‘Follow Your Heart,’ ‘Do the Math,’ Or Something In Between?

In Notes on January 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm

What would you advise a young person today? In considering various career options, would you go with ‘follow your heart,’ ‘do the math’or something in between?

Last week, I posted this note on Work Stew’s Facebook page:

Recently, I had a drink with a dentist. I asked him (as I am wont to do) why he decided to become a dentist. 

He said that, after college, he asked all the healthcare providers he knew if he could follow them around for a bit. Trailing his dentist, he liked what he saw: the chance to be an entrepreneur, the opportunity to achieve tangible results every day, the promise of a comfortable lifestyle without being consumed by work. 

He decided to become a dentist.

What a supremely rational and informed approach! So different from what I did: taking a job at a PR agency—solely because it called itself a “writer’s shop”—without knowing (truth be told) the first thing about PR. I was so blinded by what I saw as My Passion—to communicate! to write!—that I ended up making a career choice that was, in retrospect, a pretty poor fit.

Which leads me to wonder: does following our hearts sometimes steer us awry? Should we all be making more dentist-like decisions?

Some Work Stew contributors have already weighed in on this question. Tasha Huebner essentially concluded that ‘follow your heart’ is crazy talk, especially in a country where health insurance is tied to employment. Menekse Gencer, on the other hand, found that pursuing her passion was exactly the right thing to do: today, she’s a successful entrepreneur who loves her work. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Menekse’s passion is mobile payment systems. What about those who love nothing more than to paint? Or to act? Or to play basketball? What paths should they pursue?

So, please weigh in:

What were you advised as a kid? What informed your career choices? What might you have done differently had you known then what you know now? And what would you advise a young person today?

Perhaps we can ladle some collective wisdom out of this here stew.



  1. What great questions and in such an interesting context. I have to put some thought into it but I’ll be back to answer! Gotta “stew” about it a bit!

  2. Lol, well, we know my opinion – which I still stand by – but I just had to say that this line made me laugh, again: “Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Menekse’s passion is mobile payment systems.”

    True that!

  3. The answer is the ubiquitous “It depends.” I had to borrow thousands to go to college, and my parents had to mortgage the house for tens of thousands (and then again for my brother, leaving them with just about no equity) — they had not a cent to give us, so we had to find jobs with a salary to pay back debt and support ourselves. Following a dream was not really an option. I have a friend, though, whose parents supported him for years as he tried to become a Hollywood writer. For him, following a dream was an option. It didn’t pan out and now he and I are both lawyers, but the point is, you can’t just give advice like that in a vacuum. People are sometimes constrained by circumstances. Moreover, following a dream does not always mean obtaining it — so it is dangerous for those who have succeeded to assure those who have not yet tried that passion should govern the decision. How many people do as my friend did and still end up lawyers? Had someone like me tried to do the same, without the parental cushion, the same failure would have left me hungry, homeless and bankrupt. That is not to say that passion has no role, but practicality is not a boring irrelevancy. Both have their place, and each person has to figure out for him or herself how to balance them.

  4. I JUST wrote a post on this topic and have another in the works. It’s called “What I learned from following my bliss (straight into a wall)” Dark humor aside, it’s not a question subject to easy answers, I don’t think–but all the more fascinating because of that. Look forward to reading your further thoughts.

  5. Also, on the points Anonymous raises above (with which I totally agree), I wrote a post a few weeks back about how our answers depend on our risk tolerance. (It was called: Why you should stop telling me what to do)

  6. I took a mountaineering course once and to just about every question that was asked (e.g. “Is it safer to move quickly or slowly when there’s an avalanche risk?”), the instructor answered, “It depends.” And yes, Anonymous, so it is in life–I couldn’t agree more! That said, I still love hearing how different people think about this issue. (Amy, thanks for chiming in–I’m looking forward to reading your posts!)

    One thing I wonder about is the people in the middle–people who make enough to get by but not enough to be free from financial worry. Do these sorts short-change their dreams again and again in search of additional earnings and, if so, why?

    If it’s to buy more stuff, what’s the point of that? A bazillion scientists have told us a gazillion times that more stuff, beyond meeting the basic needs, does not make for greater happiness.

