Some have claimed “follow your passion” is the definitive career advice of our time.1
The idea behind the slogan “follow your passion” is that the best way to choose a career is to:
Identify your passions through self-reflection.
Identify careers that involve those passions.
Try to get one of those careers.
The reason this advice works is because:
Matching your career with your passions in this way is the best way to be truly satisfied with your work.
If you’re satisfied with your work, you’ll be good at what you do.
Being good at what you do is the best way to make the world a better place.
We mainly disagree with the first and last claims: matching your career with your passions is not a particularly good way to find satisfying work, and being good at what you do is only one factor that matters for having a social impact.
Passion is not all that matters for having a social impact
If your passion is dealing crack cocaine, should you do it? It’s easy to see there are cases in which being passionate and having a social impact come apart.
Indeed, being good at what you do isn’t enough to guarantee you’ll make a difference. If you would be the world’s best cocaine dealer, that’s even more reason not to do it! So, even if it were true that following your passion is the best way to find a career you’re good at, you’d still need to do more than “follow your passion” to make a difference.
We think it’s clear there are other factors besides passion and being good at your job that matter for having a social impact. We list them in our framework. They include the value of the skills you build, the effectiveness of the cause you’re working on, and how much influence you have in your role.
Focusing on what you’re passionate about is not the best way to find a satisfying career
The cocaine dealer example is an uncharitable interpretation of “follow your passion” advocates. A more reasonable position is that you should start from a list of plausibly good careers, then “follow your passion” to decide from among those. Exclude potentially evil careers like tobacco sales, arms dealing, drugs dealing, and so on.
However, we still don’t think this is good advice. The core claim behind the value of following your passion is that if you find a career that matches your passions, you’ll be satisfied in your work. However, our research has shown that matching your work with your passions is not an especially good way to find a satisfying job. Why?
First, we’re bad at predicting in which jobs we’ll be most happy in and most good at just by thinking about it. This suggests that reflecting on where you’ll be most passionate won’t give you accurate results. We tend to only hear the stories in which someone followed their passion and it worked out. But there’s likely to be many stories of people who followed their passions and didn’t end up as happy as they expected. Cal Newport tells the story of a young investment banker, who quit his job to live in a zen monastery,2 and found he was just as miserable as before!
Second, research shows the degree of match between your interests and your work is not especially important for predicting where you’ll be most satisfied Following your passion, therefore, causes you to overly focus on just one criterion, and it’s not even the most important one. We found that the most important four factors for being satisfied in your work are:
Engaging, meaningful work: the extent to which you have variety, autonomy, a sense of completion, feedback and work you feel makes a difference.
Getting on with your colleagues: the extent to which you get help from, like and form meaningful relationships with your colleagues.
Personal fit: the extent to which you’re good at your job.
Hygiene factors: do you have reasonable hours, job security, a short commute and sufficient pay?
Although having a match between your interests and your work should be helpful (in particular, it’ll increase the personal fit factor), it’s possible to have a job that satisfies all these factors without having much of a match. Indeed, psychologists have tried for decades to show the degree of match between your job and your interests and personality predicts job satisfaction, but they’ve only found weak effects.3
This means you should be able to find satisfying work that doesn’t fit your passions, and you probably shouldn’t follow your passion if it means working with people you don’t like, or doing repetitive work with little autonomy. It also means you can be satisfied in many different areas – you don’t have “one true calling”. We know lots of examples of people who didn’t follow their passion but ended up satisfied. For instance, Rachel was passionate about drawing cartoons,4 but found it depressing to turn into a job because it was too hard to make ends meet. She ended up far more satisfied in web development, where she receives professional recognition, is in-demand and can pick up interesting work with ease.
Third, following your passions can cause you to be too narrow in your search for work. You can only be passionate about activities you’ve already tried, but when you’re twenty, you probably haven’t tried much of the world of work. Instead, many people are passionate about sports and music,5 which are very hard to turn into good jobs.
