Why "Follow your passion" isn't always good career advice

Turns out loving what you do takes more than doing what you love.

Turns out loving what you do takes more than doing what you love

(Credit: Allef Vinicius/unsplash.com)

This article was originally published March 26, 2018.

"You've got to find what you love… the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking, and don't settle."

This is what Steve Jobs told a graduating class at Stanford University in his commencement address in 2005.  And it's not just a bit of inspirational pep for bright-eyed grads. Since Richard Bolles' classic What Colour is Your Parachute  became a dominant bestseller, "follow your passion" has become a career-advice mantra. The appeal of this message is obvious. Who wouldn't want to spend their life getting paid to do what they most love doing? Why should we settle for less? The world is a big place, and we only walk it once, so it's worth dreaming big.

A growing number of experts disagree. Cal Newport's recent career-advice hit begins thusly: "Rule #1: Don't Follow Your Passion". In another New York Times Bestseller Designing Your Life, two Stanford profs (the very university where Jobs gave his speech) write "Anti-passion is our passion". Why?

According to these authors, telling someone to choose a career by following their passion is usually useless, but occasionally dangerous. It's useless because most people either don't know what they are passionate about or don't have passions that make sense as a career. It's dangerous, because it may lead people to give up substantial opportunities to chase ill-considered pipe dreams. Newport tells the story of an executive who gave up her job in advertising to open a yoga studio, which soon failed.

Does this mean we should give up on what we love and stick to market forecasts? Does passion still play a role? I asked two career experts for guidance.

"Seek balance"

- Crystal Holly, clinical psychologist

Crystal Holly is the founder of Balance, a psychology and wellness practice in Ottawa, ON.  A significant portion of her clientele arrive seeking advice and coaching due to dissatisfaction at work.

"Chasing your passion can be a recipe for disappointment," says Dr. Holly. She explains that our work lives are long and varied, and if we expect to feel "in love with" our work every day, this is likely to lead to frustration. Holly also thinks that passion at work can be dangerous even when we do find it. It can lead us to neglect other aspects of our life, which eventually leads to burnout on all fronts. Holly thinks "interest" is a better target than "passion". You can be motivated to do to a job that you find interesting without holding it to the consuming standard of a "passion".

Holly's most important advice is not surprising given the name of her practice: seek balance. "Our careers are just one part of our lives, and not always the most important one" she says.  Therefore, she advises thinking about the overall life you wish to have, and consider where work fits into that. It's the big picture that's important. In her clinic, she's found that being happy about the overall shape of your life determines how effective you are at work rather than the other way around.

Holly's second major piece of advice arises from the observation that anger and frustration are also "passions". Therefore, she advises clients to pay attention to the things that might make them unhappy on the job. When people are miserable at work, it's not usually because of the industry they are in, but because of things like unpleasant work atmosphere or long commutes. These details are just the kinds of things that people forget when passionately ideating a "dream job"; remembering them is the key to avoiding job hell.

"Get abstract"

- Jen Polk, career coach

Jen Polk is a successful career and life coach who draws on her own experience to better serve her clients. After successfully defending her PhD thesis in history, Dr. Polk was at loose ends, realizing that her passion for academic research had run its course, but unsure where to turn next. It's at this point that she hired her own coach to help her find a new direction.

Polk thinks that people can find passion in their work, but that they can go wrong when they see it in too-narrow terms. She therefore encourages her clients to get abstract when thinking about their interests and passions. When she examined her own experience, she found that what she was really passionate about was not her specific research topic ("the role of international charitable organizations in the early 20th century"), but the activities surrounding her life as a student. Asking questions, listening to answers, and building communities were the core values that made her love academic work in the first place. Once she understood her passions in more abstract terms, she began to see opportunities outside of academia to engage them, which led her eventually to begin her coaching business and to founding online communities for other PhDs who were leaving or considering leaving academia.  

Polk likes to think of work as a tree, where the roots are what connects a job to our values and purpose and the branches are the features of a specific job: the title, the particular field or industry, the outfit. Polk's point is that what really nourishes the tree, including all of the branches, is its connection to our core values and passions. Branches are important, but we can also cut off a few without killing the tree. As long as the root system is intact, it will continue to sprout, often benefitting from a judicious pruning.

Passion and the big picture

So, should we follow Steve Jobs' advice and find what we love? The doctors Polk and Holly may differ on how to apply the word 'passion' to our career choices, but they agree that we should put our feelings about work in a broader perspective. For Polk, this means understanding what you like about certain kinds of work in abstract terms, and to be open to finding diverse ways to connect to your personal values. For Holly, this means seeing work as one component of an overall life, and to consider how it fits in to the bigger picture.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.