When Did Passion Become Mandatory?

The Case for Separation of Work & Love

“Choose a job you love,” advised Confucius, “and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Oh, Confucius — your inspirational words are perfect fodder for office cubicle decor; perfect mantra for the self-improvement obsessed.

And while it’s easy to find oneself agreeing with Confucius’s wisdom — after all, who doesn’t want a job they love? — I think it’s important that we understand where this Confucius guy was coming from when he said those words some 2,000+ years ago. (Assuming he even said them at all.)

Here’s the abridged version:

  • Confucius was born into the shi class, a quasi-aristocratic, scholarly social class who were known for their study of ethics and philosophy. (Well-played, Confucius.)
  • Confucius believed that the duty of people in subordinate positions was to be unquestioningly loyal to people in superior positions. (Yes, this is according to the guy born into one of those superior positions.)
  • The adoption of Confucian thought — with its emphasis on loyalty to superiors — is one of the reasons why China is able to achieve labor at a lesser cost in comparison to other countries/cultures. (Source)

All this to say: I don’t think Confucius is the best guy to listen to for career advice.

Image credit: Rob Web, Flickr

That oft-quoted phrase — Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life — is a bit misleading when you put it in the context of Confucian philosophy.

It should more accurately read:

Choose a job (appropriate for your social class) you love (and you will love it; that’s an order) and you will never have to work a day in your life. (Because we’re going to pretend that it’s not work. Cool? Also: since we know you’re too loyal to quit or complain, we’ll be cutting your wages …)

Nine out of Ten Ancient Philosophers Agree: Let the Peasants Do All the Work

Turns out that Ancient Greek philosophers held some similar views as their Ancient Chinese counterparts when it came to issues of work and social class.

As Aristotle saw it, “the hard, troublesome work of transforming raw material for the satisfaction of our needs” should be reserved for a peasant majority, so that “the minority, the elite, might engage in pure exercise of the mind — art, philosophy, politics.” (Source: Work: What It Has Meant to Men Through the Ages by Adriano Tilgher, 1931)

It’s important to note that Aristotle admitted something here that the Chinese philosophers never did: that some jobs are inherently shitty.

Detail from Labor, by Charles Sprague Pearce, 1896 (modified)

For the Greeks, manual labor and other “lower” forms of work were thought of as necessary evils — stuff that had to be done so that an elite class of smart people could sit around and talk and paint and philosophize.

And eat olives, I’m guessing.

Fancy olives.

So unless your day job was, indeed, one of those pure exercises of the mind, having passion for your work probably wasn’t too common in Ancient Greece.

And I’d argue that the same was true for Ancient China. Despite Confucius’s popular quote about loving work, the highest ideals in Confucianism weren’t passion for work, a strong work ethic, or personal achievement; they were social harmony, family, and sense of order.

What’s more likely: that ancient Chinese peasants toiling in the fields did their work because they loved it, or they did it because they were loyal to their lords, loyal to local customs, and needed to provide for their families?


My exploration into whether passion for your work/job/career is important or essential (or, perchance, detrimental — gasp!) began with an exploration into a related topic: work/life balance.

That story served as the basis for a Twitter chat about work/life balance, and during said Twitter chat, the Confucius quote came up in response to one of the moderator’s questions:

Do you consider your work your passion? Do you work to live or live to work?

In the U.S., the general consensus is — or very much seems to be — that we live to work, in contrast to people in other cultures who work to live.

While the former philosophy treats work as some sort of vocation or higher calling (as if work were the underlying reason for our very existence); the latter philosophy treats work as a financial necessity (i.e., work is the thing we do so we can afford to do other things).

For Americans (myself included), it can be hard for us to objectively observe our work-above-all-else or “workaholic” attitudes: the importance of work has become so engrained in our collective consciences that many of us are not really even, well, conscious of it anymore.

As philosophy researcher Dr. Barbara G. Goodrich noted:

This workaholic attitude is often treated (by people in the U.S.) as just common sense, just part of human nature. It’s not. It’s a distinct phenomenon, only a few centuries old (that is, very, very recent in terms of human history), localized to a few areas of the globe, and with specific causes in those areas.

Work Ethic: Passion’s Predecessor

Our modern, American notion of workaholism has its roots in the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the so-called “Protestant work ethic.”

(Note: I explored the origins of the Protestant work ethic in my earlier piece on work/life balance, so I’ll just give a brief recap here.)

Suggested song pairing for American Gothic (1930): “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

In a nutshell, the works of Protestant theologians — particularly Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (15o9–1564) — gave rise to the notion that through individual hard work, you can prove your faith.