Moreover, focusing on passion can encourage you to only consider careers that are immediately satisfying (because when you find your “match”, you’ll be satisfied). But, as Cal Newport has argued,6 most careers are not immediate satisfying. First, it takes time to become good at your job, which is important for being satisfied. Second, you normally have to become good at your job before you can also find work that is engaging, with colleagues you like and that satisfies all your hygiene factors. That’s because having work that satisfies these criteria is valuable, and if you want something valuable, you’ll have to offer something valuable in return. Rather than focus inwards by asking “is this what I’m truly passionate about?”, if you want satisfying work, focus on asking “what can I do that’s valuable?”
Focusing on what you can offer the world is also a more fulfilling approach to take to your career. Helping others is a cause of deep satisfaction.
Finally, “follow your passion” encourages the idea that there’s one perfect path for you – the one you’re passionate about. As we’ve seen, this is wrong because you can become passionate about many different areas. More problematically, it raises your expectations extremely high. Career decisions are difficult, involve lots of uncertainty and require tough tradeoffs. You won’t be able to find the perfect path straight away. Rather than try to immediately identify your perfect career, accept that careers take time to build. Focus on taking good steps in the right direction, and continuously improving over time.
Overall, we don’t think following your passion is a good way to find a satisfying career. In the next section, we’ll suggest a better approach.
If you want to make a difference, what’s the truth within “follow your passion”?
Although we don’t think “follow your passion” is helpful advice, we do think there’s some truth in it. First, we completely agree that it’s better to strive for meaningful work than money. More importantly, we think you’ll have more impact (and enjoy yourself more) if you excel at what you do. We call your chances of excelling in the role your degree of personal fit, and it’s one of the key criteria we use to judge career options.
The importance of personal fit means that if you’re fortunate enough to have discovered something you’re really passionate about, that’s great, and you should strongly consider continuing with it.
It also means it’s worth striving to find work that you’re passionate about, because it’ll raise your chances of excelling. The problem is that if you want work you’re passionate about, you shouldn’t simply “follow your passions”.
What should you do instead?
How can you find the most satisfying career?
At the start of your career, explore your options, learn about yourself and try out different areas. This is important because it’s difficult to predict what you’ll be good at just by thinking about it, and if you stick to what you already know, you could easily miss a great area.
After you’ve identified a promising area, build up valuable career capital, while keeping your options open and continuing to explore. If you want satisfying work, you need something to offer.
Third, identify the most satisfying options open to you, by taking the steps on our job satisfaction page. Don’t just consider whether the work matches your passions, since there are other routes to being satisfied.
Work hard to excel in your role, and use that to negotiate for more engaging, meaningful work that you’re good at, with people you like, and that allows you to fulfill your priorities outside of work.
Keep learning, and find better and better work over time.
For instance, Cal Newport argued that ‘do what you’re passionate about’ has become pervasive and influential in “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, 20 Sept 2012, Business Plus, Amazon link. See a summary in his Harvard Business School article↩
We’ve written about the importance of matching your interests and personality with your work here and here. There has been an extensive attempt by psychologists to study this effect, primarily through Holland types. As we wrote:
One meta-survey argues that the theory is invalid. First, it claims there are different ways to measure “degree of fit” between person and work environment, and these different ways turn out to give significantly different answers. This is a serious problem for the theory as it means your “fit” with a job based on personality type is ambiguous. Moreover, the survey finds no correlation between degree of fit and job satisfaction. Two large meta-studies (involving ~9,000 people) looking at degree of fit and job satisfaction found slight correlation between the two, but still surprisingly weak: one found a correlation of 0.1 and another 0.2. This hardly indicates the theory is highly useful for job selection, since it means it only accounts for 1-4% of the variation in levels of job satisfaction. Similarly, a large meta-study on job selection showed that interests, as measured with Holland types, are only very weakly predictive of job performance, with a correlation of 0.1.
This is borne out by our experience, but we also found a 2002 survey of Canadian students finding that 84% had passions, but only 4% were relevant to the world of work, with most people passionate about sport and music. 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 ↩