Maybe… Don’t Follow Your Passion?

I don’t think there’s any advice given out more than “follow your passion” or some variation of it. There are literally hundreds of books and articles written about finding your passion and capitalizing on it.  We hear it from peers, parents, school advisors, CEOs, and motivational speakers.
Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 10.37.59 AMNow don’t get me wrong – I subscribe to this belief. A lot.
Well… kind of…
Let me explain:
Yes, if you are passionate about what you do, it’ll probably be easier to become successful, enjoy your work, and therefore enjoy life in general. Few things inspire me more than people that are passionate about something, and go after it, and let nothing get in their way. The world needs more of these type of people (unless you’re passionate about killing puppies or something similarly terrible). However, I think the advice to “follow your passion” is overly simplistic and might have some negative consequences for individuals as well as society.

# 1 It’s Made Us Self-Entitled A-Holes.

In the Harvard Business Review, Cal Newport does a great job explaining how being encouraged to “follow our passion” has made my generation into self-entitled brats. I highly recommend you check out his article here, but I’ll try my best to sum up. Historically speaking, the idea of finding a job you’re passionate about is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Passion pic newport
The chart above uses Google analytics to track the amount of times the words “follow your passion” has been printed in the English language throughout the years. Past generations grew up in times of war and depression, and were more concerned about just getting by than being passionate about their work. Our generation, on the other hand, has been increasingly told that not only can we have a job we love, but that we should settle for nothing less. Just listen to Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement speech:


Well if Steve Jobs says it, it must be true, right? Cal Newport points out that while that speech is super inspirational, it’s also kind of bullshit. Steve Jobs didn’t really follow his passion. He was more concerned with Eastern Mysticism when he stumbled into his career path, and then developed a passion for it. He also worked really f*@#ing hard… a clause that often gets cut off of the phrase “follow your passion”.

When there are millions of people out there who would be thankful for any type of job, who are we to think we deserve nothing less than to be passionate about our job? Unfortunately the idea that we shouldn’t pursue a career unless we’re really passionate about it, might be contributing to why 29% of adults 25-34 still live with their parents (Parker, 2012). I’ll elaborate more on this throughout.

# 2 What If I Don’t Know What My Passion Is?!?

Anyone else remember the stress of graduating high school/entering college and the extreme urge to punch anyone in the face that asked you “So what do you want to do?” graduationWhat an extremely overwhelming question for anyone, never mind a teenager! “Hey you’re barely 18 and have next to no life experience, what do you think you would be happy doing for the rest your life?!” I think a lot of the pressure comes from the consensus that you must find your passion and pursue it. This message is so powerful that it gives a sense that if you don’t find your passion, you’re bound to misery. So instead of majoring in something that we’re kind of interested in, we’re more likely to stay undeclared for fear of committing to anything that might not be our “true” passion. Many might not even go to college, because they have no idea what they want to study. Even after graduation, many will hold back professionally due to uncertainty about what the right career path is. Job searching can be hindered by a lack of conviction as to what job we should even chase, or we might pass on quality jobs while holding out for one that perfectly captures  our passion. Alternatively, we might take a job but half-ass it, because we’ve labeled it as a  “good enough for now” job until we find our true calling. So it takes us longer to establish ourselves on our own two feet, hence many parents end up having to change the “guest room” back into “our room”.
UnknownNow I’m in my mid-twenties, and the majority of my peers still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. Hell, most people I know of any age still don’t know what they want to do with their lives! Meanwhile, our fear of investing in something that might not be our true passion can keep us from gaining enough experience in anything to find out if we’re passionate about it, or to develop a passion for it.

imagesWhen hearing the message “follow your passion” over and over again, we get the feeling that we should know what our passion is. Furthermore, it makes us feel like something is wrong with us if we don’t know what we’re passionate about. Cal Newport identifies that part of the problem with this message is that it assumes each one of us is born with some predetermined passion we’re destined to uncover… and this probably just isn’t true. He suggests that instead of looking for our passion, we should be cultivating it. This made me think about my discussion on passion vs. dedication in relationships (which you should check out here). Maybe it’s not so different with careers. Sure there are topics you might become interested in, but if you really want to enjoy what you do for the long-term you need to put effort into being passionate about it.

