Simply CJ: Follow your passion?

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This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 6 - 12, 2017.


Millennials are joining the workforce in droves. With the younger generation making up the bulk of the new workforce, there is a lot of attention on how we engage, manage and retain them as part of our future business.

To many in the older generation, who thrive on job security and prosperity, this has proved to be a challenge. Not only do these Gen Ys want a job, they insist on having a fulfilling one. They want to live out their dreams. Their parents have raised them with a sense of optimism and unlimited possibilities that they could be whatever they want to.

For this group, “Follow your passion” is a mantra they live by. In a Harvard Business Review article, Cal Newport writes that this catchphrase only became popular in the last 20 years (according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, a tool that shows how prominently a given phrase appears in English print over time).

Coincidentally, the Ngram Viewer shows that the phrase “a secure career” has gone out of vogue. The younger generation does not just want jobs, they truly believe that if you “do what you love, the money will follow”.

We live in a society that trumpets these perspectives. My response to that is simple. Whoever said that — do what you love, the money will follow — surely must never have caught the American Idol auditions. It is almost irresponsible to tell people who cannot sing to follow their passion.

Maybe it is middle age knocking on my door with a suitcase of practicality and duffel bag of reality, but doing what we love and making money are two separate things — determined by factors almost independent of each other. The fact that you love singing does not guarantee that someone will pay you to do so.

If you have read Steve Jobs’ biography, his passion was not in business or electronics. Instead, he studied Western history and dance, and even Eastern mysticism. He dropped out of college and, at one point, even left his job at Atari for several months to make a spiritual journey to India. Upon returning home, he continued his spiritual journey at the Los Altos Zen Center. I am not sure he would have earned as much being a spiritual teacher compared to building iconic machines, but I think you get my point. Even if we do what we are passionate about, the money might just not follow.

That said, once upon a time, many of us had this burning desire to do something we were passionate about. It got buried somewhere between responsibility and commitment, left forgotten as we pursued the rat race to do adult things such as put food on the table and pay for life’s necessities. Do we not owe ourselves that consideration, the mere consideration, of following our passion?

I think we do. But dropping everything just to chase your passion could prove disastrous. Here is some advice.     

There are many things that we can be passionate about. They may fluctuate between opening a café today to setting up a philanthropic cause tomorrow. Can we find the thing that allows us to earn the most money by doing what we are passionate about?  

The demand for what you are offering is only generated when it fulfils the needs of your target consumers. The better you can respond to these needs, the greater your chance of financial success.

Second, ask yourself if you can afford to do the thing you are passionate about. If chasing the dream prevents you from feeding your family or meeting those mortgage instalments, then no, you need a better plan. If following your passion does not bring in sufficient income initially, make sure you are financially stable. Eliminate unnecessary expenses, reduce debt and, if possible, create passive or supplementary income that gives you a bit of a buffer while you pursue that dream.

Third, just because you love doing something does not mean that you should pick it as your sole source of income. You can start by incorporating your passions into your life a little at a time. Take a small step. Try honing your experience while keeping your day job, whether it is blogging or taking up part-time gigs. Try reading or researching what has been tried and whether it has succeeded or failed. Even if it does not go anywhere, research has shown that people who make progress every day towards something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled.

Finally, people rarely talk about what passion feels like. More often than not, people get excited about an idea and mistake this for passion. If you are to be successful with what you are passionate about, you cannot be fickle. True passion requires work — like gymnasts athletes or musicians who spend hours and hours trying to excel in their chosen fields. The concept that work will not feel like work if we love it is inherently problematic.

Ong Shi Jie (CJ) is head of integrated marketing and analytics at OCBC Bank (M) Bhd