Don’t ‘do what you’re passionate about’ – part 2

In the last post, I showed that we can’t blindly follow the widely-quoted careers guidance ‘do what you’re passionate about.’ Being passionate about a career doesn’t mean you should do it. Not being passionate about a career doesn’t rule it out.

This was because there are other important components of career choice – such as making a difference, and your talents – which can outweigh your passions. This may seem obvious. A more reasonable claim is that ‘do what you’re passionate about’ is a heuristic for career choice – it’s not always true, but is nevertheless a useful rule of thumb. In particular, it might be a useful heuristic insofar as your career is about finding personal happiness. Even this, however, seems false. Here are the reasons ‘do what you’re passionate about’ is not a good heuristic for career choice.

  1. We’re bad at predicting what leads to happiness. Equating being passionate with what makes us most happy means it’s a difficult target to aim for. A host of biases seriously affect our ability to predict how happy or sad a state of us affairs will make us. This means, even if our only goal were happiness, following the rule ‘do what you’re passionate about could lead us the wrong way.

  2. What makes us happy can change.
    Part of the reason we’re bad at predicting what leads to happiness is because we underestimate our ability to adapt to circumstances. Even after major life changes, people’s reported sense of well-being tends to revert to a baseline level. We tend to underestimate this effect, meaning that we don’t enjoy good things as much as we expect, and we don’t suffer bad things as much as we expect. This is called hedonic adaptation (1). It suggests we’ll underestimate our ability to develop passions, and will enjoy realising our passions less than we expect to. But more importantly, it’s because…

  3. Passion grows from appropriately challenging work.
    The most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is mentally challenging work (2). Equating passion with job satisfaction, this means that we can become passionate about many jobs, providing they involve sufficient mental challenge. The requirements for mentally challenging work, like autonomy, feedback and variety in the work, are similar to those required to develop flow. This suggests that a similar conclusion will hold if we believe that being passionate is closely connected with the ability to enter states of flow. If, however, you don’t think flow and job satisfaction are the same thing as passion, then you can still agree that…

  4. There’s more to happiness than being passionate about your work.
    Job satisfaction and flow, even if distinct from passion, are desirable in and of themselves. More importantly, helping others makes us happy. So, even if personal happiness is your only goal, there could be situations in which it’s better to seek work that allows you to make a difference, even if it’s not your passion.

  5. There are better targets to aim for.
    We’re not only bad at predicting what will make us happy, but more easily detectable predictors of job satisfaction exist (autonomy, feedback, variety, making a difference etc). This suggests it would be more useful to aim at these predictors rather than directly at what we think we’re passionate about. Similarly, it could be more useful to focus on being good at what you do. First, this is a more positive mindset, focused on contributing rather than taking. Second, being good at what you do makes you better placed to ask for engaging work.

  6. Most people aren’t passionate about anything, at least not anything that can get you a job
    The advice ‘do what you’re passionate about’ has prompted some to worry that they don’t have any passions. This isn’t unreasonable – not everyone has one special activity they love doing. One 2002 study of Canadian students showed that 84% had passions, but these were mostly sports and music. Only 4% had passions that were relevant to work (4). In these cases, ‘do what you’re passionate about’ is actively harmful, since you don’t have a useful passion to begin with. This advice merely prompts anxious soul-searching.

  7. What do you do if you have several passions, or passions that aren’t easily turned into a job?
    Many people have passions that aren’t easily turned into jobs, either because they are too niche, lots of people have the same passions (so there’s too much competition), or they’re not sufficiently talented (the short basketball player). If you’re passionate about several things, is it better to combine these passions? Suppose the basketball player is also passionate about kung fu. Should he try to make his name combining kung fu and basketball? Again, focusing on passion leads to probably futile soul-searching.

  8. Don’t turn your passion into a job.
    Often, we enjoy our passions – sports, cooking, photography, travel, and so on – precisely because we’re not pursuing them to earn money. Psychologists have shown that introducing an external reward (like money) for something that we find inherently enjoyable, can reduce our intrinsic motivation (motivation driven by interest in the task itself)(3). Attempting to turn our passions into work could ruin what we most enjoy.

So ‘do what you’re passionate about’ isn’t a good heuristic for career choice, even if you’re aiming only at personal happiness. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that effective altruists should ignore their prospective happiness in choosing careers. As we will explore in the following sequence, even if your main goal is making a difference, it’s still important to think about what will make you happy in your career.

If you want to read more, we recommend “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport.

(1) Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. (2009). Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaption Theory of Well-being. The Science of Well-being. Social Indicators Research Series, Vol. 37, pp. 103-118

(2) Judge, T. A., Klinger, R. (2009). Promote Job Satisfaction through Mental Challenge. Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behaviour, Second Ed, pp107-119

(3) This is one of the classic studies introducing the effect:
Lepper, M. R.; Greene, D.; Nisbett, R. E. (1973). “Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the ‘overjustification’ hypothesis”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28 (1): 129–137. DOI:10.1037/h0035519.

This is a meta-study of the evidence:

Deci, E.; Koestner, R.; Ryan, R. (1999). “A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation”. Psychological Bulletin 125 (6): 627–688. DOI:10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.627.

(4) Vallerand, Blanchard, Mageau et al. “Les passions de l’ame: On Obsession and Harmonious Passion.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85, n. 4 (2003): 756-67