# 3 It Sets Too High Of An Expectation

Ok I’m probably starting to sound redundant, because the same themes keep popping up in each of my posts – but bear with me! We’re lead to believe that we’ll be happy if we’re passionate about what we do. The problem with this is that whenever we become too convinced that a particular set of circumstances will make us happy (a job, a relationship, a boatload of cash), we will be disappointed. I rant about this more here, but basically the only thing that determines our happiness is our own perspective on things. If you’re the type of person that looks for reasons to be unhappy, you’re going to find reasons to be unhappy with any career. If you’re the type of person that looks for things to be happy about, you’re going to find them in any career.WantingWhatYouHaveThis is another area where careers are like relationships: If you expect a relationship to feel passionate/fulfilling all the time, when it’s not you’re going to start doubting it’s the right relationship. Similarly, when you’re convinced you should be over-the-moon passionate about your career, you’re going to assume any job that doesn’t make you feel that way is wrong for you. Once you have the idea that a certain job isn’t right for you, you’ll have a confirmation bias. For you non-psych nerds out there, confirmation bias is a social psychology term referring to the phenomenon where, once we have a belief we pay more notice to all information confirming that belief, and less notice to all contradictory information. So basically if you’re not happy with your job, you’ll notice all the crappy parts of it, and disregard any redeeming qualities. Therefore having such high expectations sets us up for failure.

Even when people do follow their passion, and become wildly successful, it often doesn’t make them happier, in fact they often end up being less happy. Think of all the great musicians and actors that followed their passion, and sadly ended up committing suicide or overdosing. Perhaps this is partly because they achieved everything they thought they wanted, and realized it didn’t make them any happier.
Celebrities that have committed suicide or O.D.ed

# 4 What if your passion is dumb?

Ok I’m being facetious here – I don’t really think any passion is dumb. Ya passionate about making necklaces out of macaroni? Awesome! You make those necklaces! Ya want to make a career out of it? …Let’s think this through.

"Where's my money, bitch?!?"

“Where’s my money, bitch?!?”

I know people have made careers out of the weirdest passions (check out Natalie Irish painting with just her lips here) but I’m just saying you better have a plan… and probably a back up plan.

When we get to college and try to pick a major that will lead us to a great career, plenty of people are happy to suggest we follow our dreams and pursue whatever we’re interested in. No one want’s to be the bad guy, and say anything that might discourage us away from becoming the first multi-millionaire macaroni jewelry designer. When I chose my major I had no idea what I could expect to earn when I graduated, and I believe this is true for most people starting out college, and even true for many people when they graduate college. No one sat us down and explained that if you follow this path, you might end up with 6 figures of debt, and are likely to make $25,000 a year (if you’re lucky enough to even find a job).
images-3This is partly why so many people in my generation are either freaking out because they’ll be dragged down by debt for the rest of their lives, or they’ve become so desensitized to the idea of debt that they’ll just keep living financially irresponsible lifestyles forever.

"Hello dreams!... Good-bye economy!"

“Hello dreams!… Good-bye economy!”

# 5 What if your passion lies outside of your career?

Who says that what you’re really passionate about has to be the source of your income? Sure, we would all love to get paid to do something we already really enjoy, but we might not all be so lucky to find that. Why can’t our passion be in another part of life? Maybe you’re passionate about being a father, and you hold a nice steady job that allows you to support your family. Maybe your passion is skiing, and while you’re not so good that anyone is going to pay you to ski, you have a good job that allows you to tear up the slopes on the weekends. Maybe you’re not passionate about one thing, but about dabbling in lots of different things. I think this might be true for a lot of the people out there who are having a hard time “finding” their passion, because they’re not passionate about any one thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just going to be difficult finding a career to fit that. So do something else that gives you the flexibility to pick up a new hobby every month.

