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What if "follow your passion" is bad advice?

Recently, I wrote about why passion for the mission should not be a defining job criteria. (It was scooped by Jan Masoka of Blue Avocado, and they didn’t credit me, but that’s okay.)  To sum up,  I said, “Passion for the mission is not important. Being able to fundraise well is. If they ask you to have a deep abiding passion for every single job you apply for, they are asking you to lie. And this is intellectual and emotional whoring.”

As it happens, today I read a book that backs up this theory.

So Good they can't ignore you

So Good They Can’t Ignore You Book review

The book is called “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” subtitled, “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” It’s by Cal Newport.

The title of the book comes from something Steve Martin said in an interview with Charlie Rose. He was asked about his advice for aspiring performers. He said, “Nobody wants to hear this, but Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”

Newport interviews many different people throughout the book, and he finds three things that do not support the “passion hypothesis” aka “do what you’re passionate about and you’ll be successful.”

That’s just not true. Just because you love yoga doesn’t mean you should drop your marketing job and be a yoga teacher. Just because you love sailing doesn’t mean you should become a sailor. Newport finds that:

1. Career passions are rare, and compelling careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion. When I went to college I did not know what I wanted to do for my career.  I searched for years, tossing around this and that. Having a series of jobs that never went anywhere. Eventually I picked a field and stuck with it. I found that it was far more satisfying for me to work as a consultant in fundraising than as a full-time staff person. And I kept working at it. And working at it. And here I am, about to publish my third book, teaching webinars, workshops, doing speaking engagements, and coaching people in how to fundraise more effectively for their causes. I love what I do, but my journey here was very twisty, and there’s no one point that someone could say, “Oh, this is when she got her big break.”  It’s more complex than that.

2. Passion takes time. According to the research of Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor or organizational behavior at Yale, passion takes time. She surveyed over 500 college administrative assistants, and asked them if they would define their work as just a job, a career, or a calling. She found that people were equally split, and what made them truly satisfied with their work was the number of years they had spent on the job. Imagine that for a second. Imagine you with 10 more years experience than you have now in fundraising. Things come so easily to you! You know how to write a killer appeal letter. You know how to get multiple streams of income for your nonprofit. You even know how to ask for major gifts, and it gets easier all the time.

3. Passion is a side effect of mastery. The Self Determination study tells us that what makes people happy at work is Autonomy, the feeling that you have control over your day, and that your actions are important, Competence, the feeling that you’re good at what you do, and Relatedness, the feeling of connection to other people. These come with mastery.

Newport talks about what he calls the craftsman mindset and the passion mindset. He says, “The passion mindset is about what the world can offer you, and the craftsman mindset is about what you can offer the world.” This sounds a bit too libertarian for my tastes, quite honestly.

He advises people to build career capital in a field, just putting your head down and working hard at learning as much as you can. If you get better and better, his theory is, you’ll be promoted and move on up the ladder. Maybe if you’re a white guy who went to Stanford or Yale, or, okay, a woman who went to MIT.  Tellingly, he interviews almost ALL white, heterosexual males for this book, including Derek Sivers, former CEO of CDBaby, Ira Glass, producer on NPR, Joe Duffy, head of an ad agency, Alex Berger, a screenwriter and Mike Jackson, a cleantech venture capitalist (from Stanford).

So even though he focuses on people who had a leg up in the world by virtue of birth, class, and association with ivy league schools, I do believe there are a few key tips we can take from his book. He talks about how to move into a field that you want to get really really good in.

“The 5 habits of the craftsman”

  • Decide what capital market you’re in: This means you need to figure out where your “career capital” has mainly been spent. Is there something peripheral to this career that intrigues you? If you’ve been involved with environmental fundraising, could you go on to be an environmental lobbyist, for example? Jumping from fundraising to, say, yoga means you’ll have to build up your reputation and skills from scratch, which takes a long time, much longer than you would have the luxury of waiting for.
  • Identify Your Capital Type: Are you in a “winner take all” field, or an “auction” field? What “winner takes all” means is do a handful of development people get paid tons of money, and everyone else scrapes by? In an “auction” field, you can be good at lots of different things, and make a pretty good living. I’d say that fundraising is the “auction” model.
  • Define Good: Who is good in your field? What does good mean? What milestones do you want to create? Where do you want to focus, in development?
  • Stretch and Destroy: Are you being stretched in your current job? If not, how can you stretch? What area of fundraising do you want to get REALLY REALLY good at? Are events your favorite thing? Is major giving your bag? What does total mastery look like in this field? This requires you to study, take classes, and research. Destroy your weaknesses and practice stretching your fundraising knowledge every day. I will tell you that blogging about fundraising has made me learn 3x as much about fundraising than when I started this blog in 2009. I know SO MUCH MORE now than I did before. It also helps that I am now in contact with people at the top of their games in fundraising, connecting, interviewing and communicating with them, as well as teaching fundraising.
  • Be Patient: Seth Godin calls this “the dip,” where you’re not moving ahead as fast as you’d like. Can you stay there and continue to work and hone your skills? You have to be patient in fundraising, but especially when it seems like what you’re doing has little to no visible effects. It’s happening behind the scenes, slowly, and imperceptibly, as the more mistakes you make, the more the “what I need to do” is cemented in your brain.

So for all of you development professionals secretly wanting to leave fundraising, I feel you.