Under this new system, “Even menial tasks can be regarded as gestures of obedience towards God,” noted Goodrich, who continued, “This can infuse one’s everyday life with a powerful meaning that had [previously] been reserved for particular days of worship.”

The Puritans, Quakers, and other Protestant groups who would cross the Atlantic in search of religious freedom would inevitably bring this new work ethic with them. And in fact, many of them saw settling the wilderness of the New World as “an opportunity to prove their own moral worth.

Around the same time, feudalism was on the decline and modern capitalism was beginning to take shape. And according to some researchers, most notably the sociologist Max Weber, the rise of the Protestant work ethic can be seen as part and parcel to the rise of capitalism.

For Weber, capitalism was more than just a system for producing and exchanging goods, it was a state of mind; a state of mind that put reason and rationality above all else: above emotion, tradition, mythology, etc.

And according to Weber, we can thank the Puritans for this new way of thinking:

“… Puritanism objectified everything and transformed it into rational enterprise, dissolved everything into the pure business relation and substituted rational law and agreement for tradition …”

In the above quote, Weber was actually comparing the Protestant work ethic to the Confucian work ethic (which we explored earlier). He went on to note that in the Chinese economy “the pervasive factors were tradition, local custom, and the concrete personal favor of the official.”

Image credit: HBO

The takeaway here: loyalty doesn’t exist in a capitalist economic system. At least not in the ancient, peasants-accepting-their-fates-without-complaint way we’ve been talking about it.

Yes, some employees are loyal to their employers (and vice versa), and some business partners are loyal to each other. But at the end of the day, many of us would happily sacrifice such “loyalties” in order to A) make more money, B) climb higher up the corporate ladder, and/or C) pursue a more fulfilling opportunity.

As Goodrich noted:

This “Protestant work ethic” complemented the new economic roles that were developing in Europe and its colonies. The economic roles of earlier centuries would have emphasized loyalty to one’s lord and unquestioning acceptance of one’s place in the social fabric, be it as peasant, as craftsman, as aristocrat.
But the new capitalism needed (and rewarded) individualistic ambition and competition. Those who adopted the “Protestant work ethic” tended to succeed a bit more than others in this new economy.

So here we are today, living in a society where everyone is expected to work their asses off in pursuit of individual achievement.

We no longer put in the long hours and go above and beyond at work out of loyalty to some lord; we instead put in the long hours and go above and beyond at work because … uh … well, because we want (more) money, of course, so we can provide for ourselves and our families. And because we want to feel good about ourselves … and stuff.


Another possible reason why everybody’s working so hard? (Image credit: Don Mason, Flickr)

According to Goodrich, there really isn’t a good reason that explains why many Americans feel obligated to work so damn hard.

Most Americans, she suggests, “seem psychologically impelled to work much too hard for no obvious reason,” and “many of us actually feel guilty if we aren’t working much too hard.”

In other countries and cultures, Goodrich points out, if someone is working their ass off, “it’s because they need to do so — the job requires it, they need the money, or some such thing. They make a conscious decision in favor of it.”

In the U.S., working your ass off, regardless of where you work or what you do, is expected. It’s the default. And it has been the default since our Puritan forbearers first began rejecting loyalty and emotion in favor of capitalism and rationalism.

For centuries, having a strong work ethic served as the guiding principle for American workers looking to get ahead. But at some point, a new paradigm began to emerge; a paradigm that began conflating work ethic with emotion.

Instead of simply working hard at your job (i.e., having a strong work ethic), this new paradigm dictates that you must also love what you do.

Meet Passion:

Work Ethic’s Amorphous, Emotional Step-Child

In the U.S., having passion for one’s work has become, at worst, a requirement, and at best, an ideal that people are encouraged to strive for.

And according to Google Trends, interest in this phenomenon — being “passionate about work” — is on the rise.

Has work, perhaps, become the thing that people are most passionate about these days?

Based on how Google Instant finishes the query below, work appears to be the second most searched-for thing that people are passionate about, just ahead of family (sigh), but behind numero uno: baking.

Live to work, work to bake.

But actually, when you take into account that “Passionate About Baking” is a popular website about, you guessed it: model trains — nope, wait: baking — then “work” is in fact the most searched-for thing folks are passionate about these days.

At least according to the way Google tries to finish our queries.

Another way to observe the now institutionalized nature of passion in the workplace? Pull up some job postings (especially for tech/startup jobs) and look at the “Requirements” sections. I bet about 1 in 3 will include something like “passion for X skill” or “passion for X technology” or “passion for X industry.”

But what does having passion for a skill or a technology or an industry even mean?