The Solution

Do we give up on pursuing our passion and just accept crappy/mediocre jobs?
Nope. Here’s what I suggest:

  1. If you have something you’re passionate about, you should absolutely pursue it. BUT think it through:
    Can you really make a living out of it? How will you do that? What’s your back up plan? Is it a passion you can pursue outside of your career?
  2. Don’t forget that to find success doing what you love, might mean working really really hard… like harder than most people are willing to… and harder than is probably even psychologically healthy.
  3. If you don’t have a passion, or know what it is – There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with you.
  4. If you don’t know what you want to do, do anything. Find something even remotely interesting to you, and then find the meaning in it. Look for reasons to enjoy what you have. Take pride in whatever it is you do.
  5. Don’t expect any one person, place, or thing to make you happy – The very expectation sabotages itself.

I’ll leave you with some links to smarter people than me saying what I just said but more good.

TedxTalks: Don’t just Follow Your Passion
Theminimalists.com: Follow Your Passion is Crappy Advice
Psychologytoday.com: The Problem with Follow Your Dreams
Forbes.com: 5 Reasons To Ignore The Advice To Do What You Love

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Passion vs. Dedication: What’s More Important In A Relationship?

The dating site OKcupid asks members to answer a variety of questions and uses the answers to predict compatibility with other members. I can’t imagine there’s much validity to this method, but I still find it interesting to read peoples’ answers. There’s one question that particularly interests me: “What’s more important in a relationship? Passion or Dedication?” To me, the obvious answer is dedication – so much so that I figured anyone who responded “passion” must not take relationships seriously enough to qualify as dating material. To my chagrin I noticed an interesting phenomena…
Literally every guy I’ve seen answers “passion”.facepalm-over-animal-ags-stupidity

Really? Really??? This forced me to do some self-reflection – am I crazy for thinking dedication is so obviously more important than passion in a relationship? Am I alone in this?? Of course, seeing that so few agree with me, I have to consider the unlikely possibility that I might be wrong. On the other hand, my background in psychology has allowed me to take classes and conduct research on human relationships, so maybe the difference between my opinion and the general opinion of the Okcupid population reflects a difference in education. I have to remember that what seems like common sense to me now is really the product of being exposed to information that most people might not receive. It’s really a shame if this is the case, because I think the value you place on passion vs. dedication in your relationship can have very real consequences. I’d like to explain my reasoning, and then you can decide if I’m crazy, wrong, or well educated (or all of the above).

Passion is important. Passion is what draws you to another person. Passion is what gives you that “high” of falling in love, and inspires you to keep coming back for more. Without passion, you’re stuck in the friend zone. While passion is necessary to begin a romantic relationship, it is only one part of a successful long-term relationship (and in my opinion not the most important part). But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the research has to say.

The Triangular Theory of Love, developed by relationship theorist Robert Sternberg, identifies 3 elements of relationships that combine in different ways for different types of relationships. The three elements Sternberg identifies are passion, intimacy, and commitment. Passion is associated with physical attraction and intense emotional arousal. Intimacy refers to a sense of emotional closeness, comfort, and support between two people. Finally, commitment is the choice to be dedicated to a relationship and make an effort to preserve it for the long-term.

lovetriIn Sternberg’s theory, the combination of all three of these elements is labeled “Consummate Love” and is basically the holy grail of relationships. While many relationships might start out with all three of these elements, Consummate Love unfortunately isn’t very sustainable. The reason? Over time passion simply tends to fizzle down. Don’t shoot the messenger, that’s just what the research says.

Why does passion fizzle down? Passion is associated with arousal and arousal is fueled by adrenaline. Think heart racing, palms sweating, and an intense sense of urgency. Sounds like falling in love, right? Also sounds like a high-speed car race or sky diving, right? According to research, your partner doesn’t even have to be the source of the heightened adrenaline in order for your attraction to them to increase. A classic experiment by Dutton and Aron (1974) showed that men who were stopped and interviewed by a female on a rickety, flimsy suspension bridge found the woman more attractive than men who encountered her on a more sturdy and stable bridge. Additional research has validated that heightened adrenaline can be misattributed to another person and increase our attraction to that person.

Do I make you randy baby???

Do I make you randy baby???

This is why passion peaks early in relationships, because the very nature of beginning a relationship is new and exciting. You’re continuously being surprised by learning new things and having new experiences with this person. Without putting any effort into it, the process of falling in love creates adrenaline and makes us feel passion. However it simply isn’t possible to remain in a heightened state of arousal indefinitely. Eventually as you become more familiar with a person, the novelty wears off. Instead of basking in an idealized fantasy of your partner and relationship, you have to face the reality of remaining committed to a real person with flaws and a relationship with ups and downs, or else go seek new passion elsewhere.

