The Problems with Following Your Passion

Summary: 
Most people want a career that is fulfilling and that they're passionate about.
The common advice to get such a career is to "follow your passion". But this advice is problematic because it presupposes the existence of some inherent passion, which isn't always available to everyone.
For people not strongly pulled towards any activity, "develop your passion" might be much better advice.

At a young and impressionable age, I was often told that there are two types of people in the world - those who truly love what they do and those who don't. These words were spoken in such a way that split the professional world into two. On one side is a lush island full of winners nourishing themselves with fruitful and exotic endeavors. On the other side is a barren island of losers munching on mundanity.

Since then, I've been hooked on a cocktail of mantras that push in the direction of the lush island.

I know, it's damn delicious isn't it? It's a hearty diet of don't worry about talent, don't bow to status or money, just go and find what's meaningful and interesting to you. Mmm mmm. But lately, I'm starting to notice its bitter aftertaste.

If you are a working-age individual living a materially satisfactory life in a first-world country, you've probably spent a non-negligible amount of time thinking about how to find a career that is both fulfilling and that you are passionate about. With material comfort rising, and hopefully continuing to rise, we expect more and more from our work. We want in our work what we want in relationships: passion, love, value. And we want from our work what we want from community: belonging, purpose, kinship. Fewer and fewer of us are willing to settle for a career that we don't like or are lukewarm about when there’s a possibility that something better is out there. The mere idea, not the existence, of the lush island is enough to get us looking for that darn boat.  

This article is dedicated to those who haven’t figured out what their thing is. To those of you who are already on the lush island: heck yeah, I'm jealous! I hope it really is greener there. To those of you who know where the lush island is and is on the way there: good luck. I hope you keep paddling to get there. To those of you who think you're on the barren island: hang in there. Maybe you hate your job. Maybe you're okay about your job, but you don't love it. Reading this won't get you across to the lush island. But I hope, at its best, it offers you the tools to start planting on your island so that it may one day also become lush. And I hope, at its least, it’s a reassurance that there are many other people with you on the barren island. It may not be green (yet), but it’s not deserted.

What is passion?

What is passion anyway? It’s a strong inclination towards an activity that consists of at least three components. First, a cognitive component: you value that activity. Second, an emotional component: your like or even love that activity. Third, an engagement component: you actually spend time and energy on it. Some would also throw in a fourth component, the autonomy component: you must do all those things above for autonomous reasons, not because of external contingencies attached to that activity (e.g. social acceptance or self-esteem).

There’s wide consensus that passion matters. And that consensus appears well-founded: passionate people experience more flow states than those less passionate; passionate people tend to train longer and harder; passionate people are more likely to perform better; having a passion that aligns well with other areas of your life also heightens levels of well-being. Given this, it makes sense that we want jobs and careers that we’re passionate about.

Follow-your-passion Hypothesis

There are broadly two schools of thought on how to get a career that you are passionate about. The first school, the follow-your-passion school, holds that the key to finding a fulfilling career is to match your job with some pre-existing passion.

The mentality of this school is entrenched in our culture. It comes in the form of that delicious cocktail of “follow your passion”, “chase your dreams”, “do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life”. But there’s a reason why it has a bitter aftertaste.

One, passion is rare. Few people are born with an existing passion. As Cal Newport writes about in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, Steve Jobs wasn’t “passionate” about technology and design since day one. He was a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment when he stumbled into his big break by noticing that he could assemble model-kit computers.

Two, the belief that passions are inherent implies that there are few reasons to explore areas that you are mildly interested in but don’t have a full-fledged passion for. This mindset seems to be quite common – look at the start of this trailer to director Martin Scorcese’s Masterclass on Filmmaking. He “invites” students to the class by saying:

“If you’re intrigued by moviemaking as a career, this isn’t a class for you. If you need to make movies, if you feel like you can’t rest until you tell this story that you’re burning to tell, then I can be speaking to you.”

No, I didn’t think it was very inviting either. Chances are that most amateur filmmakers watching that trailer don’t have that burning story to tell yet. They’re taking the class to learn how to find that burning story.

