Q & A: Should I Follow My Passion?

Recently, I received a question from a student who is confused about her life direction. We’ve had multiple conversations, and I’ve supported and challenged her in her journey. She leaves our conversations happy and inspired, but she always circles back to the question I saw in my inbox: “Should I follow my passion?”

In short, no. Don’t follow your passion. Amy Hoy noted (correctly) that the root of the word passion is to suffer and endure. That doesn’t sound like much fun. Her entire post on “don’t follow your passion” is worth the read.

Follow your bliss and follow your passion are the mantras of many life coaches. Those make for great Instagram quotations. (You know the ones I’m talking about with a rose-colored sun rising in the distance over some craggy mountains or a serene beach scene.) As a life practice, these mantras can cause more damage and harm than good. Why is this?

1. Your passions might not align with the world of work. According to this 99U article:

Our interests and passions also evolve over time: psychologists have shown that they change much more than we anticipate. Just think about your greatest interest 10 years ago; chances are, it’s completely different from what you’re interested in today. You might plan your life believing you’ll never want to have kids, but then find when you’re 30 that your preferences change dramatically.
And while we’re at it, the idea of “following your gut” to find work you love is also terrible advice. The evidence suggests that we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. We overestimate the negative impact of bad changes to our lives, because we overlook all the good things in our lives that stay constant across changes. What’s more, we forget to appreciate how we’ll psychologically adapt to new situations. This means that our gut judgments about what will make us happy are far too influenced by the status quo: we like what we’re already used to, and overweight the risks from switching the path we’re on.

2. Passion causes you to emotionalize. In one of her always excellent Vitae columns, Karen Kelsky strips bare the idea of baring your passionate soul. Hysterical insistence does not trump factually based arguments.

If you waste precious letter real estate on a descent into emotionalism, and fill your documents with sincerity, belief, commitment, resolution, earnestness, eagerness, enthusiasm, and—worst of all—passion, you give the search committee members nothing to base a judgment on. I mean, why should they believe you, just because you raise a fuss? They don’t know you.

What they need is evidence.

3. Work is still work. Even when you LOVE it, it’s still work. All work may not be great, but most work generates income that we use to pay bills and live comfortably (we hope). In her discussion about Miya Tokumitsu’s new book (which is on my list of books to read), Kelly J. Baker polished this kernel of truth into a gem:

To be successful, of course, requires hard work and good choices. DWYL suggests that pursuing the work we love leads to the lives we want. Tokumitsu shows us that DWYL is not innocuous. Instead, it emerges as a mode of social control. When passion becomes the benchmark of your work, she writes, then “talk of wages or reasonable scheduling becomes crass.” You work because you love to, so why should wages, hours, or conditions matter? DWYL leads to erosion of the rights of labor — all the while suggesting that workers focus on passion rather than working conditions. It obscures the systems of exploitation while also encouraging us to love and not question them.”

If you shouldn’t follow your passion, what should you do? What are some better options?

Find engaging work. William MacAskill plotted out the five traits necessary to meaningful work:

  1. Independence: How much control do you have over how you go about your work?
  2. Sense of completion: How much does the job involve completing whole pieces of work so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible?
  3. Variety: How far does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?
  4. Feedback from the job: How easy is it to know whether you’re performing well or badly?
  5. Contribution: How much does your work “make a difference,” improving the well-being of other people?

Chase those traits in every project, regardless of having a high, intense passion for it or not. If you can derive some sense of completion and fulfillment from the engaging work, you won’t have to wait and suffer through your passion project. Matt Linderman summed it up best:

Take your cues from this “daily grind” example and how [certain] companies…succeed. Find meaning in what you’re doing. Work to improve your industry. Get joy from making a customer’s day. Surround yourself with the kinds of people and environment that keep you engaged. Figure out the details and day-to-day process that keep you stimulated. Focus on how you execute and making continual improvements. Get off on how you sell, not what you sell.
It might not be the romantic ideal of “passion.” But if it provides you with sustainable joy and profit that you can count on, you’ll still be way ahead of the curve (and have extra resources and free time to spend doing whatever you want).

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