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Why You Shouldn't Follow Your Passion

Alison Green

If you've ever asked anyone for career advice, you've probably heard some version of "follow your passion." Young people, in particular, are often told that they should figure out what career to pursue by building their work around whatever they're passionate about.

The problem is, it's terrible advice. Here's why:

--Most passions don't line up well with paying careers. If you're passionate about poetry or salsa dancing, you're going to find very limited job opportunities for those things. And other people's passions are their friends or their family, or homemaking or dogs, and again, there's not much of a job market built around those things. Those are lovely passions to have, though--and often the best choice is to find a career that supports you enough to pursue those passions outside of work.

--Turning what you love into a career can ruin what you loved about it. You might love to bake, and your friends might regularly swoon over your cakes and tell you to open a bakeshop. But getting up at the crack of dawn every day, baking 100 cakes daily, and dealing with difficult customers and the stress and finances of running your own business might have nothing to do with what you love about baking--and might sap the joy right out of it.

--It leads students to study the wrong thing in college. Too many students pick their major without understanding what jobs it will (and, importantly, won't) qualify them for once they graduate, and are then frustrated when they realize that the major hasn't prepared them for the jobs they really want or are likely to be able to get. (To be clear, if you choose a major strictly for the love of it, with no expectation that it will help you get a job after you graduate, that's one thing. The concern is with students who don't realize how little their major will help them with employment, and who are frustrated after the fact.)

--"Do what you love" is privileged advice that ignores the fact that the majority of the world's population works to get food and housing, not for emotional or spiritual fulfillment. And even among the most socioeconomically privileged piece of the population--the segment that this advice is usually targeted to--it causes an awful lot of angst and even shame over not loving your career when people are telling you that you should.

Now, of course some people are passionate about their work, and that's a wonderful and lucky thing. If you can find a way to turn what you love doing into something that makes you a living, by all means do. But the point is that "do what you love," for most people, isn't a reliable way to find the right career--and can lead to anxiety, job-hopping and dissatisfaction.

What's more, often what makes people happy at work isn't that they're passionate about what they're doing, but rather that they have a sense of accomplishment or impact, or they enjoy the autonomy they're given, or they feel respected or useful. So a better goal than "follow your passion" is probably to do something that you're good at, that brings you a reasonable amount of satisfaction, and that earns you a living. And know that it's fine to save the things you're truly passionate about for outside of work, if that's how it happens to turn out.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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