Here’s what most people get wrong about “passion”

These days, many people see passion as something they either have or don’t have. Here are the reasons why that’s the wrong mentality.

Here’s what most people get wrong about “passion”
[Photo: Marek Szturc/Unsplash]

Yes, it’s cliché. But while we all seem to get that marriage requires more than a little love and affection, there’s still this pervasive myth that passion is the secret key to your career.


Don’t get me wrong. Passion counts for a lot, especially if you’re tasked with convincing someone to give you a shot.

When it comes to making career transitions for happiness, I’m not just a poster child–I’m a freeway billboard. In my own work, I’ve made not one pivot but three, and in each of those instances, I convinced someone to take a chance on me despite an unconventional resume. They saw something that didn’t fit on one page of cream-colored paper, and I benefited from that. So talking the talk definitely counts for something.

But there’s something about this post-millennial era that’s got it twisted (post-millennial Rihanna reference definitely intended). Too many of us have lost track of the nuances.

With the rise of buzzwords like “manifesting” and “passion projects,” there’s another underlying belief system at play: that wanting something badly enough actually makes you qualified to have it.

Much like a happily-ever-after plotline, underneath all the talk about boundless passion or a candidate’s personal goals-slash-dreams, there’s just not much meaning.

Related: How to tell the difference between a career pivot and a distraction 


The myth of the big entrance

I often see this mentality in cover letters when we’re hiring. Sentence after sentence argues (usually incredibly articulately) about how transcendent the experience of working with us will be.

“There’s nothing I’ve ever wanted more than to work at Career Contessa improving the lives of women every day.”

These are lovely words, and I imagine many people automatically react to them the same way I did: It feels good to hear that the work your company does means so much to someone. And it’s easy–especially after that ego boost–to think that their chutzpah equals professional tenacity. But does it really?

I’ve had an interview where someone told me I should hire her because she was ready to harness her abundant creativity. Others have told me they can’t wait for a flexible work environment that will let them explore their outside interests. Once, a 23-year-old told me that getting hired would help her grow her personal brand and following (lucky me?).

As I’m listening, there’s a common thread that’s hit-you-over-the-head clear, and it’s not “this person is star employee material.” It’s more like: me, me, me.

“I want a career that fulfills me.”


“I love that this job gives me flexibility, so I can work on my other projects.”

“This is the perfect stepping stone toward my ultimate goal of working for myself.”

It’s not that these are bad things to think, exactly–it’s that there are more complex thoughts and conversations to have. Thoughts like these are big-picture thinking taken to extremes like a climactic scene from some ’90s Meg Ryan movie. Much like a happily-ever-after plotline, underneath all the talk about boundless passion or a candidate’s personal goals/dreams, there’s just not much meaning.

Almost every time I’ve hired someone who sells solely their unbridled passion, breezing over their past work, or concrete experiences, I’ve come to regret it.

Cue the flagging dedication

What these conversations lack is the collaborative element that real, lasting professional relationships need. Because if work is about innovation and empathy, there’s more to it than what any one of us wants to do. It’s about how we can adapt and change each other and do real work together.

There’s this inherent privilege in the passion-is-everything perspective, and maybe that’s why it bothers me so much. If you’re responsible for making rent and paying down student loans, you don’t get to plan your life solely around your passion projects. You earn time to focus on those, courtesy of a whole lot of hard work. So this idea that passion is The Answer, that’s reserved for a very few people–the ones who can “just quit” when the going gets tough.


Almost every time I’ve hired someone who sells solely their unbridled passion, breezing over their past work or concrete experiences, I’ve come to regret it.

They fail to meet deadlines. They balk at busy work. They give notice after three months because they’ve committed to too many other side projects. They’re the sort of personalities who wind up with two- or four-month jobs on their resumes and not much more. They fall through.

When you’re focused solely on the personal endpoint–your own success, full stop–how can you make space for all the work that needs to get done in between? And if your eye is only on the prize, how are you supposed to stay energized when the process takes longer than expected?

Newsflash: It always does.

Related: Ask yourself these questions at every stage of your career

And then there’s the passion judgment

There’s more to it than that as well. There’s also the fact that many of us don’t know what we’re passionate about, and thanks to the rise of the passion-first mentality, we tend to feel like we’re failing if we don’t. We look at others with all that conviction and energy, and we think they must have it figured out. That comparison can affect us in various ways, but the scariest is that it threatens to have an adverse effect: It can stunt our growth.


If you approach every job with an open perspective, chances are the experience will help you with your growth. Even a terrible job can teach you what industry suits you or make you realize what you’re innately great at. But if you don’t give it a chance–because it’s not what you think is your passion, right now, right this second–how will you ever really keep evolving?

Passion these days is a black-and-white myth. We tend to believe that either you have it or you don’t. And like most things, inflexible thinking will ruin us.

Work first, passion second. Because what is passion, really, if you’re not willing to fight for it?

Related: 7 ways to make your job meaningful again

Give me the dedicated doers, not the passionate dreamers

I’m not interested in the passionate dreamers or the “currently working on” hustlers as much as I’m interested in the people who work in the gray zones somewhere in between. These are the people who never cease to impress and surprise you. They’re also the ones who challenge you. They make you think–and work–differently.

A friend of mine, a creative director for a fashion brand, once listened in silence as a 19-year-old told her that once her modeling career finished, she’d “just become a creative director since I love styling.”


Just become.

That friend climbed ranks over a decade one production assistant job at a time, worked 60-hour weeks or more, and moved across the country twice for new opportunities. She loves her job today more than anything, precisely because she worked her ass off to get there. Passion came later.

Work first, passion second. Because what is passion, really, if you’re not willing to fight for it?

There’s a similar adage that goes something like this, “Don’t do anything for five minutes that you wouldn’t do for five years.” It’s one that people rarely linger on, maybe because it makes us uncomfortable. Such a span seems dramatically out of sync with our iPhone-laden era. And that’s precisely why the five-plus-yearers are that much more impressive to me.

It’s not that I’m asking people to give up all their passion or to stick it out in a job that makes them miserable. But when I think about the sort of people I see with flourishing careers, they’re never the Passionates, they’re the Commitments. The ones who don’t treat “passion” as their everything but simply as the product of putting effort into working, questioning, and exploring. They’re not the biggest show-stealers, but they’re doing more than alright.

This article originally appeared on Career Contessa and is reprinted with permission.