Don't “follow” your passion. Pursue it and cultivate it, in smart, thoughtful and persistent ways.

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“Follow your passion.”

Perhaps you’ve been told this. It’s similar to that other simplistic slogan: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

The biggest problem with these extremely popular pieces of advice is that they make the process of choosing and building a career look easy. Just follow your bliss, as the saying goes, and your life will fall into place as if by magic.

The fact is, however, that finding meaningful work that reflects our interests, values, responsibilities and, yes, passions is not easy at all. It can take many years, numerous false starts and much sacrifice.

“Follow your passion” is also misleading because it implies that the right job for you is one that makes you happy, all day, every day. It can make anything short of total bliss look like failure. Inevitable problems and obstacles might lead us to conclude that this path is wrong for us, and we could give up too soon on promising work that could well bring deep satisfaction in the long run. Achievement takes time.

Let’s not forget that many people have multiple passions and that there is no clear way to determine which of them could turn into a means of making a living. What’s more (and this is a sobering thought), just because we are passionate about something doesn’t mean we’re good at it, or good enough to make a living from it. It’s even possible that trying to turn your passion into a money-making career would ruin it for you!

Another factor to keep in mind is that passions change. What thrills us at 20 may seem empty and shallow at 40. This is natural; in fact, we should all expect to have at least two and maybe five different careers over our working lives. We have more options than we think.

All these are reasons why we should be cautious about allowing ourselves to be guided by our passions, which can be elusive and fickle and — often — tricky to identify. Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t ignore or repress passions. Just be smart about the ways you pursue them.

Maybe that’s the key. Don’t “follow” your passion. Rather, actively “cultivate” it in intelligent ways that (possibly, eventually) lead to a successful, sustainable, rewarding career.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at