Last year, I finished directing a documentary film called The Work of 1000. Our heroine was Marion Stoddart, a woman who in the 1960s spearheaded a cleanup of the massively polluted Nashua River in Central Massachusetts — one of the most dramatic environmental success stories in American history. Amazingly, however, the river was her second choice for an advocacy project. She had originally wanted to help with the adoption of Korean children, and could have gone down that path, but she decided she’d get “too emotionally involved” to do a good job — and thus became an eco-pioneer instead.
It’s common wisdom these days that you should follow your passion. But executives can hurt their careers when they care about something too much. Here are four reasons to think twice before “doing what you love.”
- You love it — but you’re not great at it. Years ago, when I ran the communications department for a presidential campaign, I supervised Scott, a hard-working, smart, insightful employee who loved the glamour and rat-a-tat action of the press officebut was not a great writer. I liked his enthusiasum and could see he wanted to learn but it’s hard to succeed in any media job if you don’t have a knack for banging out good copy. So I worked hard to instead steer him to policy-research assignments and, after the campaign ended, he turned that into a career. It’s hard to judge yourself accurately, so ask your friends and employer what your talents and weaknesses are, and then play to your strengths, even if they don’t lead you to what you would currently describe as your “perfect” job.
- You’re skilled at your passion — but hate the work that surrounds it. Many businesspeople are masters at their craft but drop the ball when it comes to everything else. Angela is a brilliant graphic designer who worked in-house for big companies before striking out on her own. But — although she loved working closely with clients and helping them create just the right branding — she was simply unable to manage her pricing and cash flow. It’s possible to learn these skills, but, for many, the process sucks the joy out of their chosen field. (Michael Gerber writes about this extensively in The E-Myth.
- You’re too emotionally attached. You’ve already heard about Marion Stoddart. I recently heard Charlaine Harris, author of the wildly popular vampire series that spawned the TV show True Blood, talk about this issue too. The best writers, Harris said, don’t fall in love with their characters, or their words. They don’t mind being edited; in fact, they’re open to any suggestion that makes them better. Writers who get too close to their work and take criticism too personally never improve. Similarly, businesspeople need to look carefully at whether passion for their work is clouding their judgment. When you care deeply about a pet project, for example, it’s hard to make a rational decision about whether it should live or die.
- No one will pay for it. You can turn a hobby into a job — but only if someone’s willing to pony up. Sometimes the market’s just too small (luxury vacation planning for couples honeymooning in Belarus). Sometimes the margins are too thin (personal finance author Ramit Sethi derides textbook exchange businesses and t-shirt companies as “stupid frat-boy business ideas”). And sometimes your company simply has other priorities (no matter how many times you offer to spearhead a move into web video, your boss wants you to focus on your actual job).
Doing what you love can inspire great dedication and a sense of meaning — but sometimes, that passion can blind you to feedback (are you the only one who thinks it’s a good idea?), make you miserable (who knew launching the initiative would mean managing a dozen new staffers?), or harm your financial prospects.
No one wants a job or a career they hate. But sometimes it might be better to do what you like — not what you love. Do you love your work? What’s your recipe for career success?