    If it’s to feel more secure, well, to Tasha’s point (hi, Tasha!)…that’s actually pretty sensible. Living too close to the edge, not to mention careening over it, is genuinely terrifying and totally miserable–something to be avoided at all costs. But how secure is secure enough? At what point should one cease to live in fear, divest at least a bit from Project Disaster is Nigh, and invest–again, at least a bit!–in starting to live a little? (And by “live a little” I mean: do work that you truly, truly love.)

    If it’s to better provide for one’s children, then that, too, makes sense on some level. But what if they then grow up to do the same, i.e. sacrifice *their* hopes and dreams in order to better provide for *their* children? It starts to seem like a bit of a grim cycle, doesn’t it? What’s the point of it all?

    (In case that got too dark for any of you, I’d like to point out that no post using fictitious numbers can possibly be considered all that dark. By the way: yes, a gazillion is definitely way bigger than a bazillion.)

  7. P.S. I realize it’s odd that following my passion initially led me into PR. After all, as Work Stew contributor Jeff Wenker wrote, “No one grows up wanting to be a PR flak.” Wanting to write should have lead me down the path of becoming a starving novelist, right? Well, to answer some of my own questions: that was not an option. From the get-go, I needed a job that paid a living wage, and I was nearly giddy with excitement to discover that this agency–this “writer’s shop”!–was willing to pay me $26,000 dollars a year. To write! What makes me either a nincompoop or very young (let’s go with very young) was that I didn’t think to ask: What will I be writing? Who will I be writing for? In my defense, PR agencies have *very* good PR people. Being so green and so giddy, it was easy to get sucked in.

  8. My dad was self-employed and when he had a heart attack at 33 that rendered him uninsurable, my mom (a teacher) went back to work. Deductibles were high, health care costs were even higher, and I never questioned what I wanted to o, I only considered lucrative careers that offered security and benefits. If my passion had been writing, tht’s awesome but unless I can find a writing job that pays benefits and offers health and dental, then writing better remain a hobby for now.

    Kids aren’t being taught to think about supporting themselves in this fashion, which leaves them unprepared for the ‘real world’ in my opinion. Following your passion is a dream few can afford.

  9. Thanks for weighing in, MK. So, 15-20 years from now, would you actively steer your daughter away from the arts, non-profits, teaching, and other lower-paying jobs? Or would your message be something along the lines of ‘whatever you do, you have to be able to support yourself from the start–so make sure you factor that into your plans.’

    Personally, I’m more in favor of the second message than the first. I feel like it’s realistic without being dream-crushing. It says go ahead, but go ahead responsibly. It gives–by way of emotional support not financial support–those who are truly driven and perhaps even gifted a chance to have a go at it, before declaring it unaffordable.

    I worry about the notion that some people can afford to pursue their passions and others can’t–and that’s the end of the story. Isn’t it better to instead say: some people have it easier than others, but anyone can aspire to–and try over time to arrive at–a job that means more to them than a paycheck?

  10. Honestly, yes. I worked full time during undergrad, and though I don’t want my kids to do any of the things I did to make ends meet, I want them to appreciate that college is not a guarantee, a lesson i learned growing up. I want my kids to spend 1 summer working in a factory in TN and 1 working in a Tobacco patch. I want them to be surrounded by people whose life choices limited their career options, appreciate that not everyone is cut out for college, that many are but cannot afford it, and interact with people who have college debt/degrees but were forced into manual labor due to economic constraints. I want them to live by my grandfather’s mantra, “temper your passions with prudence.” I want them to know that marriage to a wonderful man whose job provides us health coverage is what gives me the freedom to pursue my entrepreneurial passions, and encourage them to think of marriage as a union that can bring freedom or incredible hardship depending on the partner you pick. Lastly, I want them to have a good answer ready when I say, “great, you want to major in xxx. How will you support yourself with that? Who do you know that has and can mentor you?”. I find that kids who have a car when they turn 16 but don’t have a job to pay for it have a harder time answering this question.

    I guess that is my way of saying I will support my kids, but make it clear that I won’t be bankrolling every dream. In ths economy, I am not sure I could afford to do so anyway.