Or speaking more broadly, how do we define passion as it applies to the workplace?

Here’s what HR consultant Ian Welsh wrote back in 2013 in an article for Toolbox.com:

I used to consider a good work ethic to be working hard, taking the job seriously and giving good value for the pay we receive …
[Today,] we no longer simply require people to meet all standards and get the job done superbly, we also expect them to be enthusiastic, upbeat and happy. Actually it goes beyond happy, we expect employees to be passionate about their work … Passion that, presumably, fills their days and evenings, while family and social matters take second place. Is that too much to expect?

Ah, yes. Passion.

That good old, “strong and barely controllable emotion,” according to Google.

It’s also “a state or outburst of strong emotion,” “intense sexual love,” “an intense desire or enthusiasm for something,” and, lest we forget, “the suffering and death of Jesus.”

You know, typical work stuff.

For centuries, the word “passion” has had romantic connotations and sexual connotations and even religious connotations. But nowadays, when I see the word “passion” being bandied about, it’s often being used in reference to a person’s work or “life calling.”

How did you accomplish that tremendous thing?

I was passionate about it.

How did your company’s product become the market leader?

We put a lot of passion into it.

What separates your company from the competition?


“Passion” has become the perfect response for answering nearly any success-related question, because you can never really get it wrong. So long as you maintain your plea of being passionate — about something, anything — no one can fault you. Despite the fact that what you’re saying could be utterly meaningless.

Semi-fictional author & thought leader Orlando Scampington includes “passion” in the blue level of his organizational funnel, right next to “clams.”

The ambiguous, yet all-encompassing nature of passion can be summed up with this beauty of a quote, which I found in the opening paragraphs of a Huffington Post article about leadership philosophy:

“You see, all great achievements start with passion. Passion is what fuels everything.

Can we just break this down for a minute?

Right off the bat: “all great achievements start with passion.” Really?


Every single great achievement in the history of mankind started with passion?

I’m calling bullshit.

The following is a list of what I consider to be some pretty great (dare I say earth-shattering?) achievements/inventions that began by accident.

No passion was required, just serendipity.

  • Microwave (Raytheon dude melted chocolate in his pants via radar set)
  • X-rays (German scientist saw stuff glowing in his lab & was like “wtf?”)
  • Potato chips (Chef made them as a prank/insult for asshole guest)
  • Slinky (Naval engineer knocked a tension spring off a table)
  • Popsicles (Stupid kid left mixing stick in his homemade soda & it froze)

Penicillin, which was also an accidental achievement, probably deserves a spot on that list as well. But since I am allergic to penicillin, I decided to put it down here. (In your face, “miracle drug.”)

Of course, one could argue that for some of those inventors, passion for what they were doing at the time ultimately, albeit indirectly, helped lead them to their respective serendipitous discoveries.

We’ll dive down that rabbit hole (i.e., what role — if any — does passion play in a person being successful?) in a moment, but first, let’s move onto the second part of that passion “definition” from earlier:

“Passion is what fuels everything.”


Passion fuels everything?

Here is a short list that disproves that notion:

  • Fuel: Gasoline | Thing: Car
  • Fuel: Electricity | Thing: Electric car
  • Fuel: Jet fuel | Thing: Jet
  • Fuel: Blood | Thing: Vampire
  • Fuel: That real sticky icky | Thing: Snoop Dogg
  • Fuel: Love for his family / Thing: Liam Neeson in Taken

For that last example, I actually think the word passion does apply: Liam Neeson’s character in that movie is undeniably passionate about saving his daughter’s life.

That’s where the word makes sense to me: in describing emotionally intense circumstances.

And while (I think) your work should certainly be important to you, and you should care about the quality of the work you do, should you also be obligated to feel some sort of emotionally intense connection to it?

Do you really need to love your work in order to be great at it, or in order to be successful in life?

Image credit: Scott Adams | Dilbert.com (Also, if you have a few minutes, definitely check out Adams’ SlideShare presentation “Goals are for Losers. Passion is Overrated.”

My Friend Stu

My friend Stu is passionate about football. Back in school, he practiced like crazy, more than any other player in the entire league, in fact. He did all the camps and training and weightlifting and had his heart set on going pro. I’m talking the N. — F. — L.

Stu is 5'3" and weighs 125 lbs. He did not make it to the NFL. He now works at a bank.

Is Stu passionate about his job at the bank? Hell no. But he’s got an awesome TV and NFL RedZone and even a goddamned mini-fridge with his favorite team’s logo on it — all thanks to that job.

