'Do what you love' is terrible career advice - here's what to tell your kids instead

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

When I was at high school, looking at subject choices and careers, I was told to "do what you love". It was the 80s and finding your passion was this new cool thing we were being encouraged to do after somebody discovered you could actually have a career you care about rather than entering the family business or becoming a doctor or lawyer if your grades were good.

For me, the problem with doing what I loved was that I loved lots of things. So I studied art, film and politics – leaving me qualified for exactly zero actual jobs.

It took me another decade of flopping about professionally to finally land on journalism which, when I look back now, I was destined for all along. But I wasted a whole lot of time getting here.

Associate professor at the QUT Business School Peter O'Connor said in a recent ABC article that doing what you love can be fraught with errors, and said one of the most common career mistakes people make is to choose a job because they like the subject matter rather than the actual work.

"Someone could love animals but not love being a vet because they only work with sick animals," he said. 

Telling people to "do what you're passionate about" can also be problematic because most of us don't have a clear passion about any one thing, added Sydney career coach Jane Lowder.

Choosing a career – or even the subjects they want to study at school – can be overwhelming for teenagers because there are endless possibilities, and the paradox of choice can be overwhelming. So how can parents help them to narrow their focus and make a choice they won't regret?

Graham Leddie, Head of Waverley College, has helped thousands of young people to get started in their careers. He says when he's advising students on their choices he asks them to consider:

  • What things and areas are they good at in life?
  • What skills do they have?
  • What work do they thing they might like doing?
  • Have they seen anyone else's work that they've thought to themselves, I'd like to do that?
  • What motivates them?
  • What do they find rewarding? 
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"I also ask them to try and think about what strengths and values are important to them," he says. "What type of careers perhaps match those characteristics?"

Leddie says it's also crucial for students to consider not only what jobs are available now, but what the employment landscape could look like in the future.

 "With robotics and technology having a greater impact on our world, I ask them to take into consideration what jobs in the future are likely to not exist because of this," he says. 

"With this is mind, I ask them to think about some of the skills that will be more important in the future – things like creativity, innovation, emotional intelligence and collaboration. 

"I then ask them to think about what this means for them and how can they emphasise and develop those skills further in preparation for their future."

Leddie agrees that telling kids to do what they love is not always sound advice because it can be restrictive and unrealistic, limiting options in the future.  

"One's skills and strengths need to also taken into consideration when considering a career," he says.

"What people are passionate about is intrinsically important to overall life satisfaction and ongoing wellbeing. However, there needs to be an element of realism in the decision making – 'will someone employ me in the future in this area?' – and does it improve the world, is it linked to new sustainable industries or is it linked to an industry that may be replaced?" 

Leddie says parents can prepare their children by helping them to understand themselves better and teaching then life skills that are adaptable to any career.

"Parents can help their children to discover their innate talents and skills, assist them to develop their knowledge of the world of work, teach them decision-making skills, and provide encouragement to pursue interests and ambitions," he says. 

"Instil an attitude of self-belief by being positive and encouraging of your child's choices."

Leddie says that although decisions at this age can be formative, it's important for students to understand they don't have to be forever.

"Decisions are important, but they can be reversed, changed and adapted," he says. 

"What [students] decide now does not necessarily mean this is the path they are locked into. The idea of a single occupation for a person's life has been replaced by the possibility of several career changes in their lifetime."

He says it's also important to remember that if a first attempt fails, it's not the end and there is a bigger picture to keep in mind.

"There are a number of possible pathways to take to reach a career goal," he says. "They need to explore all options available to them.

"Find the thing that they are good at, contribute to others, and help the world be a better place."

And beyond developing skills and education that will help in a specific career, Leddie says it's important to be open to ongoing education and life skills development. 

"Continuous learning and growth is the key to staying happy and fulfilled in a career," he says. "By developing the skills of self-belief, resilience and discipline students can experience fulfilling and rewarding careers."