old time 'snake oil' charlatan salesman

Selling half-truths to whole questions

In our connected world of 30 second sound bites and increasingly shortening attention spans, it's difficult to think that some things can't be explained in a tweet and require more discussion. But sadly that doesn't stop some people from trying to sell half an answer to a whole question and expecting nobody to notice.

Perhaps the only thing that makes a half-truth more dangerous is the fact it makes the half-lie more convincing.

In this article

The problem of finding your passion (and nailing jelly to a wall)

A few years back I was one of three-panel speakers at a local high school careers day. We had all given up our time to field questions from senior high school students, as part of their career advice day. My focus was to address questions about entrepreneurship and owning a business.

All was going well until the panel faced a very direct question from a very direct student who stood up and asked,

“What do you do when you don't know what career you'd like to have after school…?”

The lead panel speaker took this one. She smiled an all knowing smile down at the young questioner's honesty and with a flourish of her hand (that would have made Miss Dolores Umbridge of Harry Potter fame, proud) she responded with those five utterly unhelpful dismissive worlds;

“Well, just follow your passion…”

whereupon, obviously unimpressed with the response, the young questioner pressed her point and replied;

“but that sounds like bullshit…”

At that point, I had to work particularly hard to suppress a wry smile, as my experience with young adults has been they are exquisitely less tolerant to the vagaries and bullshit, of their adult counterparts.

The road becomes less easy to see when you just follow your passion

With these 5 dismissive words, it was like someone had dealt the trump card and no further discussion could be entered into. The game was over.

And the question remained unanswered.

When hard questions deserve better answers

Looking out at the expectant crowd of inquirers yearning for honest guidance they could build a future on, all I now saw were confused and anguished faces, hesitant to ask again.

Adults are good at deceiving themselves and routinely ignoring important questions.

As a speaker I was embarrassed that I sat with yet another adult who had trivialized an honest question of a younger person and who had displayed their own lack of considered thought on an important question we’d all like to hear an answer to - ‘What do you do when you don't know what career you'd like to pursue after ….?’

Scolded into silence, incantations and looking for answers in uncomfortable places

This paralyzingly unhelpful parroted phrase, while appearing fashionable is actually a fashion nightmare.

The refrain ‘just follow your passion’ has always been bad career advice.

  • In school, it leads to career confusion, and in business, it creates an unmatchable expectation out of touch with commercial reality.
  • In business, it tempts otherwise sane people to quit their job of 4 years to start a yoga school (after just a 6-week intensive training course) while ignoring the highly competitive world of business and the discerning nature of today's spoilt-for-choice customers asked to part with their hard-earned money.

The reality is the overwhelming majority of students in high school don't yet have sufficient life experience and exposure, to understand what they would later become sufficiently passionate about, to direct their career focus.

The inconvenient truth is, nobody is genetically preprogrammed with specific passions and a true calling, ready to be simply discovered.

When all we have is a favorite phrase to live by that makes no sense

Adults do strange things most of the time.

This is usually related to our preference to seek mental shortcuts and to avoid anything uncomfortable.

From learning to use a remote control to learning how to understand basic bookkeeping in our businesses, or learning how to listen and better respond to our partners and how to have honest and age-appropriate conversations with our kids - our very human default configuration constantly scans the horizon for the path of least resistance.

How to look for it

Finding your passion comes from

  • increasing exposure to life experience,
  • patient interaction with diverse people and thinking, and
  • cultivating an ever-growing attitude of personal and professional curiosity, and
  • immersing yourself more into a richer experience of life.

Akin to blaming the victim, we ask young people to plot the course of their life's trajectory before they have even left school, when all we’re offering is the platitude, ‘just follow your passion.’

Start where

Perhaps the real question we should address is, where do you start?

Passion is the side effect of the mastery of a task.

Good career advice begins with an honest question

So what can increase your chance of success in life and business?

Well, it usually depends if you can understand the difference between a giver and a taker?

Put another way, it starts with this question

Are you a person who asks,

‘What can you offer to the world around you?’

Or are you a person who asks,

‘What can the world give me?’

Let's fly a little closer to the flame

Are you a person who asks

What can you offer to the employment world around you?’

Or are you the type of person who asks,

‘What can an employer give me?’

Now before the hate mail arrives and the trolls feign outrage, remember I'm not suggesting a right or wrong answer, just pointing to a cause and an effect.

Why understanding how you see the world is good career advice

How you answer the questions above more likely than not will determine what opportunities you will see and what you will blind yourself to.

  • Many career and business opportunities go unrealised because their existence appears to hide in the infrared zone - not visible to the human eye - but nevertheless are still there, waiting to be seen by those who know how to search for them.
  • Still, others take the passive view that the world must deliver these opportunities to them (and entice them with individually designed career experiences). And so until they arrive they impatiently wait with unmet expectations while just following their passion, whatever that currently is.

What does the world of work want from you?

In any competitive workforce, we look for character, skill and ability.

The further up the chain you go, higher quality attitudes towards work and skill development command a higher premium.

People with a history of demonstrated rare skills and abilities can use their track record to demand higher compensation, greater flexibility and even the corner office.

Mastery of what you do, opens doors.

Perhaps a more helpful discussion to have is, how do we prepare our children to be more interested in life, to persistently broaden their outlook and encourage them to deepen a skill and adopt a craftsman's attitude to whatever their current work might be?

In short, how can they increase their commercial desirability to the point it provides them more flexibility and control in their future lives?

How can you become so good that the business world can't ignore you?

