Why ‘Follow Your Passions’ Is Bad Advice for Graduates
When the billionaire entrepreneur Steve Jobs gave Stanford University’s commencement address in June 2005, he rallied graduates to follow their hearts. “Your time is limited,” said Jobs. “So, don’t waste it living someone else’s life. … Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” Over time, the phrase “follow your heart” morphed into “follow your passion” and then spawned countless graduation speech sound-alikes.
It’s “garbage advice,” says startup expert Michal Bohanes. “One of the great lies of life,” says billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban. The computer scientist Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, says Jobs’s blissful view of life “is “not particularly useful” and worse, it’s “tautological.” Hammering the nail in the coffin of Jobs’s wisdom, two Stanford University researchers conducted a 2018 study—not far from the stadium where Jobs gave his speech—and concluded that “following your passion” or your heart may lead to more failure than success.
Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University whose subscription business L2 sold for $155 million, has for years called passion advice “bull----.” In a recent Time article titled “4 Pieces of Advice Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You,” Galloway argues instead that praxis follows passion. “Your job is to find something you’re good at,” and after practicing and refining it, “get great at it,” he writes. “The emotional and economic rewards that accompany being great at something will make you passionate about whatever that something is.”
As Christian parents, teachers, and church members watching our young people graduate and head out into the world, we have an even deeper reason to reject personal passion as a driving force. According to Scripture, our hearts make horrible compasses. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Jon Bloom, author of Don’t Follow Your Heart: God’s Ways Are Not Our Ways, echoes this wisdom: “The truth is, no one lies to us more than our own hearts.” Unaided by Christ, adds Bloom, our hearts “are pathologically selfish. In fact, if we do what our hearts tell us to do, we will pervert and impoverish every desire, every beauty, every person, every wonder, and every joy.”
If the heart is a poor compass, then what alternative guidelines can our graduates trust?
Turn from sin.
Yep, that’s right. And no, that’s not your typical topic for a graduation speech. Yet our sin, says Charles Stanley, founder of In Touch Ministries, demands attention because it “clouds and confuses and betrays the mind.” For sound decisions about our lives, Stanley urges, ask God to show you any besetting sin and beseech him, as David did, to “search me, God, and know my heart … see if there is any offensive way in me” (Ps. 139:23-24).
Even nonbelievers promote their own version of this wisdom. In his book The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning, Galloway practically begs young adults to “be the adult in the room” and flee alcohol and substance abuse, marry wisely, be loyal to their spouse and children, give up vain pursuits, save and compound income instead of spending it, and make other healthy choices. In Christian terms, he’s inviting young people away from sinful, risky behaviors and toward human flourishing.
As Stanley says, “If you want to clear out all the static and all the humdrum stuff” that confuses your life’s path, you have to begin with “cleaning your heart of all known sin. But that’s where a lot of people stop.” Instead, we’re called to go one step further and be transformed “by the renewing of [our] mind[s]” through Christ (Rom. 12:2). That’s classic biblical wisdom.
Follow God, not “success.”
In his popular talk, “How God Is in Business,” the late Dallas Willard stressed that whether you’re making ax handles or running a Fortune 500 company, what matters more than anything else is discipleship—following after Christ in order to become like Christ.
The same is true for the individual. Success, said Willard, is “being the kind of person in whom God shines so brightly that people wonder what’s going on” and “never make the mistake of thinking that [the light] comes from you.” Moreover, be God’s light “wherever [you are] now, and [in] whatever [you’re] doing now.” King David, for example, served God’s purpose “in his own generation” (Acts 13:36), confirming that God knows the plans he has for each of us for our own time.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson expounds on that idea in her book, Mentor for Life: Finding Purpose Through Intentional Discipleship. When our priorities for God are in order, says the leadership consultant, “our lives have clearer focus, and fulfillment in our lives on this earth can be a by-product of our obedience.” She cites this maxim: “Be the kind of woman who, when your feet hit the floor in the morning, the Devil says, ‘Oh no, she’s up.’”
“I don’t wake up wondering whether my day is going to count or if my life matters,” says Robinson, “because my confidence lies in the person and finished work of Christ. My identity rests in him, and for that reason, I have accepted the work he has assigned to me.”
Watch your feet.
In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner urges believers to listen to the Lord’s call over “society … or the superego, or self-interest.” Then we’re more likely to hear him in “the kind of work God usually calls [us] to do.” Accordingly, “watch your feet,” he writes in The Alphabet of Grace. “When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”
In other words—listen to the urging of the Holy Spirit and follow the path in front of you, however mundane or humbling it might seem.
In his compelling autobiography With Head and Heart, Howard Thurman, the prominent African American theologian, recalls his first night filling in for the chaplain at a black hospital in Roanoke, Virginia. As a first-year seminary student, Thurman answered the chaplain’s phone and heard a nurse on the other line say a dying man was asking for a minister. “Are you a minister?” she asked.
“In one kaleidoscopic moment,” writes Thurman, “I was back again at an old crossroad. A decision of vocation was to be made here.” Finally, he answered. “Yes, I am a minister.” Please hurry, the nurse said, “or you’ll be too late.” Straining as he prayed over the dying man, Thurman finally whispered amen, then saw the man open his eyes and say, “Thank you, I understand” before “he died with his hand in mine.” In that humble moment in a segregated hospital, Thurman the theologian, mentor, and minister was born.
Practice Christ-like love and discipline.
Galloway’s advice—that passion often follows praxis—applies not only to work but to faith. After faithfully practicing prayer, Bible reading, and Christian fellowship, among other spiritual disciplines, our passion for Jesus will follow. Then to the faithful, the Lord promises: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Ps. 32:8).
These words might not inspire stadiums of students to cheer. They might not lead to exciting careers in the latest hot new company or venture. But they will lead young people “in the way everlasting,” where the practice of loving God and our neighbors sets believers down on a deep life path established by God himself. That road may have twists and turns—and dips and detours—but it always goes up.
Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author and journalist whose books, essays, and devotionals explore faith, race, and grace.