Why Following Your Passion Is Nonsense + Other Career Advice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because none of us actually knows what we’re doing with our lives. You do? Oh, can it!
Nearly 2 million Americans have graduated college, or will, this year. And what a heady time it is for them: hopes, fears, WTFs and often all three, in concert. Congratulations! Now what?
The founders of Roadtrip Nation, which produces the PBS series of the same name, faced the same conundrum about 15 years ago — and they found a novel approach to the post-grad blues: “Adrift, without a steady paycheck or a backup plan, we jumped into an RV with nothing but a nagging sense that how we’d been taught to think about our futures was in fact deeply wrong,” they explain at the outset of their new career guide, Roadmap. They went in search of people who’d had fulfilling and remunerative careers, from Soledad O’Brien to John Perry Barlow. The book promises nothing less than an “endlessly renewable approach that you can use to stay on the path toward a meaningful and inspired life.” OZY caught up with Nathan Gebhard, one of the book’s co-authors.
There’s been lots of discussion about the value of college. What do you think is the best approach to education in order to pursue a career?
It really depends on the individual and the occupation and the life that they want. What we’ve learned in watching people advance their careers is that it’s not practice that matters — it’s doing. It’s actually engaging in the things that you’re interested in. To draw any other lines of consistency is pretty difficult.
I look at Jimmy Chin, who is a National Geographic photographer. He got his start rock climbing while living in the back of his car for nine years. But when he got into expeditions, he referenced a lot of the skills that he had learned in college. You could look at Jimmy the rock climber or the photographer and say, “He never needed to go to college.” But when his career evolved, he found he had these skills that allowed him to catapult over the others who just took photos.
Should you develop practical skills as a fallback, even if they’re not totally aligned with your interests?
There’s a great chapter in the book that compares two back-to-back interviews that we had on the road. Deon Clark [a nuclear engineer] said to develop a skill set and go as deep as you can in there, so you can run with it. And Paul Salopek [a foreign correspondent] said to get as broad of an exposure as possible so that you can mix all these different bits of experience into something really unique. I think there’s beauty in the truth of both of those statements.
It’s absolutely true that no matter what you do, you’ve got to have skills. Telling someone to follow their passion is not necessarily a useful piece of advice. It sounds devoid of skill, it sounds fairy-tale and it also sounds like it has to be the one passion. Most people we’ve seen didn’t know their passion right from the beginning. But they were willing to just go and try. And through those experiences they found themselves pursuing an interest, adding skills to that, evolving and then seeing more opportunities. Passion is the end result.
I think creating your own “roadmap” is a very individual pursuit. We’ve seen this massive rainbow of options in terms of how people balance realities with opportunity. There are extreme examples of people just going for it, like Jad Abumrad, who is the host of Radiolab. He volunteered for an entire year. It’s probably very rare that it would be the advisable plan to just up and quit. The vast majority of people that we’ve interviewed have taken an evolutionary approach.
Like Tinker Hatfield — today he is the vice president of innovation at Nike. In school he was really interested in sports, but he got injured. So he had to rethink what he was all about, and he chose architecture. After some time, he realized, “This is interesting, but it’s not really what I want to do.” So he started doing architecture for Nike’s corporate offices and stores, and he used that first job to get into this whole other world of sports and design.
Is there a way to find fulfillment even if you don’t end up with a “cool” job?
I think cool is relative. Willie [Witte], who is one of the other writers of the book — one of his idols is his uncle, who is a janitor. And when he describes his uncle, if he didn’t use the actual title of his job, you’d never know that he’s a janitor. He is a pillar of his community. Kids are coming up to him all the time, saying hi. I haven’t asked him, but I would imagine being a janitor for him has nothing to do with toilets.