  11. Thanks, MK–thoughtful and interesting as always. Will ponder.

  12. […] Follow Your Heart, Do the Math, or Somewhere in Between?, I asked Work Stew readers what they would tell young people seeking career advice today. Most of […]

  13. […] Follow Your Heart, Do the Math, or Somewhere in Between?, I asked Work Stew readers what they would tell young people seeking career advice today. Most of […]

  14. I’ve done both paths — started out the earnest law school grad, working hard in the courts of Boston and continued along that vein for about ten years, when I chucked it all in to follow my dream of acting in Hollywood. (So cliche, I know, but it is worth mentioning that I have acted my entire life, and actually got my BFA in Drama from NYU before going to law school.) Fame and fortune were not waiting for me in L.A., but starting over and taking the drive out here with half a car full of stuff and my dog — no place lined-up to live, no job waiting for me — has been the adventure of a lifetime and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. What I did find waiting for me in L.A. was my life partner. After we were married, we had kids.

    Having kids changed EVERYTHING about what I wanted my career to be. Even fame and fortune as an actor (not that it was an option) didn’t seem to be all that great any longer, because of all the travel involved and time away from home. I want to be home every day, or at least as regularly as I can be, for my family and for me to enjoy them.

    So the contract law job I got before the recession hit to supplement my acting efforts, and that I barely hung on to through the dearth of work that was the height of the recession, is my lifeline and is very important to me. I just took the California bar and when I pass it, I am more motivated than ever to get back into a full-time practice of law to be the best trial lawyer I can be.

    What I realized, and which took needing to optimize my income to support my family in what is an ever-increasingly expensive world to realize, was that I have been given a very privileged chance to be a trial lawyer. I took this for granted in the past. No longer.

    Advice I’d give to my kids or someone young now? Know your values — really know them. If you value comfort, know that. If you value freedom or art, know that. If you value family and want to have one someday, know that. And also be willing to change what you are doing when your values change. For me, this meant it was more than fine for me as a single guy to live in a 200 sq ft beach-side room in Venice, but as a parent, I want so much more than that for my kids.

    If a comfortable life matters to you, yes, there are jobs that bring a person to the very top of the comfort lifestyle summit, but often these jobs have a high risk of not even being on the mountain. If you get a job that pays a steady, good income, you can find a nice perch on the mountain that can be pretty comfy, and also avoid the massive risk.

    If you truly have a passion (not everyone does, which is fine and actually enviable in a way) — follow it. Even if your wildest dreams don’t come true, other really great stuff can happen. But remember that for every decision we make there is a consequence — and if your decision is to risk a good income in the pursuit of a career dream, then just be willing to live with the possible consequence of that — including having less money to spend.

    One way to do it is to think to yourself if its the case, “I don’t want a family now, but if I did, how would I be able to afford that?” Such thinking may lead one to keep one’s options open as long as possible before committing to one lifestyle (or career) or another. Keep your options open as long as you can, which will hopefully be until you know what you really want.

    My last bit of advice is to (responsibly) play the lottery — after all, why not? It’s a buck a week for a chance to win a hundred million bucks or more. Someone has to win. Could be me or you — and I hope it is.

  15. Thanks for sharing your story, Ned–very interesting! I’m going to share some of your comments on the Work Stew FB page.

    • Cool. Thanks for the chance to comment on the issue, and for your very interesting postings.

  16. Yes, Ned–very interesting comments. In particular, I was struck by the point that the so-called “right” choice doesn’t only vary by person but varies for any given person depending on life stages, etc. Which reminded me a piece I wrote on work-related risk tolerance in response to judgmental comments on a piece I wrote a couple years back for the Wall Street Journal’s Laid Off & Looking Blog. Not to go all, Read-My-Blog on you, but if you’re interested, here’s a link:

    • It’s nice to have an opportunity to have a chance to share some thoughts on these issues that are both so important and so difficult to see clearly. Thanks.

  17. […] what you love” is a common but complicated directive. As we have explored on Work Stew, it can be difficult to pursue your passions and make a living at the same time. In some cases, the […]

  18. […] since this post, “Follow Your Heart, Do the Math, or Something In Between?,” I’ve kept an eye out for people whose work paths would suggest that they’ve […]

  19. […] there earlier this week. Amy’s observations struck me as excellent fuel for the ‘Follow Your Heart vs. Do the Math’ debate unfolding here, so—when asked—Amy graciously gave me permission to re-publish her […]

  20. […] “Of course, it’s worth men­tion­ing that [her] pas­sion is mobile pay­ment sys­tems,” Work Stew blog­ger Kate Gace Wal­ton remarked dryly of one suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur. All dreams are not […]

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