A demonstrated commitment to high quality character, work and skill development is an attitude you can take with you anywhere - that high quality employers will compete for.

Good employability requires developing good competitive skills somebody is prepared to pay for

If you want to be very competitive, you need to be prepared to develop very good skills that are very valuable to other people.

Developed rare and important skills are usually the hardest to find and often a pathway into a developing passion for quality work and excellence.

  • Taking a craftsman's approach to a skill involves both pride in workmanship and a repeatable attitude towards mastering a skill.
  • While it maintains its relevance through learning and continual professional development, it's not so much the skill that opens the next door of employability, but rather the visible commitment to mastering it.
  • Taking a passionate approach towards work-life seems to lack the dedication to quality as its starting point is more, ‘what can the job provide me’, rather than ‘what skills can I bring to this job?’.

Like leaving room for serendipity, taking a 'craftsman approach' rather than a ‘passionate approach’ is a much better way to help young people prepare for a complex future and for people looking to escape from the beguiling metaphor of, ‘just follow your passion’ and everything will be ok.

Be recognised as a master of your work, rather than just passionate about it

Like trying to replicate the mind controlling effects of a Hasian Princess's Voodoo spell, merely pronouncing the words, ‘I'm passionate about’… does not automatically engender a sense of excellence, inner skill, and a commitment to the continual professional development of your curiosity.

  • I can tell you in the commercial world, at best, simply uttering the words, ‘I’m passionate about …’ feels more like just the thing you say when you don't know what you want to say.
  • At worst, it's a low-grade distraction from what really matters most - mastery.

Just following your passion is always bad advice.

So who actually believes the statement, ‘just follow your passion’?

Unexamined, this yearning for a mental shortcut to all things successful usually metastasizes into continually looking for a quick fix, forever searching for the silver bullet in business and the quest for secret life hacks.

  • It creates an unmeetable mental expectation and ever-present hope for rescue - where you win the lottery you find the unresisted, clear and direct pathways through life and business all while avoiding the need to develop your skills of working through difficult situations - all for the cost of an online ‘How to follow your passion’ course for $47.97.

This passionate shortcut approach has clouded and confused many school leavers and their parents triggered ill-considered midlife career changes - and made millions for those who peddle this unconsidered and throw-away approach to life's important questions.

The roots of a quick fix and how to spot a snake oil salesman

For my younger readers who have yet to discover the Western film genre, a snake oil salesman - common in the 1800s - went from town to town selling quick solutions in a bottle, for many emotional and medical problems. These ubiquitous special cure-all-tonics (the best ones were called elixirs) promised to quickly cure everything - from male pattern baldness, female malaise, through to leprosy and lovesickness.

These traveling charlatans would turn up to a country town and sell a cure-all-medicinal-tonic, extract money from the community desperate (and perhaps a little gullible) to grasp an easy solution to a complex problem - and then quickly move on overnight to the next town before the good townsfolk aggressively asked for their money back.

Ahh - selling hope in a bottle - has a timeless allure, don't you think?

Snake oil online and the modern day traveling charlatan

The mantra usually begins with;

‘...it's all about having the bravery to just step out and follow your passion’.

The logic is that timid people, not yet following their passions, are therefore not sufficiently brave enough to do so and they’re, well... lacking in their personality.

This cure-all-tonic feeds nicely into fuelling anxiety, self doubt and reinforces the standard advertising position of ‘you’re not enough, or ever enough unless you buy this product, cream, idea or lifestyle (or elixir…) ’ and you will shortly return to the ‘not yet enough standard’ after the effects of the last purchase wears off (or its credit card bill arrives in the mail).

Any lack of economic success in a mid-life ‘just follow your passion’ venture, is simply your fault for not being brave enough, passionate enough or some version of not being enough.

Who'd have thought living the Instagram life is so darn hard?

Conspicuous by its absence in such short term statements, is taking the time to develop a high level of skill, importance, scarcity and earned expert status over time - things that increase your authority, marketable career capital and visibility in the market.

Advanced snake oil sales techniques

The ‘just passion’ proponents, when cornered and asked to validate their message with reason, logic or data cite statements like :

Passionate people tend to be more resilient when they encounter obstacles because they aren't "in it for the money," and tend to have more positive outlooks and be able to overcome difficulty through problem-solving.

If this comment is not enough to blind your discerning eye, their fallback position is, 'because the great Steve Jobs (Apple computer fame) said so'.

“...People with passion can change the world for the better….”Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford commencement address

If that powerful incantation is not enough to sway your opinion within 30 seconds to adopt their simplistic approach to a complex life, perhaps you'd like to buy their teaching program and online course for $47.97?

Short and simple solutions to complex problems

Let's be frank; a 30 second sound bite that encapsulates all the career knowledge of the universe is always an easier story to sell (and read on a mobile device while switching between cat videos while at work).

  • Whether quoting another out of context to support your half-truth or simply seeking the 30 second shortcut summary to a complex history (to save you the effort of understanding the context of what was actually said), just follow your passion - is bad career advice.
  • There are no shortcuts to becoming so good at what you do, that the market can’t ignore you.

Ability opens the door to flexibility and in so doing you just might begin to see what you could enjoy and even become passionate about - and end up doing more of what you love.

The last world

For those Steve Jobs fans who feel slighted by my rejection of the cure-all-elixir of ‘just following your passion’, I'm not the one who later in the same speech went on to say,

“…but what gives [the words] strength and power is that they come from someone who has proved their value in a corporate setting.” Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford commencement address

Drew Browne Modern Small Business thought-provocateur
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