In a culture where everyone’s too distracted to remember more than a sound bite or a quote, everything gets taken out of context. Lost are those all-important assumptions, nuances, caveats, and tradeoffs that make all the difference when it comes to decision-making.

Take “do what you love” and the essentially equivalent “follow your passion,” for example. I give that advice myself, but if you take it entirely out of context, there are plenty of gotchas.

First, you have to find what you love doing, and that’s far from a trivial matter with a well-defined path. Steve Jobs called it a “matter of the heart” not unlike finding the love of your life. And you’ve probably figured out just how tricky that can be.

Then there are practical matters. If prosperity is one of your goals and you assume that doing what you love will lead to financial security, you may be in for a little shock.

While I do believe your work should be fun or at least enjoyable if you want to accomplish great things – if you dread what you do, I doubt you’ll work hard or be very successful at it – there are other considerations like capability, competition, and differentiation. And don’t forget supply and demand.

To make this even more confusing, none of those factors are static, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There’s a positive aspect to nearly everything in life being a moving target.

Think Google. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin were pitching their search engine, nobody saw the value in it. That came later with AdWords. What started as a labor of love turned into fame and fortune beyond the two founders’ or anyone else’s imagination.

In other words, you never know up-front if you’re going to love something, how good you’re going to be at it, or if anyone will pay good money for it. You have to try it out, make things happen, and work at it to find out.

Personally, my first passion was science, particularly the physical kind but I’ve been known to dabble in others, as well. My bachelor’s degree is in physics, but when lousy grades kept me out of a good PhD program, I took a chance, got an M.S. in electrical engineering and found my way into the booming tech industry.

Here’s where it gets interesting, if not convoluted. From engineering I migrated to sales, marketing, and executive leadership. I can make a pretty good argument for all of those disciplines being loves. The same can be said of management consulting, which I do now.

And of course there’s writing. I love to write. But without all the above, what would I have to write about?

The point being, had I stuck with hard science, I doubt if things would have turned out nearly as well as they have. If nothing else, I read the tealeaves, was flexible and adaptable, tried to stay true to myself, and in the end, always followed my gut.

One thing’s for sure. You want to take all this stuff into account when it comes to career and life decisions. There are lots of variables and an infinite number of paths and outcomes. And the single biggest pitfall I can think of is mindlessly following some dumb sound bite or quote.

Incidentally, I cover all this career stuff and of course lots more in Real Leaders Don’t Follow (shameless plug).

Image of GloZell bathing in Fruit Loops and milk courtesy of a God with a twisted sense of humor.