Gosh darnit! Here I am, nearly done with my shiny new master’s degree in history–a subject I recently realized that I am obsessed with–when it turns out that it’s a terrible idea to follow your passions. Why didn’t somebody tell me?
I’m yanking the chain a little, but following your passion may not be the best advice for people for a variety of reasons. Recent research has found a startling correlation between this common career recommendation and a big problem in the U.S. Meanwhile, advice on whether passion should fuel your pursuits at all is mixed. However, don’t give up doing what you love just yet, as I will break down for you.
My first instinct when I read the New York Times headline: “The Most Common Graduation Advice Tends to Backfire” was skepticism. I was correct; the headline is wrong, as most headlines tend to be. The article is not about graduation advice but career-seeking advice to undergraduates–to the “ungraduated”–and the advice doesn’t backfire but limit. Boo to misleading headlines! However, the research was legit and reveals something that should concern a lot of us. (I read the full scientific paper with all the statistical gobbledygook like ANOVAs and p-values, to ensure that it was legit. You’re welcome.) The conclusion:
In the current work, we empirically demonstrate that the follow-your-passions ideology, though seemingly devoid of gender on its surface, causes gender disparities when compared to the resources ideology.Siy, Germano, Cheryan, Montejo et al.
What Siy, Germano, and friends did is ask students to describe the career choices they might make, depending on whether they leaned toward a “follow-your-passions” ideology or a resources ideology. Follow your passions was described as doing what you love. The resources ideology meant finding a career in something that was practical, associated with a steadier career path, job security, or good (but not necessarily high) income. The researchers then connected the results with students interest in STEM careers–engineering, computer science, physics. Men were more likely to choose those careers whether they were following their passions or being practical, whereas women were much less likely to choose STEM careers when following their passions than when being practical. Since they also found that follow-your-passion was the most common advice given to undergraduates… you start to see where this is going.
The way Cheryan and Montejo put it in their Op Ed is that “passions seem to be based… on internalized societal expectations about what is appropriate for their gender.” You think it’s your idea, but there’s this huge societal expectation overlay that influences what your passions might be. If you’re discouraged in elementary and high school from pursuing certain subjects, then they won’t become your passion.
These results have given me pause as I have reflected on my own career. I only realized a few years ago that both of my grandfathers became engineers via night school (separate cities, separate industries, separate time periods). I was always just as mathematically inclined as I was a good reader. Yet I was shunted into pre-algebra when my male classmates when into “early” 7th grade algebra. Six weeks into the easier math class, my teacher looked at my third 98% paper and said Why aren’t you in Algebra? but then it was too late. No science teacher ever took me aside to talk about my future; English teachers always did. I have read that things like IQ pass from mother’s genes. My about-to-finish-his doctorate-in-physics son got his math aptitude from somewhere. I think I could have as easily been an engineer as an accountant, and it would have paid better.
My “passion” when I was a freshman in college was reading, and I wanted to be a librarian. One class in Library Science disabused me of that notion, plus I don’t really like people–well, I like them now since I know a few good ones. Still, even though I enjoyed English Lit, I didn’t want to teach Faulkner or Woolf for thirty years either. Off to banking I went, knowing that it was practical. I never for a second considered a technology career, even though I’ve become an expert in relational databases in my spare time.
So this research has really made me think. If we urge people to “follow their passions,” then guide them as teenagers into certain passions perceived appropriate for their gender, race, assumed sexual orientation, socioeconomic status… then we have mapped the ideology of individualism on top of segregation. It’s diabolical, really.
Who Has the Passion to Be an Accountant?
Now, whether society would benefit from having more women engineers doesn’t mean we should force people to be engineers whether they like it or not. It’s asinine to assume that we should just tell everyone to avoid following their passion simply because we need more women in STEM careers. (Even though we do). But the gender norms issue isn’t the only problem with the follow-your-passion ideology.
Though it is cliched advice, there are nearly as many articles emphasizing why you should not follow your passion as that you should. This one by Harvard Business Review points out that passion shouldn’t be perceived as fixed. I would add to the HBR article a few more caveats:
- You may not know what your passion is. Who at 19 years old knows exactly what they want to do? The whole point of being 19, especially if you’re in college, is to try new things and be exposed to new subjects. My son quickly disdained history as a study path, even though he enjoys the topic; I vowed no more library science. Then, I really enjoyed paleontology, though I took it as a senior (too late! I coulda been a digger!) Point is, you shouldn’t have to be “passionate” about a subject in order to pursue it. Keep an open mind as you take those General Ed classes!
- Maybe you can’t monetize your passion. Just because you love to play piano or basketball doesn’t mean you have to pursue doing that as a career. Think about how many 12-year-olds say they want to be Steph Curry… but there’s only one Steph Curry. Not everyone can turn their passion into the exact career they envision.
- Turning a passion into a career might make you hate that passion. You know how people who work in pizza parlors never want to eat pizza? Trying to make money in the arts–writing, painting, music–is especially hard. You might be better off doing your passion on the side while you pursue that practical strategy, so that you still enjoy what you enjoy.
- Stuff happens. Even if you try your hardest to turn your passion into a career, you run into companies that merge, wonderful bosses who leave, and tasks that don’t strike your fancy. Finding the right combination of work that interests you which pays well for the right company and the right supervisor is more of a fluke than a formula.
In general, passions aren’t as simple as a motivational poster. Honestly, images like this seem particularly stupid to me. Is this saying that if you follow your purpose to be a rock ‘n’ roll drummer or animated film artist, then you will get to wander around on Malibu in leisure? This seems useful only if your purpose in life is to be a surfer.
Keep Your Obsessions and an Open Mind
Part of the problem is also the whole idea of a career path. It’s not a path, it’s a 12-lane highway. You might start thinking you’re going to follow your passion, then get shunted down a different lane for any number of reasons. You could just as easily take a job to pay the mortgage and find yourself fascinated by a topic you’d never considered (environmental law, knowledge management, statistical process engineering). Maybe you work with the best people or design a thing that will really help humanity and makes you proud. Passion for your work can come from a lot of different sources.
Instead of following your passion, keep an open mind. The biggest advice I would give to college students is to learn about everything.
Use your learning as a filter. You should avoid pursuing things you hate doing. Not pursuing your passion as a career does not mean you should do something you detest, no matter how practical your parents think it might be. There are many careers that pay the bills; you don’t have to take That job.
Think about passion as more than the subject you might be studying. If you study a subject for practical reasons, do the research to see which companies or industries might be inspiring to you. Learn about the industry leaders; one them might have a story that ticks your “follow the passion” box.
And if you are obsessed with something, it doesn’t have to turn into a career. You can keep playing basketball, singing in a choir, studying dinosaur bones etc. without doing those things for a living. Feel free to keep up with your passions.
You never know. You might complete a very successful and interesting career doing one thing only to pick something else up–like writing–thirty years later.
Of course, to paraphrase the writer’s patron saint Dorothy Parker, we all hate writing. No one has a passion for writing. We have a passion for having written.