asked by a lot of folks like you and me what is his key to success. Almost always he says you have to do what you love. He knew from an early age that he loved money – and he loved making it. And from there grew a billionaire.

Follow your passion. I say that a lot.

Not everyone agrees. And this week, at a very different type of meeting, the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles, Jeffrey Katzenberg told an audience of hundreds to stop following their passion.

Ah, the counterpoint!

Katzenberg qualifies his statement with:

Business leaders “talk to kids today about follow your dreams, but I'm not actually sure that's such a great idea," he said. “How about follow your skill?…I believe every human being does something great. Follow that thing you're actually really good at and that may become your passion."

Now that's a stimulating thought … and a challenge. What do you do that is something great? Sounds like a good time for a personal inventory.

Liu countered (there's that word again) Katzenberg's contention with “What if your skill is accounting? I mean, can you really grow to love accounting?"

“That's my point!" he exclaimed, and then went on to recount his first days at the Walt Disney Company when Michael Eisner told him to fix the animated movie business. It wasn't anything he was interested in, but because he was assigned to turn it around, he did and from there, became one of the pioneers in producing blockbuster animated films. Follow what you're good at, he said, and it will become your passion.

This seemingly counterintuitive (lots of “counter" words out there) approach inspired me to dig a bit deeper and I found Sebastian Klein's thoughts about this in his article alluding to leadership factors. He leads with this cold-water shower:

“Follow your passion," might be the most common career guidance, but it is actually bad advice.

I feel properly chastised.

The theory that following your passion leads to success first surfaced in the '70s, and in the intervening decades it's taken on the character of indisputable fact. The catch? Most people's passions have little connection to work or education, meaning passionate skiers, dancers, and readers run into problems. In a culture that tells people to transform their passions into lucrative careers via will-driven alchemy, it's no wonder so much of today's workforce suffers from endless job swapping and professional discontent.

Ouch. This is starting to make sense!

Don't do what you love. Learn to love what you do.

It seems that one of the most important factors in career contentment is simply experience. In a job satisfaction survey of college administrative assistants–work traditionally considered repetitive or “boring"–a third of respondents considered their position a “job," merely a way to pay the bills. Another third deemed it a “career," or a path towards something better. The final third, though–incidentally, also those who'd spent the most time doing this type of work–considered it their calling or an integral part of their life and identity. …

Let's cut to Klein's highlights. You can read the fine print (which is pretty convincing):

Adopt a craftsman's mindset.

Practice hard and get out of your comfort zone.

Acquire rare and valuable skills.

Bring it home, Sebastian:

Though following your passion is today's ideal, it often won't get you anywhere but frustrated. Focus instead on acquiring unique skills and refining the quality of what you do with the focus of a devoted craftsman. You'll be well on your way to cultivating not only a satisfying career, but a new, rarer kind of practical passion built on commitment, mastery, and pride.


Ah, “practical passion." Thank you, Mr. Klein. Maybe that explains why I never made it to Wimbledon, MIT, or even Computer Systems Institute.

High schoolers, take note! Take inventory! What is your practicalpassion? Do you have a skill in your life that you can “learn to love"? That may be a too-hard-to-answer question right now, but give it some thought.

Keep in mind that if you can identify that practical skill, which could lead to a life's work, you can also indulge in those perhaps impractical passions simultaneously. That almost sounds like having your cake and eating it too!

The point here, in this difficult period of our global economy, is to try to discover what your best tools are. Once you have defined your toolbox, you can begin to build (or repair) a road map for happiness and success. Just food for thought from Katzenberg and Klein.


Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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