I realize this might seem like a very bleak and pessimistic view of love, but I don’t think it has to be. Sternberg’s theory labels love with high levels of intimacy and commitment, but lower levels of passion “Companionate Love”. This is the type of stable and comfortable love that is most typically experienced by partners in long satisfying marriages. Companionate love is not based on fiery passion, but on common interests, sharing, and deep friendship. Research shows that this tends to be the stuff happy marriages are made of. Lauer and Lauer (1985) surveyed hundreds of couples that had been married at least 15 years, asking them what made the marriage work. The most common responses were “I married my best friend” and “I like my spouse as a person”.

Now I’m not saying we should all accept the inevitable fate of a passionless long-term relationship. Research does show that there is a small percentage of couples that seem to be able to make passion last. I think that understanding the nature of passion, along with some dedication, gives you the best shot at being one of those lucky couples. Unfortunately, fairy tales, romantic comedies, etc. lead us to believe that when we find our “soul-mate” we will be madly in love for a lifetime and effortlessly live happily ever after. I think it’s this misunderstanding about the nature of relationships that might account for such a high divorce rate. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the height of passion in a relationship lasts about two years, and most divorces occur after about two years of marriage. If you are passive about your relationship, and expect to live passionately and happily ever after, you’re bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, when passion begins to dwindle you’re likely to conclude that the person you’re with isn’t right for you and seek someone else that gives you that sense of passion (which will be easy because the novelty of someone new will innately fosters arousal, as discussed).

^ Married once, engaged 5 times, currently single. Thanks for the advice Johnny but I'm all set.

^ Married once, engaged 5 times, currently single. Thanks for the advice Johnny, but I’m all set.

On the other hand, if you are very dedicated to your relationship, you can take a proactive approach to keeping passion alive within your relationship. For example, since we know any experience that increases adrenaline can heighten your attraction to a person, doing exciting things with your partner can keep the passion alive. The Self-Expansion Model theorized by Aron and Aron (1997) posits that individuals have an innate inclination towards growth and expanding our self-concept. One of the main ways we do this is through our relationships, and so it’s no surprise that satisfaction in relationships has been correlated with high levels of self-expansion. In other words, satisfying relationships are ones where the partners help each other grow as individuals.

Getting to know someone new naturally expands our self-concept, and so no effort is needed to reap the benefits of self-expansion in a new relationship. As time passes, a relationship is no longer inherently self-expanding; the novelty wears off and you’ve already learned most of what you can learn from simply getting to know your partner. Thus relationship satisfaction can also decrease, but there’s a silver lining. Researchers have been able to increase couples’ views of the quality of their relationship by getting them to engage in new and exciting activities together. So you can improve your relationship by putting a conscious effort into planning  new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals.

Take home message: Passion is important, but not likely to be maintained over time without dedication. Furthermore, placing too much emphasis on passion in your relationship is dangerous, because it sets you up for failure. When the passion in your relationship dwindles (as it almost inevitably will) you will doubt your relationship, be tempted to give up and start over with someone new, and eventually repeat the same pattern. Rather than looking for someone who fills you with endless undying passion, look for someone you enjoy and respect as a person. Take the advice of most happily married couples, and marry your best friend. Then put some effort into making that relationship as exciting as possible.

954786_390046057770738_1093487704_n*side note: I haven’t looked at women’s answers to the OKcupid question, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a gender difference. Research shows that men have more romanticized ideas about relationships, whereas women are more practical. Hence men are more likely to emphasize passion over intimacy or commitment. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised by all the “passion” responses from men. This means that men generally place the most value on the least sustainable aspect of a relationship. Wake the ef up dudes!

Interested in more? Here’s some articles that talk about the same stuff much more eloquently:
Nytimes.com: New Love: A Short Shelf Life?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Is Long-term Love Possible?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Hot and Heavy or Slow-and Steady?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Rekindle the Romance in Your Relationship with Self-Expansion