Passion is Not Enough: What are Your Marketable Skills?

Written by Jenny Blake

graduation cap and degreeCan I start my own company one day? How do I get promoted at work? How do I find a job in this competetive market? Was quitting your job worth it? How can I earn money doing something I love?

As I prepare for my Calgary keynote, I’ve been mulling over the most common career questions I receive through Life After College, and have been digging deep to determine what ONE piece of advice I would give to today’s graduates. Update: here’s a fun 6-minute take on these topics from my segment on the CBC Calgary Explorer radio show. 

When I really break it down, all the questions above can be answered with the following: you need to have a marketable skill. Ideally several, but do not pass go without at least one.

A marketable skill is not a bachelor’s degree or an MBA.

I’m not here to debate the virtues of higher education—but I will say that a degree is not enough, and if you think about it, it never really has been.

A 2010 Intuit study predicts that 40% of the population will be freelancers by 2020. Whether you see your future-self in this contingent or not, it behooves you to have as many career options as possible moving forward. And even if you have a job now, consider what you would do if you were let go: what skills or expertise could you fall back on?

I shudder when people call Generation Y entitled. This happened a number of times during the radio tour I did for the Life After College book release; radio hosts would paint a picture of our generation as whiny or self-righteous, and I politely defended us (with quietly gritted teeth) by saying we are increasingly entrepreneurial, and that many people today—not just Generation Y—are searching for more meaning in their work.

Giant caveat: “entitled” does fit the bill if you are someone who has an unfounded expectation for a high salary, promotion, or dream job without bringing anything of equal value to the table.

You don’t get full-time meaning or passion for free.

We’ve all heard (and tired of) the proclamation to Pursue Your Passion! Sure, but does your passion provide others with value they are willing to pay for? Not necessarily. This is where we need to find the intersection of your passions, interests, innate talents, and marketable skills. The last being arguably most important for actually getting paid.

So what is a marketable skill? A service you provide at the intersection of talent, skill, and education  that a customer or company will pay you for.

Even better are two marketable skills that might even seem unrelated, but that compliment each other in a very unique way.

For example, fluency in a foreign language mixed with an accounting background—which actually makes you a prime candidate for the FBI. Today’s graduates have the benefit of growing up with computers and digital devices—the social media marketer/brander/coordinator field didn’t even exist five years ago! Combine that with a love of numbers and you’ve got yourself an analyst or PR role. Or maybe your people skills make you a perfect candidate for recruiting at a tech start-up.

Start developing your skills toolbox now . . . even if you don’t know where they will lead.

When I started working at Google in 2006, I was delivering AdWords Product training to new hires in our customer service department. I knew that I enjoyed teaching, interacting with people, and being in front of the classroom (surely good practice for my dream to one day be a professional speaker), but I wasn’t necessarily passionate about the AdWords product itself.

So I started attending The Coaches Training Institute program on nights and weekends in a move of somewhat blind faith. I didn’t know where the training would take me, but I knew that it would bolster my background and expertise whether at a company or on my own.

In a process that took me about two years from start to finish, I developed a marketable skill in coaching. When I wanted a change at work and a position on the Career Development team opened up—a team that didn’t exist when I started the CTI program—I was uniquely positioned to interview for and land the job, even though I was younger than they might have expected for that role. When I left the company a year and a half later in 2011, my coaching practice is what carried me forward—it served as (and still does) the bread and butter of my business.

Can I be successful by doing XYZ? That depends . . .

People often ask me if they can make money through blogging, or even getting a book deal. With many-a-caveat for miracles that do happen, the answer is no—not directly.

The blog and book are great marketing, a wonderful platform, and enriching in innumerable ways, but they are not the marketable skill that provides consistent income and brings money in the door. In my experience, and with rare exception, that has to come from my own unique blend of brain power and expertise—coach training, tech savvy, corporate and start-up experience, a training and career development background, speaking experience, etc.

Now—I’m not saying you have to pay thousands of dollars for a specialist program or graduate degree—some of you may have an innate marketable talent, like web design where you are naturally gifted and have been able to teach yourself. If that’s you, awesome! It means you are one step ahead and already have a skill you can sell.

How to stand-out and empower yourself for career success

If you are a college graduate and you want to separate yourself from the pack of entry level employees: what are your marketable skills? These typically develop outside of the classroom and require you to be proactive about identifying your strengths and interests, reading books, talking to others in the field, and most importantly—getting hands-on experience.

Whether you want to work for yourself someday, transfer to a new role within a company, or land your dream job, the best way to empower yourself with the luxury of career choice is to continuously set goals and develop your toolbox of skills, talents, interests and experiences.

Even if they seem completely unrelated today, keep going; you will be amazed one day at how the unique intersection of all four put you in the perfect position for a big career move when the timing is right.

