Among the worst advice given to young people today is a phrase that enjoys the same reverence as an Eleventh commandment: “Follow your passion.” Sounds good, but truth be told, it ranks right up there with “Go West, young man!” as a vaguely inspiring but rather useless thing to say on your way out the door.
Horace Greeley, the newspaper editor who coined the “Go West” phrase back in 1865, did so while lamenting the horrors of Washington, D.C.: the rent, he said, was too high, the food was awful, and the dust was as disgusting, as the morals were deplorable. So, he advised, “Go West, young man, go West, and grow up with the country.”
Left unsaid, of course, were the particulars.
And for good reason: advice, as it turns out, is easy, life is not; and making the arduous journey out West by wagon was not for the faint of heart. Anyone who has ever played the video game Oregon Trail knows that even in the game, life was nasty, brutish, and short. That’s because well before you reached your destination, you were likely to perish from starvation, Indian attacks, rattlesnakes, and diseases like cholera.
And that brings me to my point: telling someone to follow their passion is like setting them on the Oregon Trail, but without the necessary skills to survive. In other words, it all but guarantees a short game.
Instead, we should tell young people to build their talent stack, or skills that work together to make them more effective and unique in the marketplace. If, for instance, you are a brilliant engineer but lack any networking skills, you’re liable to lose out to someone who does.
A talent stack allows you to take advantage of your God-given talent and yes – your passion – while being multidimensional. And it’s important to note here that you don’t have to be phenomenal at another skill to improve your chances; you need only be competent. (Just like knowing the basics of how to start a fire or build a shelter increases your chances of survival in the wilderness.)
A little knowledge, as they say, goes a long way. And this is true, even in the most savage of places like – Hollywood. There, a triple threat is someone who can sing, dance, and act. That’s an example of a talent stack. Again, you don’t have to be “the best” at these other disciplines, just good enough to make you unique.
Which is to say: being a great actor is fine, but if you are also a reasonably good dancer and singer, that gives you the advantage over someone who is only an actor. Triple threats beat single threats every time.
The legendary investor and billionaire Warren Buffet knows this all too well. His advice is to hone your communication skills, and Richard Branson, British business magnate and founder of VirginGroup, readily agrees. “Today,” he notes, “if you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to be a storyteller.”
So, by all means, channel your passion. That passion is kindling for the fire. But if you want to survive in the workplace, real life, or your own metaphorical Oregon Trail, learn to invest in yourself.
And build that talent stack!