When considering a career pivot, mentors and advisors often include an admonition to follow your passion as a key piece of advice. After all, following one’s passion means that you will stick with it. You won’t easily be swayed from working on something you're passionate about, so you'll see it through, even when there are big challenges. To do otherwise would seem to be unorthodox career advice.

Besides, numerous surveys of, and interviews with, successful business leaders and entrepreneurs report the importance of following one's passion. 

But there are two serious statistical concepts at play that place such advice on shaky ground.

Bad Advice

The first is that correlation does not equal causation. To the contrary, it's quite possible that success fosters passion. It's perfectly logical to become passionate about a career that has brought fame and fortune.

The second is survivorship bias. Yes, a high percentage of successful persons declare that passion was responsible for their success. But for every successful business owner, there are often many unsuccessful business owners.

unorthodox career advice and passion

About 60% of new restaurants fail within 3 years. Most of the founders were probably passionate about starting a restaurant. But if they were all passionate when they started (including the failures), then the correlation with success is zero at best.

Yet we never hear from the unsuccessful business founders or career seekers. Who would interview someone about being a failure?

So, the presence of passion itself probably does not correlate with success, just as the TV show American Idol has demonstrated that passion for singing does not correlate with the ability to sing well.

This particular example was mentioned by Ben Horowitz  when he spoke at some length about passion while presenting the commencement address to the class of 2015 at Columbia University .

He described why passion is probably overrated as a reason to follow a career path or create a business:

  1. You probably have several passions, so which do you choose?
  2. Passions change over time.
  3. Your passion does not always correlate with your abilities.
  4. Following your passion is too self-centered.

Horowitz’s advice was to “follow your contribution.”

Lessons From “Dirty Jobs”

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, seems to agree with Horowitz. Based on his talking with dozens of people doing “dirty jobs,” he's found that his hosts often developed a love for a particular job after they had done it for a while and become reasonably good at it. He clearly advises against following your passion.

He recommends following opportunity to select a job. Look for what's needed in a market, get good at the job, and prosper by being good at it. The excitement and passion follow because the job has become so prosperous. He also agrees that passion and ability often do NOT correlate, so pursuing a career based on passion, but lacking in ability, can be a terrible waste of time.

Unexpected Findings

Several years ago, I was reviewing the results of our recent Top 100 Hospital designation. At the time, there were nine categories that hospitals and health systems were ranked on. These nine compromised a pretty good balanced scorecard and we had put several specific programs in place to address the Top 100 measures.

As I looked over our results for each of the nine categories, I was surprised by the following observation. We had performed slightly below average to somewhat above average on most of the measures. There were only two in which we had performed significantly above average.

Yet, here we were, one of the top performing hospitals in the country based on this basket of quality, financial and satisfaction measures. And we were certainly not top ranked in most of them.

I found that it was more important to rank average to above average across the board, than to perform exceptionally well in one or two measures. Apparently, most hospitals have difficulty performing average to slightly above average in all measures, even though they may be spectacular in one or two, because very few hospitals are able to achieve a Top 100 rating even once.

By consistently pushing on all of the important domains, from mortality rate, to length of stay, profit margin and patient satisfaction, we were able to outperform most of the other hospitals in the country in terms of overall performance.

That was an eye-opening realization for me.

Unorthodox Career Advice

The second bit of advice concerning preparation for a career change has to do with those who have not yet decided exactly which career to follow. Especially if you're early in your clinical career and uncertain of which direction to go, the tactics for finding a new career, in addition to forgetting about your passion, may be to abandon goals and start acquiring skills.

Just as the top healthcare organizations don't have to be the best in every major hospital performance measure, the most successful leaders may not need to be experts in every leadership skill.

In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams describes how he came to be a nationally recognized, award-winning writer of the Dilbert cartoon.

He explains that it wasn’t his passion or intense study of humor or drawing. It wasn’t his having spent 10,000 or 20,000 hours learning his craft.

It resulted from his being mediocre to reasonably good in several, apparently disparate, fields:

  1. Drawing
  2. Business
  3. Writing
  4. Early adopter of technology (the Internet)
  5. Sense of humor

He writes that combining his mediocre skills in each of these areas enabled him to achieve outstanding success in the area of writing a funny comic strip about characters in an imaginary work setting. And he had no idea that these skills would come together to make him wildly successful. He also suggests that his success contributed to his eventual passion for writing Dilbert.

Increase Your Odds of Success

His rough estimate is that each additional skill doubles our chance of success. Here is the list of skills that Adams recommends everyone become reasonably good at:

  • Public speaking
  • Psychology
  • Business writing
  • Accounting
  • Design (the basics)
  • Conversation
  • Overcoming shyness
  • Second language
  • Golf
  • Proper grammar
  • Persuasion
  • Technology (hobby level)
  • Proper voice technique

To reiterate, Adams is a proponent of “stacking average skill sets” until a combination of skills creates an above average mix.

My Take On Choosing Skills to Stack

I don’t completely agree with Adam's list, especially for physicians looking to move into a new (nonclinical) career. I would probably make some adjustments, dropping golf and combining some items to come up with my starting list:

  • Writing (includes, spelling and grammar skills)
  • Public speaking (includes “voice technique”)
  • Second language
  • Accounting (and finance)
  • Psychology and persuasion (includes negotiating skills)

I'm assuming that most clinicians have already developed a set of skills that serve them well and are already in play:

  • Leadership
  • Composure (ability to work under pressure)
  • Strong work ethic
  • Communication (one on one)
  • Logical thinking and a working understanding of the scientific method
  • Human physiology and biochemistry
  • Focus/Concentration

Then stacking additional skills would open the possibilities for other career choices:

  • Legal concepts and resistance to criticism, to be an expert witness
  • Healthcare finances, running meetings, project management and writing, for hospital or medical group management
  • Case management and conflict resolution, to be a medical advisor
  • Basic or applied research, writing, and statistics and epidemiology, to be a medical writer

In reality, many of these careers share certain skill sets, as shown in the following graphic.

Final Take-aways

When considering a career in management, or any other nonclinical field, I recommend this unorthodox career advice:

  1. Don't spend too much time worrying about finding your passion. Ultimately, your passion may find you, or develop along the way.
  2. Identify and develop useful skills that will compliment those you've already acquired during years of education and training.
  3. Focus on acquiring additional skill sets (quantity) rather than on perfecting a smaller set of such skills (quality or mastery).


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Can you think of times when adding new skills was more important that honing established ones?

Was there a time when following your passion was a waste of time, or even harmful?


Next Steps

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Until next time.