Now Stu wants to buy an even bigger TV. And an even bigger mini-fridge (I’ve tried to explain to him why that doesn’t make sense but it just doesn’t seem to be getting through). And someday, Stu tells me, when he’s able to save up enough, he’s gonna buy season tickets.

Season. Monkey-flippin’. Tickets.

So Stu’s plan is to work harder (and smarter) at his job so he can get that promotion and earn more money.

The driving force — or fuel — behind him working his ass off at the bank isn’t passion for his job, or passion for banking, it’s reason. Stu knows that if he works harder/smarter, he’ll perform better, then he’ll get a raise, and then he’ll have more money to spend on the stuff he’s really passionate about.

All other things being equal (benefits, etc.), if someone paid Stu more money to go work at a different bank, he’d go.

All other things being equal, if someone paid Stu more money to go work as a lion tamer, he’d go.

Stu??? | Image credit: Gibson & Co, Lion tamer in cage (1873)

And yet, at his current job, Stu is well-liked by his peers, he’s won employee of the month five times, and he probably will get that promotion based on the talks he’s had with his manager.

(You’re my boy, Stu. I’m proud of you.)

Work for Stu isn’t a passion, or some higher calling; it’s a financial necessity. But that doesn’t mean that Stu isn’t motivated to do a great job, or that he doesn’t find the work fulfilling.

Stu enjoys many aspects of his job. And he’s a top-performer to boot. He just doesn’t feel a strong, emotional connection to it. He doesn’t love it.

Is that such a bad thing?

No Passion, No Cry

Stu is just one example that demonstrates how passion isn’t mandatory for workplace success.

And while passion, no doubt, has helped certain people become successful (under certain circumstances), there are better predictors of success out there — factors like upbringing, education, and the amount of time you’ve spent honing your skills (re: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule).

Let’s take Mark Zuckerberg as an example.

Zuckerberg is smart, for sure. Hardworking? Sure. Is he passionate about his work? Sure, let’s assume he is. He has touted the benefits of being passionate about work before:

“If you just work on stuff that you like and you’re passionate about, you don’t have to have a master plan with how things will play out.”

But Mark Zuckerberg was also lucky; lucky to be born into a family that not only gave a shit about him, but also had the means to support and encourage his interest in coding and technology.

One could even make that argument that without this luck (Zuckerberg, after all, didn’t choose the family he was born into), his interest may never have blossomed into a full-blown passion. His interest may never have developed at all.

For example, imagine if Zuck’s father had never taught the 12-year-old Zuck Atari BASIC Programming … or if he had never hired that personal software development tutor for young Zuck.

Or imagine if Zuck hadn’t been able to go to Phillips Exeter, and had gone to a public high school (the horror!) for his junior and senior years instead.

So yes, Mark Zuckerberg is, I think most would agree, super successful. And that super successfulness is due to a number of factors: intelligence, work ethic, passion, and — the one we don’t hear so much about — luck.

In regards to that “the harder you work, the luckier you get” argument: it’s a nice soundbite, and I’d say there’s even some truth to it, but it simply doesn’t apply to our example. Not in the slightest.

Hard work doesn’t determine the familial and socioeconomic circumstances you’re born into. Nobody can control that.

Being smart and hardworking and passionate can help you play the game and improve your future odds, but you’ll never be able to go back and change the hand you’re dealt at the start.

“If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”
-Wilbur Wright

Passion Is a Luxury

The notion that everyone should be passionate about the work they do assumes that everyone has the luxury of being able to choose their work.

It wasn’t for lack of passion that my friend Stu didn’t become a pro football player — it was for lack of luck. If he had only been lucky enough to have been born bigger, he would’ve had a much better shot at reaching the NFL.

Oppositely, if Zuckerberg hadn’t been lucky enough to have been born into such a supportive family, it’s likely that someone else (or perhaps two identical “someone elses”) would have founded Facebook in his stead.

Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.

For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.

For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.

Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.

Ultimately, being passionate about your work is a luxury that not everyone gets to enjoy. And for that reason alone, we shouldn’t think of it as mandatory.

But alas, there is another big reason why making passion mandatory in the workplace is a bad idea …

Passion Can Be Bad for Business

Who would you rather have in the pilot’s seat while you’re onboard an airplane: someone who is passionate about flying, or someone who has experience flying and knows what the hell they’re doing?

You might be tempted to answer, “I’d prefer a pilot who is both passionate and experienced.”

But what can passion — which the dictionary defines as an intense, uncontrollable emotion — really add to the equation here?

Passion, after all, is an enemy of reason. The former concerns itself with feeling, whereas the latter concerns itself with fact.

