Why “Find Your Passion” Isn’t The Career Advice You Really Need To Hear

Embarking on the path toward a sustainable and fulfilling career requires an open mind and a full examination of your current and potential strengths. According to science, passion’s optional.

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There are a number of popular quotes floating around about finding the perfect career. For example, one says, “It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together,” and another states, “You’ll never work a day in your life if you’re doing something you love.” The philosophy behind these quotes is wholly ingrained in our society. From early adolescence and deep into adulthood, many people earnestly scribble these sorts of sayings into their journals or recite them as mantras while thinking about and pursuing their professional goals. To be fair, spending time figuring out what you love to do and then actually doing it sounds idyllic. However, researchers are urging people to press pause on this approach before ramming full speed toward a “passionate career”—and slamming into a wall of disappointment.

Surprising New Research Says…

A 2018 study conducted jointly by Stanford and Yale-NUS College in Singapore challenged the well-meaning advice of “find your passion” through a study that included 126 undergraduate university students. Paul O’Keefe, co-author of the study, said researchers focused on this demographic because undergrads are “at a time in their life when they’re being bombarded with the idea that you have to go out and find your passion.” Over the course of five different experiments conducted with the same sample participants, researchers examined each of the students’ “implicit theories of interest” and how those interests might affect their career pursuits. The study results were surprising, but they also make a lot of sense. Researchers point out that the notion of channeling all your energy toward finding “a passion” assumes we all have a passion to find in the first place. This can be exhausting and discouraging if you never actually “find” said passion. Furthermore, they argue that seeking out a career that is directly related to your passion is akin to putting on blinders that prevent you from pursuing a range of interests. In doing so, you might miss out on finding a career that you’re either A) really good at or B) could enjoy equally (if not more so) than to your “passion.”

Finding the Path Toward a Meaningful, Fulfilling Career

It’s important to note that the study’s conclusion wasn’t that you should do something that you hate or are dispassionate about. Rather, it argues that you shouldn’t get caught up in “finding a passion” that might not exist or forcing a passion that may not yield a viable career. It also stresses the importance of not limiting yourself as you explore potential career paths. Barbara Cox, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in executive stress and professional burnout says this resonates with her:

I do see some clients who already know what their passion is but are afraid to go for it out of underlying fear. However, a large majority of people need to explore many options to discover what they excel at. They may even be surprised to find out they enjoy things that they may not have tried if they only did things they were used to doing.

In that sense, she reiterates how crucial it is to be open to new experiences before charging down one specific path. She also says that the journey toward finding a meaningful career varies depending on the person. “One of the best ways [to test different career paths] nowadays is to complete a variety of internships both in high school and college. This allows you to try on different experiences and to weed out what you don’t like early on rather than [having to] figure it out when you have a midlife crisis,” she explains. Donna Lorraine Schilder, a career coach with the International Coach Federation, has over 20 years of experience helping executives and entrepreneurs determine what they should be doing with their lives and in their professions. She says that while some people may not have a true passion, she believes that most people can ultimately identify a career that they’re excited about and that aligns with their personality, strengths, and desired lifestyle. In addition to exploring a variety of paths, she also stresses the importance of determining what your strengths are. “Martin Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, put forth his research that showed that if people use their ‘Values in Action’ in their work, they feel more fulfilled and therefore happier,” says Schilder. “So, if a coaching client comes to us seeking meaningful work, we are sure to include the VIA Strengths Inventory [developed by Seligman] in their career exploration actions. Then, we put all of the possible careers into a matrix and help the client rate each one to determine which possibilities match them the most closely.” Services like this offer another way for people to expand their horizons and explore their interests and strengths. This may be more realistic for someone who’s already out of the high school or college age range. Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge that “non-glamorous” jobs are vital to our communities. These run the gamut, but examples include plumbing, janitorial work, and highly demanding and stressful technical and medical work. While many people are turned off by such career paths, that’s not necessarily the case for everyone, says Schilder. She says that many people actually do feel rewarded and fulfilled by jobs that aren’t considered glamorous by society at large. Also, the personal fulfillment factor may be outweighed by other (arguably equally important) factors, such as connecting with other people (e.g. medical and maintenance work) or high pay (e.g. plumbing and tech).  

Waning happiness at work? Try this.

We’re not here to blow sunshine up anyone’s skirt. Work is hard, and even if you’re incredibly passionate about your field, you can still experience bouts of frustration, burnout, or general unhappiness. If your situation begins to feel unbearable, try utilizing the following expert advice:

Grab coffee with your co-workers.

“If you’re struggling to find joy in your current line of work, ask a co-worker who loves the work what they enjoy about it and model that,” advises Cox. Doing this offers you a fresh perspective and can reignite the passion that led you to accept the job offer to begin with.

Make some lists.

Schilder says you should try writing down the things you like doing in your job as well as the things you don’t. “Come up with ways you could do more of what brings you joy, and ways to do less of what you don’t like doing. Delegate with permission from your boss, automate mundane tasks, find someone that likes doing what you don’t like to do and see if they can take on some of the work,” she says.

Address issues with your boss.

On that note, communicate with your boss about issues you feel can be addressed and improved over time. “If it’s appropriate and your boss would be open to it, talk about how your job could be redesigned to give you more of what you like and less of what you don’t like,” says Schilder. Remember, you’re a valuable asset to your employer and your happiness is vital to their success. Also, a problem cannot be resolved if nobody knows there’s an issue in the first place.

Practice gratefulness.

Another good list to make, says Schilder, is one that includes all the things you love about your job. Read it over every morning before work.

Take a vacation.

Burnout is completely normal and is something that even the most dedicated and passionate employees experience. In fact, those who are hyper-invested in their careers run a particular risk of burnout since they may be less likely to step away from the office. Interestingly, a 2017 study found that people who don’t use their vacation time are less likely to receive a promotion, raise, or bonus compared to those who did take their earned PTO. Stepping away allows you to regenerate and reconnect with yourself, thereby improving your creativity, energy levels, and general gusto.

Invest in a hobby.

“If your 9 to 5 job doesn’t hold any passion for you, I would suggest you find volunteer work or a hobby that does hold some passion for you so that you feel a sense of gratification in your life,” says Cox. This can also apply if you’re experiencing burnout or are feeling stuck in your career. In the same way taking a vacation can help you recharge, so can spending time on a hobby. Consider signing up for a painting class, starting an at-home project, throwing yourself into a fitness routine, joining a chorus, or signing up for a weekly trivia night.

Consult with an expert.

Cox says that if you’re truly miserable in your job, it’s time to consult a pro. “I suggest going to a career coach and discussing what brings you happiness and get some concrete ways to implement a plan,” she says. As is the case with most things, finding a fulfilling career is not a “one size fits all” mold. Our goal isn’t to espouse one thing or another, but rather to encourage you to think critically about your approach to finding a fulfilling and sustainable career.