'Following Your Passion' Is Not The Answer: How To Enjoy The Best Working Life And Find Your Purpose?

by - March 03, 2022


If you want to create work you love, "follow your passion" might not be useful advice.

Recently, a new aggressive passion hypothesis has been spreading.

It claims that “cubicle jobs” are bad, and that doing what you love requires that you strike out on your own. “Do what you love, and the money will follow” has become the motto of the career-advice field.

However, The 2010 Conference Board survey of U.S. job satisfaction found that only 45 percent of Americans describe themselves as satisfied with their jobs. This number has been decreasing from 61.1 percent recorded in 1987. (1)

We’re following our passion and yet, we didn’t get any happier.

So how do people end up loving what they do?

In this article, you’re going to learn why following your passion isn’t the answer and what to do instead.

Ready? Let’s get started!

Why 'Following Your Passion' Is Not The Answer?

When public radio host Ira Glass was asked how to “figure out what you want” and “know what you’ll be good at.”

Glass answers “In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream. But I don’t believe that. Things happen in stages.”

Glass explains that it takes time to get good at anything to the point that you start having interesting options. “The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come; that’s the hardest phase,” he says.

Al Merrick, the founder of Channel Island Surfboards, tells a similar tale of stumbling into passion over time.

“I didn’t go out with the idea of making a big empire. I set goals for myself at being the best I could be at what[ever] I did.” he tells his interviewers.

Other interviews with successful people promote the same idea that it’s hard to predict what you’ll eventually grow to love.

In fact, compelling careers oftentimes have complex beginnings that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

1. Career Passions Are Rare

In a study conducted by psychologist Robert J. Valler, a group of 539 Canadian university students was given a questionnaire designed to answer two important questions: Do these students have passions? And if so, what are they?

The results revealed that although 84 percent of the students surveyed were identified as having a passion, only 4 percent of these passions had any relation to work or education. The remaining 96 percent presented hobby-style interests such as sports and art. (2)

So how can we follow our passions if we don’t have any relevant passions to follow?

2. Passion Takes Time

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, has been studying how people think about their work.

In her breakthrough paper, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, she explores the distinction between a job (a way to pay the bills), a career (a path toward increasingly better work), and a calling (an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity).

Wrzesniewski, explores in a survey what makes people strongly identify their work with one of these three categories. (3)

She looked at a group of college administrative assistants who all had the same position and nearly identical work responsibilities.

The results revealed that these employees were roughly evenly split between seeing their position as a job, a career, or a calling.

In other words, the type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people enjoy it.

Wrzesniewski also found that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job.

In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.

The results show that “the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.”

In fact, having many years’ experience, means that you’ve had time to get better at what you do and develop strong relationships with your coworkers. You also came to see how your work has been benefiting others.

This contradict the passion hypothesis, which instead promotes the idea that fulfillment comes from matching your job to a true passion.

3. Passion Is a Side Effect of Mastery

The theoretical framework known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), is arguably the best understanding science currently has for why some goals motivate us to pursuit them, while others leave us cold.

SDT explains that motivation, in the workplace or elsewhere, requires that three basic psychological needs are fulfilled to feel intrinsically motivated for your work:

1.  Autonomy: you feel that you have control over your day, and that what you’re doing is important.

2.  Competence: you feel that you are good at what you do.

3.  Relatedness: you feel connected to other people. The closer you feel to people at work, the more you’re going to enjoy your work.

Autonomy and competence are usually related. The better you become at what you do, the more control you have over your responsibilities.

This is why those who have more experience are more likely to enjoy their work and see it as their own calling rather than a job that pays their bills.

And since competence and autonomy can be achieved by most people in a wide variety of fields, then anyone can find the right work for himself as long as he’s willing to put in the hard work required for mastery.

Notice that scientists didn’t include on this list “matching work to pre-existing passions” as being important for motivation.

In other words, “following your passion” won’t necessarily make you happy or help you find your calling.

4. Passion Can Be Dangerous

The passion hypothesis convinces people that there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them somewhere and that if they find it, they’ll find their calling.

This idea can be dangerous when people fail to find the “right” job for them. This can be followed by chronic job-hopping and self-doubt.

Telling someone to “follow their passion” might not be an act of optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career paved with confusion and angst.

The fact that someone successfully followed their passion doesn’t make his strategy universally effective. A large number of examples need to be studied in order to find out what worked in the vast majority of cases.

Craftsman mindset vs. passion mindset

There are two different approaches to thinking about work:

  • the craftsman mindset, which focuses on what value you’re offering to your job,
  • and the passion mindset, which focuses on what value your job offers you.

The Passion Mindset

While most people adopt the passion mindset, it isn’t the foundation for creating work you love.

In fact, when you focus on what the world can offer you, you become hyperaware of what you don’t like about your work. This leads to chronic unhappiness.

The 2010 Conference Board survey of U.S. job satisfaction found that 64 percent of young people say that they’re actively unhappy in their jobs. This is the highest level of dissatisfaction ever measured for any age group over the full two-decade history of the survey.

