Why “Find your Passion” is Awful Career Advice

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If you haven’t been living under a rock, it’s highly likely that you’ve come across one of the most overused pieces of advice out there. I’m talking, of course, about the “Find your passion” trope. Found in practically everything from valedictorian speeches and TED Talks to self-help books and inspirational images in social media.

On the surface, it seems like a good suggestion, especially when using it as career advice. Who wouldn’t want to work in a job they love? Following a career in a field you’re passionate about should guarantee that and open up the gates to your dream life. Except it totally doesn’t. Not because landing a job on a field you love is hard enough but because the whole concept of finding a true passion is wrong.

Fixed and growth mindsets

[image of a plant growing from concrete]

I’m not saying that “Finding your passion” is garbage advice out of pure spite of the fabricated good-feel aura that impregnates this cliché. Quite the contrary. There’s a recent study made by Stanford researchers that supports the idea that the advice is fundamentally flawed. In it, the authors discuss that the advice assumes that there’s one fixed passion for everyone waiting to be discovered.

What could be wrong about that? Mainly that the saying is totally unrealistic. Supposing that there’s only one thing that you are passionate about is ridiculous once you think about it. Sure, you might be more interested in music, traveling, cars, or space than in any other thing on the planet. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have other interests or passions.

There’s the idea that there’s one true big passion buried out there, waiting for you to find it. So, you should definitely spend your time searching for it and not settle for anything else. Want to be the next Stephen King? Go ahead. Do you know that developing software in an offshore company is what you want to do? By all means, go for it, the world is your oyster. Unfortunately, as romantically heroic as that may sound, they get things wrong. 

There are people that are passionate about more than one thing. There are people that aren’t truly passionate about anything. There are others that grow to love certain things that didn’t move them at first. Are they all mistaken? 

It all has to do with what Carol Dweck proposed through her studies on the implicit theories of intelligence. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck explains that individuals can be divided into 2 groups according to their views on where their abilities come from. One group believes that there are innate traits (a.k.a. You are born with them). The other thinks that success is something that can be developed. 

The first group has what Dweck defined as a fixed mindset, contrary to the growth mindset of the second group. Contemplating those definitions, the “find your passion” trope assumes that there’s a fixed passion for everyone, which would throw us all into the first group. Yet, many of us have found that we start to like things as we get to know them better. In fact, a lot of people would argue that passions can be developed and evolve over time. 

In that context, saying to someone that they should “find their passion” and never rest before they do negates the possibility of that fluid passion that anyone can build. That, in the long run, can have negative effects on people that can’t seem to find that passion. And if the saying is given as career advice, it’s a recipe for professional frustration.

Dropping the basket

[sign that says passion led us here]

The Stanford researchers give a clear example of why using “Find your passion” as a professional mantra can end up in disaster. They say that “urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”

In other words, the advice can put emotional stress on you that can eventually lead to challenges that might become too hard to overcome. By putting emotion above everything else, we choose to sideline other considerations that are part common sense and part reason, namely:

A satisfying career implies a proactive attitude

It’s probably that you have read stories about startup founders that found their passion almost by accident, decided to bet on it, and got successful overnight. They are some of the most likely culprits of why the saying keeps going around. They say to us “your passion exists, you only have to keep your eyes open for when it presents to you.” Unfortunately, the message they are giving us is that a satisfying job will fall into our laps almost by chance. That’s not remotely true. A rewarding professional career implies you have to get out, interest yourself in a field, and keep working towards that success.

All jobs will have their hard times

When recent graduates hear the “Find your passion” motto, they think of a job in which every workday is sort of like a vacation. In their minds, everything goes according to plan, they are constantly relaxed and loving every minute of it. Basically, the “find your passion” is often complemented with another superficial adage – “find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” As anyone that has worked for some time would tell you, this is an absolute lie. Even if you land your dream job, you’ll end up hating something about it. It may be a particular day, a minor related activity, or an unforeseen consequence. Unfortunately, the people hiding behind the “Find your passion” mantra often try to dismiss this.

You don’t have to necessarily work in a field you’re passionate about

The saying is so simplistic that it tries to linearly connect a passion with work. So, if you like music, you’d better become a (paid) musician or at least a music critic. If you like space, start learning math or otherwise you won’t be an aerospace engineer, and so on. However, you’re not obliged to go that route. You can work a job that pays the bills and which you can enjoy in some sense and still have your passion on the side as a hobby. Feeling forced to work in something you love might suck the enjoyment out of it, so you don’t necessarily have to build a career around something you love.

You can’t ignore the market

This is probably the harshest truth about this list. No one likes to hear that you won’t make a living out of something you love. However, chances are that’s the case for a lot of us and our passions. Even when you love something and you truly have a talent for it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to work in something related to it. The market has its own demands, so it’s likely you’ll end up in a job to pay bills rather than the one you’ve always dreamed of.I’m not saying you shouldn’t pursue your dream – the warning is there for anyone following it mindlessly, as often times the “Find your passion” defenders seem to encourage us to do.

Develop passion, don’t search for it

[a skyscraper being built]

What to look for if you can’t take the “Find your passion” advice at face value? According to the Stanford researchers, start adopting a growth mindset. In other words, start accepting that interests aren’t inherent to you but are developed socially and contextually. By embracing that mindset, you’ll be able to evolve in your interests, making them grow.

Basically, the growth mindset is based on the idea that passion can be developed through effort and persistence. This would lead to you being more curious and with the potential to find interesting aspects of almost everything around you. That could prove very beneficial for your professional career, especially in a globalized world where more and more jobs are requiring interdisciplinary approaches and more qualified candidates.

By using a growth mindset, you’d be open to finding the good things about the jobs the economy forced you to take. You’d be more alert to the positive aspects of a job that you just thought was temporary but ended up being more a career. You’d even be more happy with your life as a whole since you’d know that you could still develop interests and passions alongside your job.

A couple of things before I finish. First, it’s important for you to know that “Find your passion” might end up being true for you. Maybe you realize you’re passionate about engineering and you go on to create flying cars. If that’s the case, then great! Yet, we can’t expect everyone to find their passion and build a career upon it. It’s unrealistic, it’s somewhat limiting, and it puts certain stress on people trying to find their way in their professional lives.

Finally, you (me and everyone else) should start considering what lies behind the tropes we repeat as mantras. Absent-mindedly saying them over and over won’t make them necessarily true but might make us feel like they are. So, if you are to adopt a growth mindset, also consider developing a critical mindset as well. There are no recipes you can follow to build a good career but there’s plenty of awful advice out there that can lead you to a frustrating one.

The views expressed by PulseBlueprint’s contributors may not align with PulseBlueprint’s own views or the views of any of the PulseBlueprint team. Want to become a contributor? Apply here.