Should You Follow Your Passion or Follow the Money in Your 20s?

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I recently read Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferriss. In it, Tim interviews hundreds of successful people from different fields. One of the questions he asks each interviewee is “What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the ‘real world’?”

I noticed a common trend among the answers for this question: Most interviewees said to pursue skills, money, and knowledge as much as possible in your 20s so that you can have the means to actually impact society in a meaningful way in the following decades.

Specifically, three interviewee responses stood out to me.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Kevin Kelly, and Chris Anderson

The first comes from human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

“Many students come to me full of wonderful intentions hoping to change the world; they plan to spend their time helping the poor and disadvantaged. I tell them to first graduate and make a lot of money, and only then figure out how best to help those in need. Too often students can’t meaningfully help the disadvantaged now, even if it makes them feel good for trying to.

I have seen so many former students in their late 30s and 40s struggling to make ends meet. They spent their time in college doing good rather than building their careers and futures. I warn students today to be careful how they use their precious time and to think carefully about when is the right time to help. Its  a well-worn cliché, but you have to help yourself before you help others. This is too often lost on idealistic students.”

The second comes from the founder of Wired magazine Kevin Kelly:

“Don’t try to find your passion. Instead master some skill, interest, or knowledge that others find valuable. It almost doesn’t matter what it is at the start. You don’t have to love it, you just have to be the best at it. Once your master it, you’ll be rewarded with new opportunities that will allow you to move away from tasks you dislike and toward those that you enjoy. If you continue to optimize your mastery, you’ll eventually arrive at your passion.

And the third from the CEO of 3D Robotics Chris Anderson:

“Many of us have bought into the cliché ‘pursue your passion.’ For many, that is terrible advice. In your 20s, you may not really know what your best skills and opportunities are. It’s much better to pursue learning, personal discipline, and growth. And to seek out connections with people across the planet. For a while, it’s just fine to follow and support someone else’s dream. In so doing, you will be building valuable relationships, valuable knowledge. And at some point your passion will come and whisper in your ear, ‘I’m ready.'”

The Passion Paradox

All three of these answers address an age-old dilemma: As 20-somethings, we want to find our passion fast and use that passion to make our mark on the world. Unfortunately, to make an impact requires money, skills, and knowledge, all of which take time to accumulate.

This is why the three answers above all provide similar advice: pursue money, skills, and knowledge in your 20s since this is when you have the most energy, freedom, and motivation. By the time you finally realize what you’re good at, what you enjoy, and where you can make a difference, you’ll have the means to do so.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells her students to “graduate and make a lot of money.” The more money you have, the more freedom you have to do work you actually want to do. You won’t be forced to work at a job you hate just to pay the bills.

Kevin Kelly tells young people to pursue mastery in a field because this will eventually lead to passion. This is similar to Cal Newport’s thesis that passion is cultivated, not discovered. Only after years of building up skills that lead to mastery can you realize your passion.

Chris Anderson makes the point that it’s hard to “know what your best skills and opportunities are.” For this reason alone it’s a good idea to “pursue learning, self discipline, and growth.” I believe this to be true. As I get older, I become more aware of what I’m good at and what type of work I enjoy doing. I suspect that this self-awareness grows more and more over time.

My Own Path

Personally I’m prioritizing saving money, building skills, and gaining knowledge in my 20s. 

Although I’m not in love with my day job, I’m using it to save money and build programming / analytics skills, which could prove valuable down the road in ways I can’t yet predict. 

I’m also building skills and connections through this blog. What started out as a fun hobby has turned into an income-generating machine, a way for me to connect with other finance nerds, and a platform to hone my writing skills.

Related: How to Start a Blog

Over the past few years I have also begun to realize what type of work I enjoy doing and where my skills lie. I have come to see that I don’t work well in a cubicle environment, that I’m a very independent worker, and that I enjoy data visualization more than data analysis. These are all things I didn’t know about myself even two years ago.

In this sense, I see exactly what Chris Anderson means when he says it’s hard to “know what your best skills and opportunities are” in your 20s.

Summary

In summary, it’s hard to know what you’re passionate about and what specific opportunities you should pursue in your 20s. This is why it’s smart to accumulate money, skills, and knowledge rather than blindly try to “follow your passion.”

The more money you save, the more freedom you will have to pursue your passion when it becomes clear to you.

The more skills you accumulate, the more opportunities you will have and the more ability you will have to make a real impact.

The more knowledge you gain, the better you’ll know how to utilize your money and skills to make a difference. 


My favorite free financial tool I use is Personal Capital. I use it to track my net worth, manage my spending, and keep an eye on my monthly cash flow. It only takes a few minutes to set up and it makes tracking your finances simple and easy. I recommend trying it out.

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6 Replies to “Should You Follow Your Passion or Follow the Money in Your 20s?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. This week I discovered that my good friend of 12 years thought I’d chosen my career because I was passionate about it and I couldn’t help busting out laughing. I guess she’d just assumed and never asked. I explained that I chose my career for 2 reasons: 1. It makes bank after a few years in the trenches and 2. It let me keep my nose ring and casual clothing.

    I’d been warned by my mom all my life that a job is a job and its purpose is to make money so I chose a job based on that: one I could stand (since I wouldn’t be uncomfortable in pants suits…) that would make money without driving me crazy. She also warned me about passions and said something similar to the quote above – when you’re 21 it’s rare to know what you’re passionate about. I certainly didn’t. I’m almost 30 and only now starting to uncover possible passions (personal finance being one of them!)

    A lot of my friends left college and took the opposite approach. I wish they had followed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s advice because though they are following their passions and helping people they are supremely stressed out because of a lack of money due to low income. Not only is it stressful because they don’t have a cushion, but pursuing their passions first seemed to box them in – to more debt, to not being able to travel like they wanted to etc. I stumbled into my current situation and I know everything makes sense in hindsight, but I’m very happy with where the path I chose has taken me. There’s no way I’d be 2 years from FIRE if I’d taken the passion path. How’s that for a longwinded answer? 🙂

    1. It’s awesome to hear that you’re starting to “uncover possible passions” before you’re 30. I think it’s rare for most people to discover what they love even that early on. It sounds like your decision to prioritize your finances has put you in a great position to pursue whatever path you want in life very soon. Thanks for the feedback, I’m looking forward to seeing where your journey takes you from here 🙂

  2. “Too often students can’t meaningfully help the disadvantaged now, even if it makes them feel good for trying to.”

    So true. A friend is at a high level in an international health organization that does international tuberculosis and HIV work. She is constantly pinged by college students and recent college graduates who are passionate to get into the field, or want to go volunteer at health clinics in Africa and Southeast Asia to help all those poor, sick people. Her advice? Go get a nursing degree and get some skills, then come back.

    1. Love that advice, particularly because it points to the problem – it’s hard to help others when you don’t have the necessary skills and education. I think it’s great that so many young people want to make a difference, but ironically the fastest way to make a real difference is to take your time and build up some skills/financial means to do so.

  3. Hi Zach,

    Well said. I agree that the most important thing is for one to acquire the skillsets from the jobs which come along the way and subsequently decide on the paths thereafter. Use the money generated from the day job and use it to build up the investment portfolio who generate dividends on a constant basis. In time to come, one does not have to rely on the full-time employment for survival.

    WTK

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