Not sure where to start? Additional resources:

  • Passions Mind Map: Start with a big brainstorm of everything that interests you, then look for common themes.
  • You might also be interested in The Acorn Project, a two-week jumpstart course to help you explore your interests and collect a variety of ideas about how to move forward.
  • Get specific about your career with the recently-updated Professional Development Strategy template: this will help you brainstorm across a variety of areas to see what the gaps are between your current skills, interests, and goals.
  • The Strengthsfinder 2.0 Book and Assessment: to give you language to talk about your strengths and identify what your natural talents are.
  • The free Type Coach assessment (via Melani Ward) that provides a downloadable report on your Myers Briggs type, strengths and best work environment.
  • SkillShare: thousands of low-cost online classes on every subject imaginable.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments:
Are there any other vital factors that you believe lead to career success?
Do you have any other great resources to share for developing your skills on or off the job?


Categories: Career

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryn March 25, 2013 at 7:26 am

Love this, Jenny! It should be noted that Gen Y (and technically, I’m Gen X, not Gen Y, but it’s the same for me) was lucky enough to grow up in a society where wealth has been generated by the “Mature” Generation, and the Baby Boomers. Wealth generation is not our immediate goal the way it was for them, so we define success differently (i.e. not simply by wealth generation, and instead by fulfillment). It’s hard for the baby boomers and mature generation to understand that concept, hence the reason they feel we’re “entitled.”


jennyblake March 26, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Thanks so much Bryn! So great to hear from you :) I agree with you 100% that wealth is no longer the only and/or immediate goal for our generation. While there are some who are focused on security, supporting a family, or even “getting rich,” I tend to see more and more focused on lifestyle and freedom. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of growing up with the Internet and seeing the world at our fingertips…it can be quite the motivator! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment — I am so excited to come back to NYC! Will be scheduling the next Geek Yoga class for late April sometime — thinking of doing a weekend workshop or something :)


Hannah March 27, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Thanks for sharing this perspective Jenny. As someone who is ‘pursuing their passion’, I realised very quickly that passion alone isn’t enough :) I don’t know whether it’s the same in the US, but the concept of marketable skills doesn’t really exist in UK school and college culture. In many ways, the system is pretty anti-freelancing or entrepreneurship, and I think that means that most school and college grads have to completely shift the way they perceive their skills and qualities once they enter the full-time job market. I know I’ve certainly had to do this. It’s a challenging process, but so liberating!

The resources look fabulous, I’ve signed up to the Acorn Project and am looking forward to delving into that.


jennyblake March 27, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Hannah! It’s really true that if grads are interested in entrepreneurship they are somewhat on their own . . . although maybe that IS the best bootcamp / “weeder” course for starting your own business after all :) Thanks so much for signing up for The Acorn Project too — excited to hear your thoughts!


Kelly Byrd March 29, 2013 at 9:15 am

Thank you for this post, as you and I have discussed a bit of this separately.

I agree with Bryn and think that it is an important reminder, especially given the current global economy, that it is more important to develop a skill that you will be able and interested to maintain than to focus solely on degree or title.

I signed up for The Acorn Project as well to hold myself accountable for the research and work that I have been consciously wanting to do for several years, but have been slow to admit verbally.

Thanks again for helping to Make Sh*t Happen!


jennyblake April 2, 2013 at 11:48 am

Thanks so much Melissa! Loved the article you shared….I guess my big curiosity is why we thought an undergraduate degree ever prepared us for the job market….in my opinion, college has never *really* focused on the job market but rather the softer skills (at least for liberal arts majors), but then again — maybe that is part of the problem given how expensive it is :)

GREAT pointers for people on reaching out to mentors too — thank you for sharing those!


Mikaelo October 15, 2013 at 9:43 pm

This is a great article. Sadly, I’m having a difficult time with my career and I have an impending feeling that I will eventually start to regret my choices. I graduated as a nursing major, but a couple of years after college, I realized I wanted to do something in media (particularly print or TV journalism). Soon, I realized that was a doubtful move since I just gave up something lucrative for a field that is believed to be dying or done by anyone who’s everyone (writing). Worse, being in a nursing school sort of limited my skills since what I learned there are things on the medical and healthcare field, and are not transferable if I would like to work outside of medicine or healthcare (the publishing world probably do not need someone who can inject insulin). Please? Any advice jenny?


Jacqueline February 26, 2014 at 10:57 am

Are you kidding? Medical writing/editing is HOT right now … Have confidence and go after your dream. These interests of yours coincide like never before in history. Trust me, I have the journalism degree, but could not get hired for medical writing — without experience and/or a medical degree.


Lynn Dowless September 21, 2015 at 10:22 pm

Somehow, all of this was just broad, empty talk, like most talk that I hear about jobs and specifically what skills to develop. My gut feeling is that in truth, no body knows the specific answer, the job base is simply drying up and destined to be saturated very soon. I read a statistic the other day that said in ten half of all jobs available today would vanish due to automation..and I just don’t see anything coming in to replace them, so you had better have everything paid off, that’s all that I have to say..


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