Why “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Career Advice

Ray Williams
Age of Awareness
Published in
8 min readJun 3, 2024

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Pinterest

Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford University commencement address, “You’ve got to find what you love. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.”

That advice has been repeated many times by personal growth and business authors and experts frequently in recent decades, for example, in Richard Bolles’ classic What Colour is Your Parachute. The message is appealing and implies the connection between what we love doing and financial and job satisfaction rewards. It also implies we need to think or dream “big.”

In two surveys by researchers at the University of Washington, “Follow your passion” is the most frequently received advice by university students regarding their academic majors.

A growing number of experts argue that “follow your passion” is bad advice.

Cal Newport’s recent career-advice hit begins: “Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion”. In another New York Times Bestseller Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue “Anti-passion is our passion”.

According to Burnett and Evans, telling someone to choose a career by following their passion is not only of little use, it can be harmful. They argue that it’s useless because most people either don’t know what they are passionate about or don’t have passions that can be defined as careers. It’s harmful, they also argue, because it may lead people to give up substantial opportunities to chase an unrealistic dream.

One argument against the “follow your passion” advice is that it assumes people have a pre-existing, easily identifiable passion. Research by psychologists like Carol Dweck and Gregory Walton from Stanford University indicates that passions are developed gradually over time rather than discovered suddenly. This means that the idea of a “one true calling” may evade some people, making them feel lost or inadequate if they cannot identify their passion.

Studies also show that following a passion does not necessarily lead to job satisfaction or success. A Yale School of Management study found that employees who pursued careers based solely on their passions often experienced burnout and dissatisfaction when the realities of their jobs did not align with their initial expectations. Furthermore, passion-driven work can cause people to overlook important aspects of career development, such as skill-building, job market trends, and financial stability.

By urging people to “follow their passion,” we may inadvertently encourage a narrow focus. According to a study published in Psychological Science, those who view interests as fixed are less likely to explore new areas and more likely to give up when faced with challenges outside their comfort zone.

Your area of passion is not out there just waiting to be found. It’s not some enigmatic power that, if discovered, will clear all roadblocks from your way. Actually, scientists contend in a recent study that the catchphrase “discover your passion” can be a harmful diversion.

Researchers from Stanford University and Yale-NUS College in Singapore, a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, looked at “implicit theories of interest” in a study published in Psychological Science. To ascertain how our beliefs affect learning and resilience, researchers used five experiments to compare the effects of fixed vs growth mindsets — belief in innate interests as opposed to those learned. The researchers enquire, “Were interests there all along, ready to be revealed?” Or does a spark of interest need to be nurtured with effort and persistence?

It turns out that how we approach interests determines the answers to these questions. According to the most recent research, those with a fixed mindset — the seemingly mystical conviction that our passions appear to us magically — appear less inquisitive and motivated than those with a growth mindset, who see that interests develop as a process.

Let’s Temper Our Enthusiasm for Passion

The study’s principal investigator, Yale-NUS college psychologist Paul O’Keefe, tells Quartz that “we need to carefully assess what we transmit to students about interests and passions.” “If parents, schools, and employers encourage people to develop their interests rather than just discover them, they may get the most out of them. Finding your passion may imply that it already exists within of you and is only waiting to be discovered. The advice to “follow your passion” implies that your enthusiasm will do most of your work.

O’Keefe cautions that the advice to “discover your passion” implies a passive approach. However, encouraging others to pursue their passion implies that it is an active one that depends on us and acknowledges that it may be difficult. This is a realistic way of thinking, according to O’Keefe.

It can be more fruitful to view interests as flexible and possibly limitless than to search for the “magic bullet,” that one thing you must be meant to pursue even though you are unsure of what it is. Finding your passion — and having the will to perfect it — is more likely if you have a growth attitude as opposed to a fixed idea that there is one subject you should pursue with all dedication. According to O’Keefe, taking this strategy will also help your career by giving you access to fresh viewpoints gained by having a variety of hobbies.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who has extensively written on the advantages of a growth mindset, is referenced in this most recent study. She also contributed to the latest study. According to Dweck’s earlier studies, persons who see themselves as ongoing projects and who think of their growth potential rather than as fixed features we are all born with are typically happier, more driven, and more successful. “The hand you’re given is only the starting point for development in this [growth] attitude,” Dweck says in her book Mindset, the New Psychology of Success, “This growth mindset is founded on the idea that your fundamental attributes are those you can cultivate via your efforts.”

