Romanticizing Passion at Work: Why “Finding Your True Passion” Is a Fairytale
How to live a meaningful, satisfying and successful life (according to the Internet):
1. Find your true passion
2. Follow it
That’s it, you should be happy now.
The idea that only by pursuing our passion can we achieve success and job satisfaction has become conventional wisdom. We are constantly reminded by influencers, motivational quotes, or popular hashtags that the ultimate career goal is to quit our jobs and to follow our true passion.
While it sounds like good advice, is this really the epitome of human wisdom when it comes to our careers? One should be weary of one-size-fits-all kind of advice, especially when it promises ever-lasting happiness and career success. And especially when it has started to sound like a fairytale.
Let me explain.
The narrative and terminology surrounding passion have become such that they resemble the ones characteristic to fairytales. Most content on the topic of passion promises to provide the answer on “How to Find Your True Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life.” The idea at the heart of “find your true passion” is the premise that there is one singular passion for each of us — that passion is predestined. Thus, your main goal in life is to seek your true, innate passion (like the soulmate you are destined to be with), to be able to distinguish it from other “fake” passions, and to devote yourself to it. The story about finding your passion ends with the idea that you will be able to have a fulfilling work life by turning your passion into your career. By doing so you will be guaranteed a happy life — just like the fantastical marriage at the end of a fairytale.
Growing up, we learn to reexamine the fairytales we believed as children. As adults, we know better than to buy into the story of finding “the one” and “living happily ever after.”
How, then, did we fall for this romanticized narrative of what a successful and fulfilling career looks like?
Renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel explains that the way we approach our work has been undergoing an immense transformation, as emotions entered the work place and the emotional vocabulary has become central to our work life:
“Emotions used to be the scourge of the business world. […] The bottom line had everything to do with processes, structure and efficiencies… today, we are talking about psychological safety in the same breath that we talk about performance indicators. We talk about belonging, authenticity, trust, transparency, and vulnerability.”
The presence of emotional vocabulary in the work place is especially noticeable when we consider how the hiring practices are shaped to focus on passion nowadays — being “passionate” has become a job requirement, and “What are you passionate about?” has become a standard interview question.
The fact that the vocabulary we use for work and love are now overlapping is, Perel further explains, due to the fact that work is no longer a production economy or a service economy, but instead it has turned into an identity economy:
Work has become “an enormous source of self-worth. Work is imbued with a mission to build our identity. Work is not just about putting food on the table. Work is about purpose. Work is about identity, work is about fulfillment, growth — all things people used to come to religion and community for.”
Alain de Botton, philosopher, author and founder of The School of Life, also mentions the fact that the idea of enjoying or even loving your job is a recent invention:
“The most of the history of humanity, the thought that you were trying to enjoy your job was crazy. You did your job just to survive. You didn’t want to love it, you didn’t want to enjoy it. Both in the romantic and professional sphere, we’ve set ourselves a daunting challenge: we’re supposed to get together with someone who we actually love and have a fulfilled life with them, and we’re supposed to do a job that doesn’t just earn money but also gives us deeper fulfillment.”
In the words of Esther Perel, if previous generations lived in a structured society, where identity was assigned at birth, in the identity economy the prevalent question is not “What am I going to do next?” but instead “Who am I going to be next?”.
Reunderstanding Passion — Deconstructing the Passion Fairytale
Only One True Passion? Not Really.
While the predominant approach to passion is the one that identifies the act of following your one true passion as the most rewarding and efficient way to be successful, a countermovement is starting to emerge, in which people oppose this approach. The idea that each of us is born with a singular passion and therefore our mission is to find out what that is and then pursue it to the exclusion of everything else is “dangerously limiting,” the brand advisor and writer Terry Trespicio notes in her TEDx talk, “Stop Searching for Your Passion.” Trespicio opines that passion is not a plan, but a feeling instead and, as feelings change, “you can be passionate about a person one day, a job, and then not passionate the next”. Similarly, author and motivational speaker Mel Robbins describes passion as “the feeling of being energized,” adding that passion, since it is energy, “dissipates over time.”
The dichotomy between the idea of devoting yourself to one passion and the idea of exploring more interests at a time or throughout time has been studied by Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton, who examined through five studies the implicit theories of interest: the fixed theory, according to which interests and passions are inherent, preformed and must be discovered, and the growth theory, according to which passions are developed throughout time.
What they found was that people endorsing a fixed theory show less openness towards new interests and also expect that, by pursuing their passion, they will neither face difficulties along the way nor lose their motivation and inspiration. These expectations lead to a significantly decreased interest once challenges arise.
In contrast, people endorsing the growth theory are more open to new interests, anticipate difficulties in the process of pursuing their passion and maintain their level of interest even when faced with challenges.
Thus, the romanticized idea that passion is fixed, preformed and awaits to be discovered and pursued to the exclusion of other interests can actually deter the development of various interests. It also encourages one to discard an interest more easily, as one believes that the occurrence of difficulties is proof that the interest was not the inherent, “true” passion after all. In the words of O’Keefe, Dweck, and Walton,
“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.”
Happily Ever After? No Such Thing.
