Passion: Key Career Ingredient or Silly Indulgence?

One of the new memes that seems to be rapidly gaining traction within the business world is the notion that passion is an overrated aspect of picking one’s career path.

As unemployment rates remain historically high, and many Americans continue to feel the pain of not receiving a paycheck, a growing chorus of experts are starting to suggest that people need to think more pragmatically about their career options and how they can make a sustainable living — versus holding out for jobs directly in line with their personal interests.

Part of this may simply be a predictable backlash to the overutilization of the word “passion” itself.  In fact, if you’re a fan of satire and/or British humor, I highly encourage you to watch the short video here from comedian David Mitchell.  It’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while and pokes fun at how the word passion has become a virtual caricature of itself.

As for some other voices discussing the role that passion plays in the modern employment scene, try checking out the articles you’ll find here and here.

In the first piece, published in U.S. News & World report, business expert Alison Green emphasizes that “young people, in particular, are often told that they should figure out what career to pursue by building their work around whatever they’re passionate about.  The problem is, it’s terrible advice.”  She goes on to provide an analysis of why she feels this is the case.  If you press on to review some of the hundreds of comments her article inspired, you’ll see a highly polarized response, with many comments praising her bold straight talk on this issue — and others castigating her for providing “shallow advice” or for condemning us all to live in a “boring world” or expressing thoughts like “This article saddens me. It seems to encourage people to settle. I understand the practicality of making a living and support one’s self or a family, but wouldn’t it be nice to make that living doing something that inspires you?”

The second article above, while not quite as broad in scope, explores the theory that pursuing a career doing what you love could actually end up taking all the fun out of what was once an enjoyable activity.  While I’m not sure such developments are inevitable in every situation, I’ve certainly heard many stories where this is the case.  For example, I’ve worked with a number of clients in professions such as teaching, non-profits, counseling, healthcare, and the priesthood who have said that there’s nothing they enjoy more in life than helping other people, but that they’re now suffering from what they call “compassion fatigue” as a result of having to listen constantly to other peoples’ problems, day in and day out.  A similar theme is explored within the best-selling book The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber.  In this classic business text, Mr. Gerber warns would-be entrepreneurs against launching business ventures that relate directly to their personal interests — since this (he argues) will prevent them from managing the business objectively, and wisely, and again could have the byproduct of turning a favorite hobby into a tiresome chore.

Where do I stand on the “passion” debate?  As with most career issues, you’ll find me courageously straddling the fence.  I definitely think there’s some truth on both sides of the argument, as I’ve written about in the past articles you’ll find here and here.  While I think it’s overstating things to suggest that passion is an irrelevant consideration in picking a career path, or to assume everybody will struggle with boundary issues in this regard, I DO tend to agree this single element is played up way too much in conventional career literature.  We don’t live in a perfect world.  Unless you’re an unrepentent idealist, there are many more variables one should consider in picking a career direction than passion alone.  And yes, some of these factors are of a pretty practical, uninspiring nature — such as income potential, job security, and the availability of health benefits.

Regardless, the above articles should give you a good grounding on this increasingly important career issue and where different camps, and experts, stand on it.  As always, feel free to chime in and comment if you have any strong (dare I say passionate?) feelings on the matter!

7 Responses to “Passion: Key Career Ingredient or Silly Indulgence?”

  1. Spot on. The problem I have with a word like “passion” is that it feels like yet another feint or pretense in the direction of being world-class. It falls in the same bucket as those startup companies that liberally hand out titles like “jedi” and “guru”. Statistically, how many world-class experts really exist in any domain, and can any of us mere mortals claim to KNOW one, much less BE one? A dose of humility and perspective is sorely needed. I yearn for a return to considering one another as merely “craftspeople”, regardless of the art – be it entrepreneurialism, big data, mobile apps, or whatever. Let the work and worker stand for itself.

  2. “The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to [their] ideals.”

    Passion can act as fuel to move in the direction desired. However, there is a necessary level of personal fluency and other essential life skills that will make following your dreams sustainable and manageable. With perseverence, creativity and resilience, you can make the impossible possible!

  3. The late mythographer Joseph Campbell used to advise his students to “follow your bliss”. Today, he would substitute “passion” for “bliss”. Sound advice? Only if you have tenure, which he had as an academic. He had a permanent position, an unbreakable rice bowl. Today, we have to temper passion with perseverance because our tenures in our jobs may be unpredictably short and we always have to keep our career toolkit up-to-date, just as we must keep our interviewing wardrobe available as soon as we get The Call.

    Besides, with enough repetition, even passion becomes habitual, just a job. So find a job that suits your personality reasonably well and provides for your material and social needs, and passion for it may very well grow over time. If you find something that you are good at doing day after day, you will learn to like it, and even become passionate about it.

  4. OMG – that video is hilarious! I agree that “passion” can be taken too far in career development circles. There is more to life than work, and while I am a strong advocate of finding work that aligns with your strengths and doesn’t make you miserable, a career is not meant to not fulfill all your desires – Get a life outside of work, too.

  5. As always, your blog posts are thought-provoking and engaging. The video about passion was quite entertaining as well. As a marketing professional and wordsmith, I must say it underscores the importance of both brand positioning and word choice. Thanks Matt!

  6. Matt – Thank you for speaking the truth about this subject. “Passion or not” is not a simple yes-or-no choice. It’s a matter of putting it in the right place in one’s life and career. Here’s another take, in addition to your sound observations. When I was younger, I would hear someone older (say, 50) say something like “I have discovered that X is important in life. I wish I had known that when I was 30 and paid more attention to it then. So my advice to everyone who is 30 is to pay more attention to X,” where X might be “do what you’re passionate about” or “eat your vegetables” or “spend more time with your children” or “save more money” or whatever. The problem with this advice is that the speaker discovered this at 50 for a reason. What’s important changes at different stages of our live (and careers). Discovering what’s important to you is something that unfolds over a lifetime of experience, not something that can be conjured up at specific moments when we are making career decisions.

  7. A life without passion must be very dull. A life with only career passion must be doubly dull. I say have passion for life and let your career help you achieve those things that define you.

    My observation is that individuals sre programmef to look for a cause that is external to who they are or want to be. Once the cause (career) goes away, they lose a sense of self.

    Find your passion but have career be a component, not its definition.

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