“Find your passion.” The phrase conjures up some mixed feelings. On one hand, we imagine Future Me living our best life, one where we’re smiling at work and making real and important change happen. There’s a glossy filter on this fantasy. And on the other hand, we feel a small bubble of panic rise from our stomachs; I haven’t found my passion yet—was is wrong with me? Or I thought I found my passion, but it turns out that wasn’t it either. Or I thought I was happy at my job, but so many of my friends are talking about being passionate about their work, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m a robot.
“Find your passion” is bad advice. There, I said it. While those who say it are well-intentioned and are trying to spark change and happiness in themselves and others, the ideas behind it do more damage than we realize. Here’s why.
Perceptions and Expectations
Many think that finding a job we’re passionate about is the tough part, and once we have it, it’ll be easy. But finding something worthwhile to do is just the beginning. It’s not unlike marriage; we think dating and finding someone is the hard work, and once we’re married, everything will be easy. But anyone who is married knows that marriage takes just as much, if not more, hard work.
The main problem with depending on being passionate at our job boils down to our perception and expectations.
We confuse passion with motivation. When we think of a job we’re passionate about, we don’t picture the bad days or the tasks that will drain us more than energize us. And we think that if we’re not passionate about what we do, either the fault lies in (1) the task or (2) our doing it wrong.
Neither of those is true. And both of those perceptions cause us to drop whatever we’re doing and lose interest when the going gets tough. But just because we struggle doesn’t mean we can’t be fulfilled by it.
To find a career that is a good fit (notice I’m not using “passion”), we have to manage our expectations first. Lose the starry-eyed image of our happy life and contemplate and accept the reality of our job. Forget Instagram and social media posts. Inevitably, we will feel unmotivated, stuck, buried under paperwork, frustrated, and all the other negative emotions that come with being human. No job is perfect. Chasing perfection is a fool’s errand. Every job will suck at some point. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a good fit for you or that you’re doing it wrong.
What to Do Instead
I’m going to say something that’s not very popular these days: What if you don’t love what you do? What if you work to get a paycheck? And then you go home and do what you love, whether that’s being a good father or planting tomatoes or writing a blog about movie reviews? That’s what it used to be like before the happiness craze. A sense of self was not attached to your job title.
Sure, find a work environment (peers, managers, location, etc.) and job responsibilities that work with your engagement and energy levels. Make sure you’re not miserable but content at work. But maybe don’t strive for what we imagine to be the complete package. Because that doesn’t really exist (despite all the #blessed in our feeds).
In addition, we as humans like what we’re good at. So instead of chasing this vague and fleeting idea of passion, work on something tangible: your skills. Become better at whatever job you have or want to have. Focus on the present, focus on growth, and fulfillment will grow (again, not using “passion”).
“Find your passion” is limiting because it suggests that you have just one calling and you better find it or else you’ll be miserable. Nope. We have a handful of potential realities that will each fit us wonderfully. There’s no one right future.
We think our emotions are legitimate, but they’re more a sign that something needs to change. It might be a job title or company, it might not. The change we need might be inside ourselves, at least at first. Maybe a job change follows.
Happiness, fulfillment, peace—these don’t come from the external. Peace is not good weather but the ability to handle all kinds of weather, including both good and bad, and come out all right.
I saved the topic of finding passion for last because by now you might see how dangerous “finding your passion” can be as a guidance for job searches and career changes.
So how do we go about finding something to spend a third of our day doing?
A lot of us think about what we want to do. This could look like making pro-con lists, taking online personality tests, or literally sitting and thinking over a cup of coffee for the fifth day in a row.
But thinking gets us only so far. We’re creatures of action; we need to get our hands dirty. In Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s book, Designing Your Life, these Stanford designers explain the importance and process of prototyping your life, in which you spend some time visualizing and then trying out new directions. Ask to get coffee with someone who has a job or works at a company you think you might like and ask them all your questions. Ask to shadow a job or take a class. Volunteer.
Most importantly, curiosity, openness, and excitement are key to finding a job or place that you will thrive in. Children have all three of these in abundance. That’s why children are so good at trying new things; around middle school, we start to compare our skills to others, and we lose that sense of curiosity. By focusing on bringing that back, we open so many more doors.
And with more doors open to us, and with our perceptions and expectations in check, we’ll find a good place to go next.