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Some passions should be hobbies, not professions. Here's how to know the difference

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Whether or not to "follow your passion" can be a surprisingly controversial subject.

Mark Cuban, for instance, believes that following your passion is a "lie." The billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner said it's more valuable to pursue anything that you put a lot of effort and work into, because you'll likely be more successful in it, during a 2017 interview.

For Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend, the question doesn't have such an easy answer. The longtime writing partners and executive producers of the new NBC drama, "Ordinary Joe," which premieres on Sept. 20, followed their passions to pursue careers in film. It seems to have worked for them: Previously, the pair co-executive produced hit shows like NBC's "Glee" and Fox's "House."

But Lerner and Friend both say their careers could have turned out very differently. In college, Lerner tells CNBC Make It, he wanted to work in sports — until an internship for a sports company left him feeling unfulfilled and disillusioned. Writing and filmmaking, another passion, had a different effect on him: The more he did it, the more he loved it, which is how he eventually realized it could be a viable career for him.

"Some passions are meant to be hobbies. Some passions are meant to be professions," Lerner says. Being able to tell the difference relatively quickly is key, he adds, "because if you get stuck in a profession that you realize should have been a hobby, you might get tired really quickly."

That concept is the focus of their new show, which imagines three parallel lives for character Joe Kimbreau (played by James Wolk) if he chose starkly different careers: the frontman of a rock band, a nurse working the graveyard shift at a hospital and a New York City police officer.

Of course, in reality, you can't live multiple lives simultaneously — but experts say there are simple ways to help you choose your path intentionally. Jon Jachimowicz, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School who studies people's passion for work, suggests a three-step thought exercise to help you determine what kind of life you want to live:

  1. Reflect on the things you care most deeply about in life, to pinpoint what your values are.
  2. Make a list, with each value as its own "bucket."
  3. Think about how you spend your day, and whether your specific daily activities fit into any of those buckets.

Your job might not fill a bucket, or it might fill all of your buckets. What's important is that your buckets are filled some way or another, Jachimowicz says: "An empty bucket is much more painful than doubling the amount of content that you put into one bucket that already has stuff."

If your job isn't fulfilling, Jachimowicz says, you can still find enough passion to fulfil you elsewhere. Someone who loves cooking, for example, may not want the grueling schedule and workload of a chef. "That's an important consideration," Jachimowicz says. "Are you able to make a living? Are you able to live the way that you want to live, and have the working hours that you want?"

Indeed, following a dream can be a double-edged sword. A 2018 Stanford study found that telling people to "follow your passion" leads them think their passion will be easy, causing them to give less effort and making them less successful.

Lerner and Friend say they allow Kimbreau to become a famous, successful musician, specifically to explore what happens if that dream ends up being disappointingly unfulfilling.

"Does that define happiness, or does it not?" Lerner says.

Their new show, they note, is built on the idea that regardless of the path you choose, you can have a fulfilling life. Ultimately, "whatever path you choose isn't finite," Lerner says. "We're able to grow and change and shift change course."

"Wherever you are is kind of where you should be," Friend adds. "No life is necessarily better than the other."

"Ordinary Joe" premieres Monday, Sept. 20 at 10/9 C on NBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC and CNBC.

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