Actor holding skull on stage
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Commentary

Don’t Follow Your Passion in Choosing Your Career

Jun 07, 2017

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What advice do you have for college graduates entering the workforce?” is written by John Suh, CEO of LegalZoom.

“Follow your dreams.” “The world is at your fingertips.” “You can do anything you put your heart and mind to.”

None of this is my advice for new graduates.

They are all very nice and aspirational sentiments, and the people saying them have good intentions. But that type of advice doesn’t help to ground you and won’t move your career forward.

The best advice I have for post-college life is this: Listen to the people who tell you what you don’t want to hear.

The best piece of career advice I ever received was from my dad. But he told me the exact opposite of what I thought he would. One day when we were chatting, he asked me, “John, what is it that you want to do with your life?”

He had been pushing me to pursue a career in medical research. I told him that I wanted to be an actor or play in the NBA. Those were the two things in my life I was most passionate about.

“Is that really what you want?” he asked.

I took a moment to think about it. “Well,” I admitted, “I’m probably not good enough to get into the NBA.” That was probably the biggest understatement of my life. “So I guess that leaves acting. Or maybe being an entrepreneur.”

Then he told me exactly what I did not want to hear. He said, “You know, too many people say, 'Follow your passion; follow your passion; follow your passion.' Passions are hobbies. You can be passionate about your hobbies, but you’re going to like your career if you're good at that job. So find out what you're good at, and you'll start to like that career. Eventually, that career will become your passion."

At first, I thought, “Dad, that is so non-idealistic. You’ve got to follow your dreams, man.” And on and on. But even so, that conversation stuck with me.

Later in life I realized what great advice it was. As I moved forward in my career I started to notice that my dad was right: I enjoyed being good at what I did. And the better I got and the more successes I had, the more I grew to love the work. Today, my work is my absolute passion.

The problem, though, is that many people aren’t quite sure what they are good at. An easy way to find out is to ask your friends. Chances are your four or five closest friends know you better than you know yourself.

I grew up with a circle of friends that I’ve known since the fifth grade and we are still friends to this day. We went through some of life’s biggest moments together, from our first dates to graduating high school and all of the embarrassing moments in between. Because of that, we have no filter between us. We are blunt and brutally honest around each other and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In uncertain situations, they are the ones who will tell me exactly what I don’t want to hear. And that’s usually for the best.

Find those friends and ask them to shoot straight with you—no sugar coating. Courtesy is for people who don’t know and trust each other. If their description of your strengths and weaknesses doesn’t match the perception you have of yourself, go with theirs; they’re probably right. Use that knowledge to help guide you in the direction of a career you will be successful in.

The people who tell you what you don’t want to hear are the ones who care about you the most. Feeling a tinge of pain or discomfort as someone is being completely straightforward with you is exactly when you want to take note and listen—it just might be the best advice you ever receive.

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