What makes the concept of following your passion so attractive is the implication that this is not only the recipe for success, but also for eternal happiness — the ubiquitous Confucian mantra, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
We are made to believe that the lack of boredom or hurdles is a guaranteed consequence if we follow our passion. That we can escape from the feeling that we’re trapped in a routine at work. That work will no longer be a source of suffering.
We have come to associate passion with boundless happiness and enthusiasm, but the origins of the term reveal a much less positive connotation. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term stems from the Late Latin passionem, meaning “suffering, enduring,” while the first known use of the English term “passion” goes back to the end of the 12th century, when it was used with the meaning “the sufferings of Christ on the cross and Christ’s death.”
The fact that the modern applications of the term no longer carry the idea of pain or suffering is unfortunate. As we have seen in the study of O’Keefe, Dweck, and Walton, the implication that following your passion is a path filled with roses can be counterproductive — one will give up more easily.
When you turn something you love to do into something you have to do, you will inevitably hit a plateau sooner or later. The interest that you enjoyed exploring in your free time will become a routine. You will still face deadlines, you will still have days when you will be less productive, there will still be risks and responsibilities.
In the words of Mark Manson, the author of the bestsellers The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck and Everything Is Fucked: A Book About Hope,
“every job sucks sometimes. There’s no such thing as some passionate activity that you will never get tired of, never get stressed over, never complain about. It doesn’t exist. I am living my dream job […], and I still hate about 30% of it. Some days more.”
Perhaps we should keep in mind the original meaning of “suffering” when we talk about passion:
Instead of understanding passion as an activity void of suffering, it might be more useful to understand it as an interest that you are willing to suffer for. That you are willing to engage in despite knowing that you will not “live happily ever after” by doing so.
“Someday My Passion Will Come”: The Curse of Finding Your Passion
Just like Snow White dreamily sings that someday her prince will come and just like Sleeping Beauty is waiting for the prince to wake her up from her curse, finding your passion is understood as a rather passive, introspective process: the way to find your passion is by fervently contemplating until you have an eureka-like revelation.
We limit the concept of passion by using it as a noun. Passion is understood as a sort of object hidden in some faraway land, like a hidden treasure waiting for us to bring it to light.
You don’t find out what you like though contemplation, but instead through action. Interestingly, the word “passion” was originally used both as a verb and as a noun. Shakespeare himself uses the term “passion” as a verb in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The disadvantage of conceptualizing passion as a noun and understanding it as something to be found through introspection or planning is that it corners one into a nightmarish state of contemplation:
“What is my true passion?” is the question which promises to give you the solution to all your problems once answered, but which can be the source of despair and tumultuous rumination while trying to find the answer.
By constantly asking yourself what your passion is but failing to find the answer, the feeling that there is something wrong with you starts crippling in: “What is my passion?” starts to be accompanied or even replaced by another question: “I don’t know what my passion is. Is there something wrong with me?”.
Cal Newport talks in his insightful book So Good They Can’t Ignore You about the paradox that “telling someone to “follow their passion” is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.” A similar idea is presented by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
Is Passion the Charming Prince? Or the Big Bad Wolf?
Like all things in life, passion is not a one-dimensional character in your story. There are many complexities to passion and, truth be told, we are only beginning to understand it. For most of history, passion has been an area of interest to philosophers, who considered it inferior to reason, as passion was thought to imply a lack of control and logic.
It was only in recent decades that passion has become an object of study in the field of psychology. Arguably the most influential study on passion belongs to Robert Vallerand and his colleagues, who developed the dualistic model of passion in 2003. The dualistic model distinguishes between two types of passion — harmonious passion and obsessive passion — , each of them associated with different experiences and outcomes. The criterion for the classification consists in the extent to which the activities one feels passionate about have been internalized in one’s identity.
On one hand, obsessive passion is correlated with a “controlled internalization of the activity into one’s identity.” This means that the individual becomes pathologically dependent on the activity of interest, feeling an irresistible urge to engage in the activity as the passion controls them rather than the other way round. It is associated with negative experiences and results for the individual, such as lack of flexibility and openness towards other activities, conflict with other activities in one’s life, rigid persistence, and frustration when prevented from partaking in it.
On the other hand, harmonious passion develops as an autonomous internalization of the activity in the individual’s identity, which implies that the individual has control over the passionate activity, engages voluntarily in it and the activity is generally associated with positive experiences.
In other words, passion can be the Charming Prince and the Big Bad Wolf at the same time. It can be both a blessing and a curse. We have to remember that for different people, passion manifests itself in different ways and means different things, so to reduce the complexities of job satisfaction, motivation, passion, and success to the simplistic advice that you should “follow your passion” is unfortunate and in many ways counterproductive, especially since we are probably still only searching the surface when it comes to understanding passion.
Whether you are struggling to find what your interests are.
Whether you are feeling something is wrong with you because you don’t know what your passion is.
Whether you feel interested in many things and don’t know which is the “real” one.
Whether you know your passion but you are scared to give up your current job and devote yourself to it.
Whether you are working and feel that you are stuck in a routine and dream of following your passion, but you don’t know what that is.
Remember that you are not alone. That nothing is wrong with you. That there are so many variables when it comes to passion. That we are all different, and therefore “follow your passion” can be good advice to some and bad advice to others.
And that, alas, life is not a fairytale.