In Praise of Passion

In Praise of Passion

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If you’re one of the millions of people currently searching for a job, or considering changing jobs, or simply interested in optimizing your career over the long-term, no doubt you’ve seen the counterintuitive and intriguing “Why Following Your Passion is Bad Advice” headline that’s been circulating on the internet and social media recently. While I admit that it’s a catchy headline, it also happens to be terrifically bad advice for a few important reasons that I’ll highlight and explore in this article.

Anti-Passion Argument #1: A Lack of Research

It’s hard to imagine that someone would look back on a long and illustrious career—but one without passion—and judge it as truly fulfilling. 

Proponents of the anti-passion crusade argue that there’s a dearth of research connecting passion with job satisfaction and other important career outcomes. True, there is not a load of research on this topic (probably because this is really difficult to study scientifically); however, preliminary research in this area points to passion as an important determinant of, at the very least, achievement and success.

Look—I’m not saying that as a scientific matter this argument is settled, but it’s worth noting that the research here is vague and underdeveloped, which certainly doesn’t rule out a potential link between passion and career satisfaction or success.

Science aside, on a gut level, it’s also hard to imagine that someone would look back on a long and illustrious career—but one without passion—and judge it as truly fulfilling. In fact, in his most recent book, Flourish, psychologist Martin Seligman suggests that to live a fulfilling life, you need to experience: positive emotions, engagement (as in: losing yourself in a task), positive relationships, meaning (as in: a sense of purpose beyond yourself), and achievement/accomplishment—kind of hard to imagine feeling super engaged or purposeful (among other items on this list…) if you’re doing something that you’re not truly passionate about. The point is that passion matters if you want to live a fulfilling life.

Anti-Passion Argument #2: Passion Develops Over Time

It’s also normal and appropriate to test out different career options—contrary to the popular myth of high performers, not everyone hops on the exact right path with their first job. 

Anti-passion crusaders point out that people develop passion over time in a profession or field, perhaps as they hone a valuable skill and leverage it in order to increase their job and career autonomy. (Researchers have identified autonomy as a key factor in healthy psychological development and wellbeing.)

True, passion may develop over time, but I’m willing to bet that it develops a lot faster for those who choose jobs that they are at least interested in, rather than merely good at. For instance, let’s say you’re pretty decent at both financial modeling and creative writing, but you also have an interest in (or passion about) financial modeling. Let’s also assume that you have sufficient skills in each of these areas to make a career out of them—given this, in which of these professions are you more likely to give your best effort and really hone your skills?

The point is this—skills are important (even essential!), and developing the right skills can be critical to making yourself valuable and increasing your autonomy and, thus, job satisfaction; however, I’m arguing that skills + passion is an even more powerful driver of career achievement and satisfaction, and it’s worth experimenting a bit with different types of roles and jobs until you find one that you think at least has the potential to develop into a passion.

It’s also normal and appropriate to test out different career options—contrary to the popular myth of high performers, not everyone hops on the exact right path with their first job, and some of the most interesting and successful people I know are people who weren’t afraid to take the leap from a safe, but ultimately boring, career into something that they were passionate about.

Don’t believe me? Just look around at your circle of friends right now—how many of them are in jobs that they’re at least pretty good at, but absolutely hate (or are bored with). This is what happens when people simply do what they’re good at, instead of also considering what they’re passionate about.

To be sure, if you find yourself job-hopping on a regular basis because you’re not enjoying every moment of every day at your job (something that’s not guaranteed even when you’re doing what you’re passionate about), then the problem may have more to do with your level of commitment and perseverance—not passion; however, it’s worth at least considering what your passionate about since this will make the difficult days of work more easy to endure.

Anti-Passion Argument #3: Passion = Poverty

In the end, you have to determine how much “passion” is worth to you in light of your long term goals.

Finally, there’s a small but vocal faction of the anti-passion crusaders who argue that you’ll end up living a life of poverty if you follow your passion; sure you may have a passion for art or social justice, but those are no way to make a living. This argument is weak for two reasons. First, it assumes that living well means making a ton of money and research shows that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Second, it assumes that you can’t do okay financially while working in certain professions, which also isn’t true. For instance, if you want to be a fiction writer, you may start off making less, but just like any other job, as you hone you’re skills, you become more valuable and can make more money doing it. In the interim, you can also take on other jobs that support yourself financially, which may be worth it to you if you are really and truly passionate about your writing—or you may decide that it’s not worth it, and that’s fine too—in the end, you have to determine how much “passion” is worth to you in light of your long term goals, but to some of us, it’s worth more than money, especially if we can live comfortably and do what we’re passionate about.

As for the nonprofit salary argument: yes, while you’re more likely to make a million dollars a year as corporate CEO, many nonprofit workers make enough or more than enough to live on (even six-figures where I live in), and what they give up in take-home pay, they often more than make up for in job satisfaction and a sense of purpose—which demonstrates once again that passion can play an important role in long-term career satisfaction.

A Pro-Passion Approach

Be brave!

So if ignoring passion is actually the bad advice, what should you do with your life? Here’s my recommendation based on my work with highly successful, fulfilled, and impactful people, as well as my own experience, and a healthy dose of common sense:

Explore your passions…wherever they may lead. Don’t worry too much about failure and messing up. These are normal parts of the learning process and will help you get where you’re going in the long run. Moreover, don’t be afraid if your interests and passions change and shift over time. This, too, happens as you learn and grow. And, yes, while you’re out in the world exploring what excites you, take advantage of (and create!) opportunities to develop some real world skills, both technical and interpersonal. The best careers are often found when people marry their passions with their skills, but if you’re passionate, the skills are more likely to come than if you’re skilled and waiting for passion to arrive. Just ask any of the numerous soulless corpses who live in a perpetual state of quiet desperation because they’ve wasted significant portions of their lives following “the rules” and living as cautiously as possible. So instead of blindly following in their stead because parental, professional, or social pressure, be brave! While you’re at it, be a good person, be kind, be friendly, build relationships, take some chances, see what happens, crash-and-burn a few times, and get back up as many times as it takes to find that thing that you love doing so much, you’d willingly do it for free every day for the rest of your life.

If you follow this advice, at the very least your life will be infinitely more interesting than those people who spend most of their lives thinking they’ve mastered the “game” only to wake up one day and realize they’ve been played. It’s called “life,” and to fully experience it, you actually have to live it—passionately, even.

 

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Danielle Harlan is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential (www.leadershipandhumanpotential.com) and author of the leadership book, The New Alpha (amzn.to/29C0V6j). She earned her doctorate in political science and M.A. in education from Stanford University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits National Fellow and received a Centennial Teaching Award for excellence in instruction. Prior to launching the Center, she was the Chief of Operations for the Carnegie Foundation, where she worked to harness the power of networks and quality improvement strategies in order to solve important educational problems. Named one of Silicon Valley's "40 Under 40," Danielle has also been a speaker for TEDx and worked as an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and U.C. Berkeley Extension's Corporate and Professional Development Program. In addition, she has given guest lectures at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the “d.school”) and the Career Development Center at Stanford, and has been featured in leading publications such as Fast Company, Forbes, and Women's Health. Danielle started her career as a Teach For America corps member and later served as a mentor and advisor for Global Leadership Adventures, an international leadership development and service program. In addition to teaching in the U.S., she has taught in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, and South Africa. She is a member of the International Leadership Association, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, and the National Association for Female Executives.

  • April 10, 2015

    Nice thoughts, Danielle! Great post!

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