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Follow your passion. Do what you love. Chase your dreams.

This week on the Popforms email list, we talked about why we tend to find this often-shared advice pretty unconvincing, and even destructive.

Just because you love something, doesn’t mean that you will be successful, happy, or even good at your job if you make it your career.

It is much more effective (and profitable, and even satisfying) to do what you’re really good at, and focus on getting as good at that thing as you possibly can.

If your passion happens to also be the thing that you’re best at, that’s great! You’re lucky. But too often, people who find themselves in this lucky position tell other people that they should also chase their passions if they want to be as wildly successful and happy as they are. They misunderstand or miscommunicate what got them to the level of success they have achieved.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s passions align with their strengths, and trying to chase a dream just because it’s your dream will not always equal success.

You are much better off if you find the thing you’re good at and that people are willing to pay for – and then hone that strength as much as you can.


You want the biggest return on your investment

In your career, choosing to focus on and invest in your strengths – over your passions – means you will be more successful, because you are giving your energy to something that already has momentum and power.

Think about it: if I am good with numbers and I devote my energy to becoming really great with numbers, I have a leg up and can achieve greater success in that field than someone who isn’t naturally suited to that kind of job.

If I am good with numbers but spend all my time writing, I am at a disadvantage. I may still be successful, but I won’t be taking advantage of the innate power I have naturally with numbers and maximizing the time I spend at work.

When you do what you are good at, things like success, money, freedom, and recognition will come. And when you have these things, you can pursue your passion projects on the side, without the pressure of needing them to make money, get you famous, or fulfill your needs.

Your passion projects should fulfill your passion. Your work should fulfill the things work is supposed to fulfill — your income, your reputation, and your success.

When you add huge value, you get huge value back. If you choose to spend your time becoming incredible at something, you’ll get returns that equal your output.


This doesn’t mean doing a job you hate just for the money

There are a lot of ways to misconstrue this argument. Doing what you’re good at isn’t just about doing what will earn you the most recognition or money or fame, in exchange for your happiness, or your morals.

Of course you should like your job. If you’re good with numbers, it doesn’t mean you have to work for a huge hedge fund just because it’s where you could make the most money. Job satisfaction is still part of the equation; you have to factor in other things like how you do your best work, what kinds of teams you thrive in, and what corporate culture matches your working style.

It is about finding the right environment where you can excel and pursue your strengths effectively. If a certain startup has a culture you love, then you will thrive while being their go-to person for your area of expertise. If a huge corporation is where you excel and will make the biggest impact, then that is your best choice.

Emma Chapman of A Beautiful Mess wrote an excellent blog post on this topic; she describes the moment in which she decided to embrace what worked for her and pursue those things relentlessly (in spite of her original “passion job” being something completely different – and unsuccessful). For her, it meant working with her sister who she partnered with effectively and playing to her strengths like business acumen and organization.

What would it mean for you to give up on goals that don’t align with your biggest strengths? What could you accomplish?


How you can pivot your life or your career

When we decided to pivot our products Popforms, we did so because we took a long, hard look at our strengths. We write things unlike anything else on the internet. We write things people love. We write things people pay for.

It was time to stop ignoring our strengths and plowing ahead into software just because it’s what we originally said we were going to do.

It was time to pivot.

Today, I want you to look at what is working for you. Not what you are working towards or what you love the most: what is working for you right now?

Here are good questions to ask yourself (and really pause a moment and actually answer them – it will mean you get a lot more out of reading this article!):

  • What do I get the most praise on?
  • What do people come to me for help with?
  • Where have I made the most progress over the years?

When you know where you are strongest, maximize that area in your life. It may mean giving up things you like, but investing in your greatest strengths means you are investing in your greatest potential for success.

Don’t resist finding a place to apply your talents just because your career has gone in a different direction before. As Emma Chapman said in the piece we linked to above:

If you enjoy something but it’s not a strength of yours, it might make a better hobby than career choice. That ended up being the case for me anyway. Moving in with my parents after being a failed actress was the most cliche and embarrassing choice I’ve ever made. But it was also the BEST choice I’ve ever made.”

After years of struggling as an actress, Emma decided to focus on her strengths and join her sister in business. Just a few years later, they had their first million dollar year.

Similarly, at Popforms, we have been working for almost a year on our software tool. Now that we have decided to focus on content, one of our biggest strengths, we are about to launch a paid recurring revenue product in less than 3 weeks.  And we have already sold it in bulk to companies – before we have even launched it.

When you play to your strengths, you make up for any backtracking or lost time you may have encountered from switching your focus. Focusing on your strengths makes you faster, more effective, and ultimately much more successful.

Are there goals you are working towards that don’t align with your greatest strengths? Are you on a career track that no longer applies to your needs? How can you do more of what you’re good at, and less of what you’re not?

Where can you pivot to make yourself the most profitable?

And if you liked this post you should also consider reading Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  Derek Sivers wrote an excellent review of it, too (plus Derek is just awesome, so you should read his review regardless).