Total Flexibility

The latest study investigates how learning, curiosity, and motivation are impacted by fixed and growing mindsets. College students who classified as either technology and scientific types or as art and literary types — but not both — were assigned articles to read outside of their claimed areas of interest in three distinct tests with varied subjects. To prevent the subjects from associating the exam with their thinking and adjusting for the experiment, they provided answers to questions regarding their theories of interests around a month prior. The research conducted by college students from across the US, both in-person and online, with Stanford University students revealed that those with a growth attitude were more likely to find the articles intriguing.

Students responded to a questionnaire about the implications of interests and passions in a fourth test. These questions were open-ended; there was no multiple choice. They were tasked with thinking about potential challenges in their chosen field of interest.

The study’s authors found that even within an individual’s field of interest, “a fixed theory, more so than a development theory, causes people to predict that a passion would supply endless drive and that pursuing it will not be difficult.” When that expectation isn’t fulfilled, people with a fixed mindset can conclude that the subject may not be what they are intended to study since their enthusiasm isn’t carrying them. The researchers conclude that “a fixed theory leads to a faster fall in interest.”

In the sixth experiment, people interested in technology, science, and the arts were asked to watch a black hole film together. The brief, interesting video was made for a lay audience. Nearly all of the participants rated it as “fascinating.” Then, after reading a challenging scientific article on the theory behind black holes, mindset became important. Even the creative types who scored higher on a prior survey for growth mindset were likelier to struggle through the challenging material than the science nerds with a fixed viewpoint. According to the psychologists, “a growth theory…leads people to exhibit greater interest in new areas, to expect that pursuing interests would occasionally be tough, and to sustain greater interest when problems emerge.”

O’Keefe claims that these discoveries can be applied to both our personal lives and society as a whole. Students and everyone else we come in contact with might be more likely to adopt a growth mindset if we promote it in schools, exhibit it in how we approach material, and remember our mantras. He asks, “Why can’t that ‘thing’ be informed and complimented by the world of knowledge that exists?” He believes there is nothing wrong with pushing pupils to seek that one “thing.”

A growth attitude won’t make you an uninformed generalist. However, it might enable you to comprehend the subjects you’ve decided to grasp better. “Our research demonstrates that a growth mindset fosters students’ interest in subjects unrelated to their pre-existing passions. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like their previously held interests will be affected by this newly discovered interest. In other words, we don’t observe any evidence that pupils become amateurs when a growth attitude is promoted. Instead, individuals can be making connections between previously unexplored regions and their current interests.” That’s a potent educational tool, affirms O’Keefe.

He contends that a growing attitude can only be advantageous, but a fixed perspective can have harmful drawbacks, such as a propensity to give up on pursuits when faced with challenges. O’Keefe says, “One might have a growth theory and still be intensely focused.” People with a growth mentality are more receptive to discovering and maintaining new interests, even when challenging.

The researchers compare viewpoints on romance to this method of learning. People who are looking for their one true love often have inflated expectations and go on fruitless, never-ending searches. When a spouse doesn’t live up to expectations, people who think that love is a project and a process will be more patient and eventually have moments of true love. Applying the same logic to interests increases the likelihood of experiencing intense fascination.

What To Do Instead

Instead of viewing our careers as opportunities to follow a single passion, consider life as a series of chances to develop several passions. When something piques your interest, invest time and effort into it. Here are some ideas:

  • Cultivate a Growth Mindset: Try new things and embrace failures as opportunities for learning. Embrace challenges and view failures as opportunities for learning.
  • Stay Adaptable: Be open to new opportunities and willing to pivot as industries and job roles evolve.
  • Seek Fulfillment Through Mastery of Skills: Find satisfaction in becoming exceptionally good at what you do, rather than searching for a perfect job.
  • Define Your Life Purpose and What Brings You Meaning. Clarifying why you are here as a person (life purpose) and what brings you meaning in your life can clarify the kind of career that can be aligned.
  • Follow Your Curiosity. Being curious about many things in life expands our awareness and perspective and can help us seek out careers that may be aligned with a new discovery.
  • Clarify and reaffirm your values. A career that aligns with your values is critical to finding personal satisfaction.

Be sure to read my new book, The Journey to Self-Mastery: Unlocking the Secrets to Personal Transformation, available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Ray Williams
Age of Awareness

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others