Those who just started their career are at entry-level positions, which, by definition are not filled with autonomy and challenging responsibilities. These elements come later.

When you enter the working world with the passion mindset, the annoying tasks you’re assigned can become too much to handle.

The question “Do I love this?” won’t likely receive a yes as an answer.

The Craftsman Mindset

The craftsman mindset, focuses on what you can offer the world.

It offers you clarity.

Instead of wondering whether your job is “right” or not, you put your head down and focus on getting really good, regardless of what you do for a living.

 In other words, no one owes you a great career, you need to earn it.

No matter what you feel about your job right now, adopting a true performer mindset is the foundation to a compelling career.

In Outliers, Gladwell pointed out that great accomplishment is not about natural talent, but rather about being in the right place at the right time to accumulate such a massive amount of practice.

Finding your passion comes after you become good at what you’re doing.

How to Enjoy The Best Working Life?

1. Become a Craftsman

When scientists examined the superior performance of experts in any field, they failed to find much evidence of natural abilities explaining experts’ successes.

Outside of a handful of extreme examples, such as the height of professional basketball players, it’s the lifetime accumulation of deliberate practice that explains excellence in any endeavor.

However, deliberate practice is not obvious. Apart from fields that have clear competitive structures and training regimes, such as sports and music, few participate in anything that can develop their skills.

Most people work on increasing their performance for a limited time until they reach as acceptable level. Beyond this point, they fail to get any better.

This generates an exciting implication. If you can figure out how to integrate deliberate practice into your professional life, you can outperform your peers.

To successfully adopt the craftsman mindset, you need to approach your job with a dedication to deliberate practice.

Not only that, but you also need to constantly solicit feedback from colleagues and professionals.

2. Harness The Power of Control

Having control over what you do and how you do it, is one of the most powerful traits you can have when you create work you love.

In fact, numerous studies have identified control as one of the most important traits you can pursue a happier and more meaningful life.

Many companies have realized the importance of giving their employees more control and have embraced a radical new philosophy called Results-Only Work Environment (or, ROWE, for short).

In a ROWE company, the only thing that matters is your results. It doesn’t matter when you show up to work or when you leave or when you take vacations as long as the important things get done.

In short, after acquiring enough career capital through deliberate practice, you need to invest your capital in acquiring control over what you do and how you do it.

In doing so, you need to be aware of these two control traps:

3. Be Aware of Control Traps

The First Control Trap: Pursuing more control before you have enough career capital to offer in exchange.

The Second Control Trap: You have enough career capital but your employer will fight your efforts for more control because you become valuable to the company.

When you acquired enough career capital, pursuing more control and autonomy such as downshifting to a thirty-hour-per-week schedule, has no direct benefit to your employer. It’s lost productivity.

So it’s only normal for your employer to resist your move toward more control.

This is when you’ll be offered more money and prestige to convince you to reinvest your career capital back into their company instead of more control.

Such offers can be hard to resist, and this is where courage comes.

4. Find The Courage to Avoid Sabotaging Your Career

Passion hypothesis promotes courage as the only thing standing between you and your dream job.

And even though we’ve argued that this culture doesn’t lead to creating work you love, courage is not completely irrelevant to create work you love.

In light of the second control trap, courage becomes essential to ignore the resistance you face when pursuing more control.

The key is to know when the time is right to become courageous and take the right career decision. If you get the timing right, you’ll enjoy a fantastic working life.

But if you get this timing wrong, you’ll fall into the first control trap (Pursuing more control before you have enough career capital to offer in exchange).

5. Use The Power of Mission

Mission gives you an answer to the question, “What should I do with my life?”

They focus your energy toward a useful goal and maximize your impact. All of this leads to creating the work you love.

So how do you make mission a reality in your working life?

Without relevant career capital, missions aren’t likely to be sustainable.

Only when you get to the cutting edge of your field, that your mission becomes visible to you. This is a task that may take years.

In fact, if life-transforming missions could be found before any hard work is done, changing the world would be commonplace. But it’s not commonplace; it’s quite rare.

In short, if you want a mission, you need to first acquire capital. If you skip this step, you might end up with lots of enthusiasm but very little to show for it.

When Do You Need To Quit Your Job?

Certain jobs are better suited to become your passion than others.

In fact, there are three traits that disqualify a job as providing a good foundation for building work you love:

1.   Your job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself and develop valuable skills.

2.   Your job focuses on something you think is useless or bad for the world.

3.   Your job forces you to work with people you really dislike.

When your job satisfies one of these traits, it becomes hard for you to build a work you love.

If the first trait is satisfied, growth won’t be possible.

If the second two traits are satisfied, even if your job allows to grow, you’ll find it hard to stick around long enough to build a work you love.

Your turn…
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Portions of this article were adapted from the book So Good They Can't Ignore You, © 2012 by Cal Newport. All rights reserved.

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