Tags: Focus, growth, passion, strengths, success,

9 Responses to “Why pursuing your passion is for suckers: how to maximize your strengths and be incredibly successful”

  1. Ana

    I kinda look at it more as – you are following your passion i.e. To help people be better (at their jobs). A tool (software) or a skill (ability to build software) is not a passion. I also think we are at the cusp of a shift where software is becoming less valuable than helpful high-quality content. You are leading that trend.
    Keep it up.

    • Kate Stull

      Hi Ana,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I think we are on a similar page — though I definitely feel like I ended up in a field/role I am passionate about *because* I dug in on my biggest strengths with things like writing, and added lots of value there first. But I also lucky. I think for some people building software is a passion, but if they have stronger leadership skills than coding skills, they should go towards management since that’s where they can invest their skills and time most successfully (and then code on the side for fun, since it’s their passion).

      I agree on the content point definitely; we have heard from so many people who really want focused coaching and curated content to help them be stronger, rather than just another tool to help them track their productivity, tasks, etc. So we are glad to be able to fill that niche!

      Thanks for all the kind words, and for reading the post! I really appreciate it. :)

  2. Ana

    That is a pretty good point – that your skills and strengths can lead you to be successful in building what you are passionate about. I hope you don’t mind me explaining a little of where I am coming from…

    I started out building my company thinking that coding was my passion, and I could apply it anywhere to build something successful. I built 2 websites over six months time that eventually failed. I was losing money every month, and eventually shut them down. Tell the truth, I wasn’t really as interested in what they were for, as I was in the code behind them.

    A chance hackathon got me building an app for my kids to play. I hadn’t done that before because I always thought I should be a serious coder who wrote scalable distributed multi-tier systems. I built a little learning game. It was probably dead last in the hackathon. But, back at home, the kids were so excited to play it, and I was so excited to see them learning. After building 8 apps, I understand better that what gets me going through the ups and downs is helping kids learn. Coding is just one of the skills that makes it happen. I’ve researched and learnt and done more on education, graphics, sound – all for the sake of the kids. I never did that for the companies I worked for – I just coded what I was told to. I hadn’t discovered my passion. This feels like it is what I am meant to do.

  3. Nils Davis

    Kates – another great post as always. The scales fell from my eyes re: “follow your passion” when I first heard about the Johnson O’Connor aptitudes testing ( Johnson O’Connor was a researcher at GE in the early 20th century who figured out that people had different aptitudes that determined to a large degree not only what they would be good at, but what they’d be happy doing. Aptitudes are stable over your lifetime, and fairly set by high school age (according to his research). The key point is that if you are doing something that doesn’t match your aptitudes, you’re likely to be unhappy, and if you do something that matches, you’re not only going to be good at it, but you’ll be happier. Everyone in my family has taken the JOCRF tests, and we’ve all learned and benefited a lot from them. A simpler and cheaper test is the Clifton Strengths Finder, which is probably not as accurate or as actionable, but useful for insight into your preferences.

    Do you have other resources for helping people figure out “what they’re really good at?”

    • Kate Stull

      Wow, those are tons of great examples. Thanks for sharing them, Nils! As for resources, I don’t have many springing to mind beyond the ones that you listed already. However, I’d say that many people, if they take an honest look at their work history, can also help themselves to get a sense of where they excel.

      For me (just for 1 example), it took me a long time to realize that I was actually really good at customer service. Why did it take so long? Because I really hated doing customer service. However, I couldn’t deny that I was actually pretty great at it. So I started to think about how I could use those skills but in a way that wouldn’t make me so unhappy (ie. answering phones/working a desk and getting yelled at). Eventually, I realized I was great at customer service because I was a great listener and understander of what people *really* wanted or needed or were motivated by (beyond the actual words they were saying). So I started applying those skills first as an assistant, and now in my current role I use those skills so much too, helping people figure out career problems and answers.

      So — that’s a long way of saying, I think doing a really analytical review of your career successes (what do you often get praised for? what do people keep trying to assign you to do? what do people ask you for help with?) can also be really effective — in addition to the resources you listed. I would be curious to hear if other commenters or readers have ideas for similar resources, though!

      The more knowledge the better. :)

  4. Marina

    I think Penelope Trunk once wrote in her blog… “You don’t have to do what you love as a job! After all, we all love sex, but it doesn’t mean we should try to get paid for it.:”

  5. Michael

    Such a great post and the kind of insightful, ‘below the surface’ thinking that brought me here. “Follow your passion” sounds great, and if by coincidence you pursue that passion doing something that you have natural aptitude for, it works like a charm. However, it’s not a solid universal principle and I think leads alot of people down the wrong path when we follow our passion using skills with which we aren’t proficient. Better to do (or figure out) what I’m good at, then find a way to use that skill, ability or aptitude in a way which resonates with me (e.g. helping others, solving problems, etc) to get paid . Kates: I give this post a 10+!!! :-)

    • Kate Stull

      Absolutely! So glad the post connected with you — and if you are interested in the topic, definitely check out Cal Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”. We are going to be reviewing it for the blog soon, and it touches on so many ideas you mentioned. It makes so much sense; do work that people value, so that you can exert more control over the kind of life you want to live. Thanks for your comment, and thanks again for the kind words! :)