The system is a setup.

The job seems dead-end.

Program staff are giving you the cold shoulder

The E.D. and you may not have the best relationship.

But can you stop focusing on “trying to be happy?”

Despite “happiness research” and similar dubious academic “disciplines” there is more to life than being immediately satisfied and totally happy in every situation. The majority of people walk around frustrated, tense, worried about something, and generally itching to change things about the world. They are balls of stress and contradiction. and that’s why they give to your nonprofit! They’re mad as hell and they want you to do something about it!

Can you focus on what you’re learning in this job?

Can you see this as a stepping stone towards the goal of you learning how to raise money even better?

Would you like to rise to the top of your field, in a workplace that truly supports you? It’s not a pipe dream. Such jobs exist. Maybe what you learn today can help you get to be Chief Development Officer one day.

Good fundraisers are few and far between. Why?

  • Because we get burnt out.
  • Because we don’t know what we’re doing and we aren’t allowed to make enough mistakes as we learn. We’re supposed to make mistakes as part of the learning process, but instead people expect us to fake it till we make it.
  • Because we tend to think passion for the mission is the most important. It’s not. We’re supposed to have a passion for our jobs. And when the passion runs out, we think we should quit. Or we think we should run away to another field or another situation.

You really don’t have to have a passion for what you do. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. You don’t need a passion to be good at something. You just have to work really hard through the first, boring part as you develop new skills.

What do you think?

Do you have a passion for being a better fundraiser? Is it bigger than your “passion for the mission”?



3 responses on “What if “follow your passion” is bad advice?

  1. Jonathon says:

    Very good. One thing that I believe that gets left out of the conversation about passion is the subject of understanding your limitations and setting clear boundaries. Fundraising can be a highly stressful place if you make it to be. As an individual, and this may be the case in multiple professions, it is so crucial for fundraising professionals to really know and communicate their expectations and personal boundaries. Passion is great but if you do not have the tools to manage your passion, then you are going to lose yourself in your passion.

    It is so important to really be clear about the raw source of your stress and determine if the problem is within your immediate control. Sometimes as we follow our passion, we run into roadblocks that we can’t control. So, what’s the point of agonizing over something that we can’t influence? We exercise our futility as a fundraiser oftentimes because we are on the profit generating side of a nonprofit and it’s not really that necessary.

    So, is the raw source of stress led by fear, anger, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, passivity, conflict with colleagues, control issues at work, etc? OR, are they related to external environmental causes, ethical concerns, frustrations with your family and friends, or any of the current/crises of the world? Name it. Define it.

    We really need to be mindful of our personal and professional boundaries, how far we are willing to go and be able to discuss it with a boss, co-worker, supervisor so that we can operate from not from a place of perfect passion but authentic passion. We can’t handle everything and we can’t control it all. We need help.

    I believe that when we follow our passions, we don’t address some of the emotional issues that come along with it. Nor do we address our limitations and boundaries.

    Jonathon Carrington

  2. Mazarine Mazarine says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment Claire!

    So happy you found this post intriguing.

    I think that the trick is NOT to follow your passion. There are so many fun things to do, and in our early 20s, we get pulled in a lot of different directions by our “passions.” The real question is, what can you get paid to do while you figure out what your deepest values are?

    I agree, good work will not be rewarded by itself. You have to draw attention to your good work. And look to make your next career move as soon as you can.

    I think feeling good deep down in your soul has more to do with how competent you are at the task and then stretching yourself in it rather than your “passion.”

    For example I have a passion for fundraising. I also have a passion for creating art. And a passion for poetry. Should I follow my passion and become a professional poet? Or teach art classes full time?

    I could, but for me, it’s more rewarding to teach people how to change the world through fundraising. That doesn’t mean my passion is any less for the other things I like to do.

    People are naturally focused on what they’re passionate about. If you like to eat chocolate cake, and you’re passionate about that, you can just eat it all the time. Which would be a waste.

    We can be passionate about a lot of things. Show me a fundraiser who has only ever fundraised for one cause. Look at Jules Brown. He is a copywriter for many different causes, and no one asks him to “Show Passion for the Mission.”

    I think you get more passionate about a cause the more you immerse yourself in it, the more you embrace how it changes people’s lives. And that can happen with just about any cause.

    I think the true challenge is to go beyond our impulses into that place where we can sit back, evaluate, and take stock of what our skills are, and what we have to bring to the world. If it’s persuasive writing, then we can help donors care about a cause even more than they already did. But we have to get really good at persuasive writing first. And that just takes practice, not passion.



  3. Wow! Quite a post. It really struck me because I just completed my own post for Clairification — and it’s all about the importance of passion. Finding your passion. Connecting with your passion. Leading from your passion.

    Passion is especially important in fundraising, because passion inspires. I always tell board members that what they say doesn’t matter near as much as how they say it. Passion is contagious.

    Your post resonates because I didn’t always feel this way about passion. Like you, I thought skills trumped how one felt. Do good work and you’ll be rewarded. What I discovered over time was that, yes, you could get rewards. External ones. But what about internal rewards? What about feeling good deep down in your soul?

    I actually never wanted to leave fundraising. I think I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more — and been even more effective — if I’d taken more time to stop, breathe, take a look around, and re-engage with my passion for the work. That’s what I’m trying to pay forward now.

    Thanks for the provocative post!