So while Peter the passionate pilot might insist on flying your plane even if he’s exhausted or ill-prepared for the flight (because he feels that it’s his duty, his calling), Rick the reasonable pilot would never fly your plane if he didn’t think he was in a condition to safely do so.

Having passion for your work, as it turns out, can make for some poor decision-making.

Even people who are seemingly “pro passion,” like leadership advisor Mike Myatt, admit to passion’s problematic nature.

“Just as there exists a very fine line between brilliance and insanity,” he noted in a 2011 post, “there also exists a fine line between passion and many negative traits such as narrow-mindedness, narcissism, fanaticism, delusion, and even paranoia.”

Myatt continued, “ … being emotionally over-invested in one’s business can lead to irrational decisioning, prideful or ego-driven actions, the use of flawed business logic, and poor execution.”

In most cases, however, Myatt contends that passion is an asset, and that the downsides of being passionate (like transforming into an irrational egomaniac) only occur as a result of taking passion to an extreme level.

The underlying argument here is that there are, in fact, two types of passion: “good” passion and “bad” passion.

Or, as psychology professor Robert J. Vallerand calls them, “harmonious” passion and “obsessive” passion.

According to Vallerand, harmonious passion is when people love what they’re doing and find “intrinsic joy” in it, but they can also successfully balance that love with the other activities in their lives.

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, is just what it sounds like: “an uncontrollable desire to engage in the activity that one loves.”

A 2011 Harvard Business Review article noted that unlike people who are harmoniously passionate, people who are obsessively passionate “can hardly ever stop thinking about their work, and they get quite frustrated when they are prevented from working. They also persist when it’s risky to do so (just like a pathological gambler).”

For the obsessively passionate, work is integral to identity. And when something (like the story you’re reading right now, perhaps) threatens that identity, the obsessively passionate often become aggressive.

All of this suggests, according to the Harvard Business Review, that for people who feel obsessive passion for their work, “persistence doesn’t come from a place of intrinsic joy, but an unstable ego.”

Conclusion: The Break-Up of Love & Work

Or “Why Passion Is Like Wanting to Do the Dishes”

It’s truly been a wild ride. From ancient philosophers, to peasants, to Puritans, to penicillin (“miracle drug” my ass), to Peter the passionate pilot … we’ve covered a lot of ground in this story.

And while I wish I could sum everything up nicely with a single, revelatory tidbit of wisdom (something like “passion for work is an inherently meaningless social construct designed to replace loyalty as the driving force behind getting people to work harder”), I ultimately couldn’t find the right words.

So instead, I present you now with an excerpt from the 2006 movie, The Break-Up:

Gary: “… we can clean the dishes tomorrow.”
Brooke: “Gary, you know I don’t like waking up to a dirty kitchen.”
Gary: “Who cares?”
Brooke: “I care. Alright? I care. I busted my ass all day cleaning this house and then cooking that meal and I worked today. It would be nice if you said ‘thank you’ and helped me with the dishes.”
Gary: “Fine. I’ll help you do the damn dishes.”
Brooke: “Oh, come on. No, you know what? That’s not what I want.
Gary: “You just said that you want me to help you do the dishes.”
Brooke: “I want you to want to do the dishes.”
Gary: “Why would I want to do dishes? Why?”

Employers these days don’t just want their employees to do the dishes, they want their employees to want to do the dishes. But when you consider that employees are already getting paid to do the dishes, this doesn’t really make sense: the incentive to do the dishes is already there. It’s a monetary incentive.

For Gary, it’s a different story. Brooke wants him to want to do the dishes because as a loyal partner to Brooke, she thinks that Gary should want to help her. The point isn’t that Gary should love doing dishes, it’s that he should love Brooke.

Now, if you are loyal to your employer, then maybe you do actually want to do your job for the same reason: to prove to your employer that you love them.

Although if that be the case, I would caution that you might be taking this whole “passionate about work” thing a little too literally.


As a final anecdote, I’d like to illuminate how not wanting to do the dishes isn’t a bad thing. In fact, not wanting to do the dishes could be the key to your life’s greatest achievement.

Take the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming as an example.

Before going on a vacation, Fleming literally didn’t want to clean the dishes. Petri dishes, that is. So he didn’t clean them, he left them stacked up in a tray of disinfectant.

When he returned from his vacation, he discovered that not all of the Petri dishes had actually been in contact with the disinfectant. And yet, the dishes that weren’t touched by the disinfectant were free of bacteria, meaning something else had killed the bacteria Fleming had expected to find.

That something else turned out to be Penicillium mold, from which Fleming would extract the antibiotic now known as penicillin.