Oliver Page

Follow your passion, or master your craft: which to choose?

26 December, 2021
follow your passion or master your craft? Featured image

Photo by Austin Ramsey

When charting a direction for my career, I’ve often felt caught between a rock and a hard place. The current landscape of advice seems to fall into two opposing camps:

  • Follow your passion: according to this view, everything will fall into place if I lead with joy and follow my bliss. After all, enjoying what we do is a natural precursor to success and accomplishment. The core idea here is that passion breeds mastery.
  • Master your craft: according to this view, enjoyment is optional. If I just stay the course and put in my 10,000 hours, the years of discipline will blossom into enthusiasm later on. The core idea here is that mastery breeds passion.

I’m beginning to realise that in their own way, these are both narrow views of work. In this article I’ll attempt to reconcile these perspectives and offer my own opinion.

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In favour of ‘follow your passion’

I’m defining this as any decision made primarily from a place of authentic passion, inspiration or joy – whether or not we attain mastery in the process.

Then again, some argue that being at least somewhat passionate is a prerequisite for mastery – follow your heart, and watch as a hunger to perfect your craft grows from within.

There’s also a temporal argument to be made: isn’t now all we have? Starting from a tender age, many of us are indoctrinated to delay gratification; to achieve today and enjoy life later.

But there are countless stories exposing the risk here: wealthy CEO, at the top of his/her game, mysteriously feels empty inside. Success built on unhappy action is like opening a birthday present, except when you open the box, it’s empty.

Instead, we can bake passion and enjoyment into our path from the very beginning. If we defer passion and contentment to the future, when we’re more accomplished, we could be waiting for a payoff that never arrives.

Related to this is an even deeper point: who do we become on the journey? How alive can we be toiling away at work we’re bound to by duty alone, contributing in ways that don’t speak to our emotional truth?

Perhaps all the people we love and encounter need more from us than that. Perhaps the most worthwhile thing we can do is engage our hearts.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

~ Howard Thurman

In favour of ‘master your craft’

The master your craft camp also has some powerful arguments going for it. To be clear, I’m defining ‘craft’ as any skill for which a person can be paid, whether physical, intellectual or emotional in nature.

Isn’t it wise to be more pragmatic about our path? By relying on emotional whims such as ‘passion’, don’t we risk becoming a Jack of all trades, master of none?

The reality is that we live in a world of specialists. This didn’t emerge accidentally, but from the reality of market forces. When it comes to the marketplace, people who prioritise mastery will command more compensation and greater autonomy. Understandably, these are important goals for many people.

I was first introduced to this line of thinking by Cal Newport in the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. He argued against the ‘follow your passion’ philosophy, claiming that it gets people into trouble by making them undesirable to the marketplace. Think the archetype of a ‘starving artist’.

Newport also outlined an alternative, mastery-driven approach to careers and job satisfaction. Here’s a snippet from his Career Craftsman Manifesto:

“Mastery is just the first step in crafting work you love. Once you have the leverage of a rare and valuable skill, you need to apply this leverage strategically to make your working life increasingly fulfilling. It is then – and only then – that you should expect a feeling of passion for your work to truly take hold.”

There’s also an ethical argument: shouldn’t we let romantic notions of ‘passion’ fall by the wayside in the face of more pressing issues? For instance, say I have a flair for environmental science. Is it then appropriate to devote my life to teaching the ukulele on YouTube?

The third and perhaps most significant argument is around who mastery shapes us to be. Perfecting one’s craft can create a sense of discipline and robust self-esteem. We become stoic and resourceful in the face of setbacks, which has a positive ripple effect on the people in our lives as well.

Beyond notions of passion and mastery

When I started my medical career, I was squarely in the master your craft camp. I wasn’t guided primarily by inner passion, but by pragmatism and a drive to achieve. This wasn’t sustainable and I eventually stopped working as a doctor.

But being someone who values both passion and mastery, I felt torn. I wondered:

  • “Am I abandoning the medicine ship too early, before I have real skin in the game?”
  • “Is it self-indulgent not to use my training and skillset where there is great demand for it?”

My answers at the time were tinged with scepticism of the ‘master your craft’ camp, which triggered an overcompensatory embrace of the ‘follow your passion’ camp. And so I started listening to my heart intently:

  • “What truly makes me come alive?”
  • “Which activities make me forget about time?”
  • “How can I channel those activities into a meaningful career?”

Those were significant questions, but I didn’t want them alone to determine my next steps. While I wanted to prioritise joy and fulfilment from day one, I also wanted to find something I could commit to. I wanted to master a valuable and in-demand set of skills.

This compromise represents my ideal scenario, but there’s a key missing ingredient to making it work: my commitment to cultivating and acting on a deeper purpose.

Ultimately, why prioritise either passion or mastery alone when both can grow organically from the seed of truth? That way they don’t need to be forced. If ‘follow your passion’ means putting enjoyment first, and ‘mastering your craft’ means putting achievement first, then this organic approach means elevating our most inspiring, resonant core values above either of them.

If we don’t, we’ll always be a slave to what we do and don’t enjoy, what the market demands of us, or to the fluctuating satisfaction that comes from getting good at something.

But if we do commit to some purpose – ideally a purpose that transcends self-concern – then going the extra mile to perfect our work becomes the fruit of heartful devotion rather than stoic discipline alone. And while surface passion might ebb and flow, a deeper sense of meaning will be at work within us – our endeavours will feel worth it.

Closing thoughts

I only include my own opinions for your interest. Don’t let them become yet another conceptual prison for you.

A different belief system will work best for each of us at different points on our unique path. For me, that currently means that neither ‘follow your passion’ nor ‘master your craft’ fit the bill. But maybe they’re a good fit who you are and the life you want to create.

Do you value the pursuit of mastery for its own sake? If so, excelling in your chosen field will probably light you up and provide all the fulfilment in the world. Maybe that’s just how you’re geared – to push yourself and see how much you can achieve.

Or maybe it’s more important you feel passionate from the start? For certain people this will be the right way to go, based on their values and their nature.

However, perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle. If you’re struggling to figure out weather to prioritise passion or mastery, maybe it’s because the answer is neither. In which case, maybe it’s time to dive deeper into who you are and what you stand for, then act accordingly.