Lessons From George Lois: Why Following Your Passion Is Terrible Advice

"Follow your passion and do what you love."

You've been shoveled this piece of advice before right?

Well, you're not alone.

While it makes for a good fairy-tale, it rarely irons out smoothly in real life.

Before we get into why following your passion is such a flawed way to pursue your goals, I think it's important to demonstrate what passion actually is. To do so, lets look American art director, designer and author, George Lois. This is from his book, Damn Good Advice:

The picture above is Ron Holland, me and Jim Callaway in 1967, a few weeks after starting my second ad agency, Lois Holland Callaway. As you can see, we're selling an ad campaign to a new client (with gusto).

Always do three things when you present a Big Idea:

1. Tell them what they are going to see.

2. Show it to them.

3. Tell them dramatically, what they just saw.

To sell work I could be proud of, I've had to rant, rave, threaten, shove, push, cajole, persuade, wheedle, exaggerate, flatter, manipulate, be obnoxious, be loud, occasionally lie, and always sell, passionately!

Abraham Lincoln once said: "When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if here were fighting bees."

To be a successful creative, be prepared for a lifetime fighting bees (even if you sometimes get stung).


When you see someone like George who is pregnant with passion about his work, you can't help but to gravitate towards his disposition. The desire to be that fired up about your work tugs on a cord that resides deep within your soul. You want what he has. 

But how do you get that kind of passion?

How you answer that question largely determines if you'll be able to develop it or not. 


The Worst Advice in Human History

The first possible answer to "how do I develop passion?" is by assuming that we all have pre-existing passions.

By adopting this mindset, it lends to the idea that if we search high and low for our calling without doing any actual work, we can eventually find what we love to do and live happily ever after.

It's an attractive offer, and it's easy to understand why people trek down this path.

It's simple and requires little effort.

By assuming you have a passion that is waiting to be discovered like a pot of gold, all you have to do is bounce around from job to job and idea to idea, then eventually, you'll find your calling.

When you follow your passion it implies you're looking for something that already exists.

But there are two major flaws in this approach.


Redefining Passion

The root of the word "passion" is found in the Latin word "passio" which means "suffering.” It's also synonymous with enduring.

To use George Lois as example again, for him to say that he was (and is) passionate about advertising would be an accurate statement. Why?

Because he's suffered and endured long enough in the industry to develop a passion for it. Since 1950 George has been following his effort to cultivate passion instead of assuming that his calling was a pre-existing identity.


Up until today, the very idea of a single day going by without "doing my job" absolutely panics me. So hop out of bed each day thrilled about the prospects of doing great work. Attack every day as if it's your last.

After thousands of reps, countless hours creating ads, and investing a disproportionate amount of time into his subject, George became passionate about his work. George may have been motivated to get into advertising when he first started, but to claim he had a passion for advertising would be inaccurate.

The first major flaw in following your passion is this:

The point is that you cannot be passionate about something when you haven't put the blood, sweat and tears into cultivating a love for it. We assume passion can be found through desires, instead of working hard to develop it. 

Here are a few examples:

You can want to be writer, but until you've pounded the keys everyday for at least a few years, you can't be passionate about writing.

You can want to be a photographer, but until you've put the hours into actually taking photos, you can't be passionate about photography.

You can want to be a top-level salesperson, but until you've put the thousands of sales calls in, you can't be passionate about selling.

You can want to be a coach, but until you've been belly-to-belly coaching hundreds of people, you can't be passionate about coaching.

You can want to be a great dad, but until you've raised a child, you can't be passionate about being a dad.

When you assume that your passion has already been forged, and all you have to do is stumble upon it, a second problem arises.

Since passion doesn't come in a pre-packaged box even though we believe it does, it causes us to fantasize about the future.

We dream about the possible moment when the golden unicorn will majestically deliver our passion to us much like a dominos delivery boy drops off a pizza at our door-steps.

The second major flaw in following your passion is this:

Fantasizing about finding your passion in the future undermines your motivation to do the work required in the here and now.

A group of students were studied to see how fantasizing about a possible future moment can backfire. The first group was instructed to dream and fantasize about getting good grades, attend fun parties and think positively about everything that would occur in the following week.

The second group was instructed to record their thoughts about the upcoming week, regardless if the tasks ahead were enjoyable or difficult.

The students who were instructed to blindly day-dream that everything would be great accomplished less than the second group who were trained to think with an optimistic realism approach.

When you assume that your passion is waiting for you to be discovered, you fantasize about the day you find it.

