‘Following your passion’ could be the actual problem

Is following your passion a bad idea?

For better or worse, whenever a calendar year turns from one to the next, we have a tendency to evaluate, reflect, attempt to prioritize, and resolve that X-things will happen in (later year) that didn’t happen in (earlier year). This is good, all told: it’s hard to move forward in life if you never evaluate or prioritize or reflect.

It gets dangerous when people are in professional or personal ruts, and a piece of advice they tend to receive is “follow your passion!” This falls in line with “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life!” I just worked in the travel industry for 17 months, and one of my jobs was helping travel advisors (you may know them as travel agents) do biographies of themselves. I probably heard over 1,000 times from someone that “I’m following my passion!” or “I make my clients’ passions/dreams come true!” Now, going on a sweet vacation to the Seychelles is a little bit different than reporting to your cubicle every Tuesday, so I might be mixing apples and oranges a bit here.

Still, though: is it possible that the problem is actually trying to follow your passion, as opposed to that being a solution?

Is passion a scam?

From a sheer work-passion standpoint, let me start with two concepts I’ve thought about a little bit:

There’s a confusing intersection in trying to understand ’employee engagement’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘passion’ or ‘happiness/contentment at work.’ Namely: organizations (and thus, their senior leaders) tend to care about and focus on different things than regular employees, which is only logical. (Part of having a higher salary is having a different set of responsibilities as relates to the functioning of the company.) Also, lest we forget, every single person is different, so what motivates, drives, or makes us view work as purposeful is always going to be a tad different from one cubicle and office to the next set.

Passion lessons from Jerry Maguire

Let’s build on this ‘senior leader’ vs. ‘rank-and-file’ argument and bring some pop culture into it courtesy of Thought Catalog:

Remember in Jerry Maguire, how he has an epiphany and stays up all night in a passion-fueled frenzy writing his manifesto? What happens? He goes in the next day and gets fucking fired. Why? Because nobody has time for that crap. Not when they are trying to get things done, to make money to pay salaries and grow their business.


That’s the first problem with ‘passion’ to me: you can have passion for something and really go out and get it, and that’s awesome. (Those are some of the best stories.) Those stories, though, are rare. What often happens when you pursue passion — at least in a company — is that you get shut down. Remember:

  • Most ‘passion’ projects involve some form of a new concept/idea
  • In many companies, new ideas are seen as a threat
  • Human brains — including your superiors’ brains — are set up to predict threats
  • This is why, rather than being embraced, Jerry Maguire was canned
  • (The good news is that it worked out OK for him, albeit with one client.)

Fit theory vs. develop theory and passion constructs

Here’s another resource on ‘the fit theory’ (you look for the place that matches your passion) vs. ‘the develop theory’ (you develop into a passion) and what it all means:

Across four studies, the psychologists found that those who think passion can be developed were just as likely to be satisfied with their job in the long run as those who searched for a perfect fit. These findings suggest, Chen and her team note, that people can “achieve similar levels of well-being at work by endorsing either the fit or develop theory.”

So basically, across four studies:

  • There were people searching for a perfect fit.
  • There were people who thought passion could be developed.
  • The two groups were essentially just as satisfied with their jobs.

From the same article, here’s an essential point:

Instead, we should recast our own American concept of passion to include other definitions that embrace a broader sense of what a meaningful life could look like. “Having too few constructs or insufficiently validated ones can create problems, particularly when life is moving quickly and you are trying to make sense of it,” Cambridge University psychologist Brian Little writes in his book Me, Myself and Us. “Your constructs can cage you in.”

This is crucial because a lot of discussions around the ‘passion’ space are an awkward, impossible form of ‘either/or.’ It’s like, “Well, either you’re Elon Musk or you’re a drone cubicle jockey…” Or, “Either you’re the next Steve Jobs or you’re running middle inventory management out of Akron…” Life isn’t nearly that absolute, but we do that all the time in business: “You’re growing or you’re dying!” comes to mind. A lot of this comes back to a central idea that work is supposed to be logical, but is really very much emotional. Emotions involve peoplePeople have lives and ideas and relationships and friendships and passions. It’s hard to box that into “Well, this is meaningful and this, over here, is not.”

Are some people truly passionate about work?

Your job should, ideally, have some kind of purpose to it beyond a check — although companies are not very good at providing that definition. (And, to be honest, you can make a compelling argument that companies don’t need to be good at providing purpose.)

In the process of writing this, I ran through about 100 people I know in my head. I came to exactly 2 — two — that I think are truly passionate about work. If you follow Facebook as a guide, I think that’s flawed; people will often praise how great their employer is around a party or happy hour, but grouse a ton of times offline. Remember: social media is mostly a curated experience. It’s not 100 percent real. I’m basing this on actual dialogues with people. Via that, I hit 2 percent. That seems pretty low — but most of those oft-quoted Gallup employee engagement scores are around 13 percent, and that’s not tremendously higher than 2 percent, in all honesty.

Sometimes I wonder if the whole idea of ‘being passionate about work’ is a total scam, and in reality we’re all means-to-an-end’ers just looking for some connection between our paycheck, the tasks we do, and the broader idea of the place we work. And in reality? Most people’s passions don’t actually align with what ‘the world of work’ wants.

I do think that chasing passion, while noble and often lauded by many others for the assumed risk, seems like a bad play in many ways to me.

What do you think?




Ted Bauer


Reply If You'd Like