Three, the idea that passion is inherent might lead us to falsely believe that passionate people should be constantly motivated and inspired. It suggests that if we’re passionate about that activity, it should come easily with minimal difficulty or frustration. But as passionate as Michael Phelps is about swimming, I find it hard to imagine a world in which training 6 hours per day 6 days a week is easy all the time.

Develop-your-passion Hypothesis

As sweet as the follow-your-passion cocktail tastes, it’s clear that it’s problematic. Does the develop-your-passion school do any better? This school holds that passion for an activity follows a dynamic movement over time and grows as you spend more time on it. Finding a fulfilling career is a matter of investing time and energy into a field and by mastering rare and valuable career-specific skills.

Notice that this develop-your-passion belief doesn’t face the three problems that the follow-your-passion belief faces:

One, even if inherent passion is rare, developed passions need not be. Those of us not lucky enough to be born with an inherent passion still have hope to build our passions, perhaps out of more mild interests which are more common.

Two, if passions can be developed, then having some interest in a topic is good enough reason to explore it further. Sometimes just a little tickle of an interest is enough to launch you into something bigger. So maybe I will take your class Mr. Scorcese, thank you very much.

Three, the belief that interests are not fully formed but developed suggests that things don’t always come easily, even when you like doing that activity. Our passion won’t provide a constant source of motivation. We should expect to get frustrated. We need to work to fuel our passion, not just rely on passion to fuel our work.

In the past decade, psychologists have found evidence consistent with the develop-your-passion hypothesis. In one particular study, a group of Canadian psychologists tracked over a hundred junior high school students with no prior experience of playing a musical instrument as they took courses in music over a semester (Mageau et al. 2009). The researchers wanted to predict who would develop a passion for music.

What do they find five months later? Children who identify with the activity are more likely to be passionate about it – they see themselves not just as people who like music, but as “musicians”.  Children who spend more time playing music tend to be more passionate about it. Children whose parents support their decision to invest time in playing were more passionate. Children who valued the music classes were more passionate about it. All this suggests that under the right conditions, passions can be developed.  

But there’s a catch. The key problem with these studies is that we still don't know which direction the arrows run. Does passion make you practise more? Or does practising more make you passionate? Unfortunately, the researchers don’t measure how passion changes throughout the 5 months; they only measure it at the end. Maybe some of the children who were so-called “passionate” by the end of the 5 months were inherently passionate all along and that inherent passion is what made them practise more in the first place.

To figure out which direction the arrows run, one really needs a type of study that measures the same individual’s passion over time. Most researchers just don’t have the time or money to follow study participants from when they expressed a fledgling interest in childhood to when they become experts in adulthood.

Who is right?

Should you follow your passions, or should you try to develop them? I don’t think these two schools are in conflict with one another. It’s a matter of what advice to give to whom.

Follow your passion is not bad advice. It’s wonderful encouragement for those who have an inherent passion and can see some economically viable way of matching their career with that passion.

But follow your passion can’t be good advice for everyone, since it presupposes the existence of a passion. And that presupposition is unlikely to be true for everyone. In these cases, follow your passion might even be misleading advice because it hides the possibility that passions can be developed from mild interests which are much more accessible to most individuals.

Hang on, but no study has proved definitively that passions can be developed! True, but the power of develop your passion doesn’t lie in the data, it lies in your belief that that’s what the data would say if it could be collected. Believing that passion isn’t some fixed personality trait you’re born with, but a special relationship you develop with a specific activity is all you need to start planting on your island. Getting that boat ride to follow your passion isn’t the only way to that green island. We can grow, cultivate, and develop our very own lush islands.

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References

Newport, C. (2016). So good they can't ignore you. Hachette UK.
Mageau, G. A., Vallerand, R. J., Charest, J., Salvy, S. J., Lacaille, N., Bouffard, T., & Koestner, R. (2009). On the development of harmonious and obsessive passion: The role of autonomy support, activity specialization, and identification with the activity. Journal of personality, 77(3), 601-646.
Vallerand, R. J. (2008). On the psychology of passion: In search of what makes people's lives most worth living. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(1), 1.