By doing so it tricks your mind into thinking that you've already solved the puzzle and thus, it lowers your drive to cultivate your passion. If feels like you've already arrived, therefore, you don't have to do any work.


Instead of Following Your Passion, Follow Your Effort

So if passion isn't something that pre-exists, what do you do? And how do you cultivate it instead of hoping to discover it?

You follow your effort, not your passion.

In his book The Art Of Work, Jeff Goins paints a picture of what following your effort looks like in real-time in three stages:

The Season of Apprenticeship

The first season of following your effort is defined by an apprenticeship. In this stage you scope out possible paths you might think you're interested in.

Once you find a medium that intrigues you, you then set out to find a master who can teach you the craft. During the middle ages, an apprentice would work for free in exchange for experience, room and board.

This method isn't as common as it once was, however, the concept is still valid.

Today, you've got to find something you want to get good at. Once you find a subject you want to gain mastery in, then it's time to seek out mentors and teachers who can show you the way.

Although living with masters like they use to in the Middle Ages to gain experience doesn't really happen anymore, the process of learning your craft has never been easier.

Masters across almost every craft are sharing their wisdom through books, online courses, podcast and videos. If you've got the resources, a lot of them offer masterminds and consulting.

The point is that you have to go through a season of learning. You've got to accept the fact that you're an amateur and the first step to becoming a master is through an apprenticeship.

For George Lois, his apprenticeship season was when he got hired at CBS in the advertising department to design print and develop media projects. Then, he was hired by the advertising agency Doyle Bane Bernbach. During this time he worked while he learned.


Testing The Market as a Journeyman

Once you've made it through the season of apprenticeship, it's time to test your skills in the marketplace. This is the time when you put what you've learned to the test.

When it comes to finding your passion in regards to work, there isn't a better way to justify it. Here is what I mean.

If you get a response, then that is a good sign that your passion AND skills are equip to serve the marketplace. If the market confirms your skills, continue to cultivate your talent in that subject.

If you get crickets, then there is a good chance that what you are presenting to the marketplace is a hobby, and not a calling. If the market denies your skills, it's only feedback and not failure. Take the feedback and learn who you can pivot to present something better next time around.

For George Lois, he entered the season of being a journeyman when he started his own ad agency in 1967. The market confirmed his skill.


Becoming a Master

Once you've spent years as a journeyman, and the market has confirmed that your passion provides real value over a consistent amount of time, you enter the season of becoming a master.

The natural question for most people is "how long does it take" to become a master at anything?

This very question was also pondered by cognitive psychology professor John Haynes. His life's work has been dedicated to revealing the answer to the sought after question.

His work was mostly grounded in the arts -music and writing - but his findings reported that it took roughly ten years for someone to become a master at their craft.

This number will vary from person to person. But the point is that it takes time.

When you reach this point along with market confirmation, a shift happens.

During the apprenticeship and journeyman seasons, doing the work can require a lot of investment physically and mentally. You're pretty much the underdog in the fight of your life each day your eyes open.

But when you become a master, opportunities start showing up in your inbox. The phone calls start coming in. And then, instead of pushing yourself to work, the work pulls you make a greater impact.

Being a master also provides a platform where you can turnaround and mentor up and coming individuals that are hungrier-than-a-dog-on-the-back-of-a-meat-truck.

This is the season that everyone wants to arrive at without chopping wood or carrying water.

For George Lois, after years of practice, he became a master. He is the only person inducted into the following: The One Club Creative Hall of Fame, The Art Directors Hall of Fame, with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Society of Publication Designers.

Amongst these accolades he is probably best known for the 92 covers he designed for Esquire.


Wrapping Up

When we re-visit the root meaning of passion, to suffer or endure, it makes sense that people who invest ten years (or more) into their craft are so passionate about what they do.

They've gone through the season of apprenticeship.

They've stepped out and put themselves on the line by testing their skills in the marketplace.

They've put the reps in even when they didn't feel like it.

They've hit the keys even when nobody would read their work.

They picked up the phone to make another call even after 17 rejections in a row.

And now, they have arrived at being masters.

They have suffered and endured long enough to love the work.

Follow your effort, not your passion. That's what George Lois did, and it worked out pretty good for him.



Question: Has following your passion worked in your favor in the past? Or has it left you fruitless? Share you answer on FacebookInstagram or Twitter.


End Notes

Thanks to George Lois, John Hayes, Jeff Goins, and Malcolm Gladwell for prompting this piece:

Damn Good Advice (For People With Talent)

The Art of Work

Complexity and The Ten-Thousand Hour Rule

Why Fantasizing Undermines Your Motivation