“Follow your passion” seems to be the career buzz phrase of the 21st century. Self-help gurus have given countless talks and written entire books on this advice, which basically boils down to, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
While following your passion sounds like a nice idea on the surface, like all simplistic adages, important questions lurk beneath it:
– Is the advice to find a passion and make it a career applicable to everyone? What about people who don’t have a distinct passion?
– Is it a well-intentioned mistake to tell our kids to follow their passion when contemplating a professional path, regardless of where that path actually leads
– Is passion a specific personality trait rather than an innate human reality? Does it need to be paired with other traits like drive, determination, and discipline to truly lead to success?
– What about people who are severely limited by life circumstances? Is having the freedom to pursue passion as a profession a product of privilege?
One can look at these questions both academically and anecdotally, and I’d argue that both carry equal weight when it comes to this topic. After all, “passion” is a completely subjective idea, and there are so many variables when it comes to life and career choices that gathering and analyzing objective data can be tricky.
Some researchers at Stanford have taken it on scientifically, however. Former postdoctoral fellow Paul O’Keefe and Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton conducted a series of laboratory studies that examined how people’s beliefs and mindsets may lead them to succeed or fail at developing their interests. Their results point to the idea of “passion” as potentially problematic.
According to the researchers, the concept of “following your passion” holds some implications that can actually hinder people from success. A common assumption is that having passion for something means it’s always enjoyable and that having a keen interest will make it easy to pursue, which can lead people to give up too quickly when they encounter inevitable difficulties or challenges.
Instead, the researchers say, people should focus on developing a passion instead of following one. They assert that passion is built through putting time and energy into an interest, not the other way around.
Billionaire Mark Cuban and self-made millionaire Scott Galloway express similar sentiments. Both entrepreneurs say that “follow your passion” is terrible advice.
In a blog post, Cuban wrote that effort, not passion, is the true key to success. When you work hard at something, you become good at it, and being good at it helps you develop passion for it. “Don’t follow your passions, follow your effort,” he wrote. “It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it.”
Galloway says that developing your talents is a better tack to take than following your passions. “Following your passion is bullsh*t,” he told CNBC. “Find out what you’re good at and then invest 10,000 hours in it — and become great at it.”
Of course, not everyone cares about becoming financially successful like these men. But we also don’t do kids any favors by telling them that following their passion intently enough will automatically bring in money or that there aren’t real drawbacks to choosing careers that aren’t financially sustainable. We have to balance passion with practicality.
We also need to be aware that turning a passion into a career can backfire. When I asked people to share their thoughts and experiences with passion-based professions, some said that making money doing what they loved actually made them lose their passion for it.
For example, Morag Wehrle followed her passion into museum studies. “It was almost ten years of heartbreak and frustration,” she says:
I cared SO MUCH that I couldn’t leave my work at work. I thought about it all the time and agonized over the frustrations of non-profit societies, the lack of funding, the constant stress of grant writing, the unpaid overtime, and so on. Eventually I walked away, burnt out and jaded. I think that sometimes ‘do what you love’ can be terrible career advice. I’d rather have had a job I was less passionate about, but which I could also leave behind at the end of the work day—and maybe kept the museum stuff as a volunteer gig.
Several people pointed out that a career that pays well, even if it’s not something you’re passionate about, can provide the means to help you pursue those hobbies without worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills. And some passions simply don’t lend themselves to a career path at all.
“Personally, I hate the whole ‘follow your passion’ trend,” says Julie Morris Jones:
What if my ‘passion’ is playing with or homeschooling my kids? I’m not going to get paid for that. Or what if I just prefer lots travel and a flexible job (any job!) that’s going to help pay for it? Or what if I have lots of different things that I enjoy doing, but none above all else? Am I not understanding myself or missing out if I am not ‘passionate’ about something? It’s too much pressure.
People often equate careers that aren’t passion-based with careers that people hate, but that’s often a false dichotomy. Naturally, staying in a job that you loathe isn’t healthy, but there is plenty of middle ground between hating your career and being passionate about it. It’s okay to have a job that you don’t mind that is secure, pays well, and allows you to live the life you want outside of it. It’s okay to have a job that you like but don’t love. Not every career needs to come from a place of passion.
Besides, passion isn’t a reality for every person. Erin Cummisford says,
I hate this advice because so many people (including me!) don’t have a passion so this adds unnecessary pressure. Like WHY don’t I have a singular passion? Does everyone else and there’s something wrong with me? I think it’s meant to be a supportive statement, but can easily get twisted.
Additionally, says Kelly Byrd, following your passion can lead you to unnecessarily pigeonhole yourself. “The truth is you can follow your passion, work your ass off to achieve it, but still never quite be successful at it and because you have spent so much time following your passion, there is no plan B,” she says:
When I was younger I was told that if you worked hard enough, you could achieve anything. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. So when you are unable to achieve success in your passion it can lead to feelings of failure and depression because you were unable to achieve that one goal.
People’s passions can also change, and its important for our kids to know that that’s normal. “In our society I think there’s far too much emphasis on the construct of success,” says Jennifer Rosen Heinz:
That you are ‘meant’ to find ONE purpose in life (or one true love, etc.) For most people, we may have one overriding passion, or we may have many passions. We may be obsessed with one thing for a certain period of time and then move on to another. That isn’t a failing. Changing and growing is a feature, not a bug.
Finally, it may be more helpful to our kids to reframe the idea of following your passion into more noble-yet-applicable language. Some parents say they encourage their kids to think in terms of meaningful work or how they can be of service to humanity in their careers instead. This framing keeps the door open to changing interests and removes the pressure of searching for an elusive feeling of passion, while still helping kids think beyond a paycheck.
People who have the innate desire and drive to pursue their passion are probably going to do that regardless of what people tell them. For the masses who don’t fit that bill, let’s think long and hard before handing out the “follow your passion” advice. There is much more helpful wisdom we can offer that can help them find success and satisfaction in their professional and personal lives.
Annie Reneau is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone. Her writing can be found on Upworthy and Scary Mommy, in O Magazine, and in a big ol’ slush pile inside her head. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.