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This is when the advice to ‘follow your passion’ can backfire

It sounds great, but there’s a downside to our obsession with loving what we do.

This is when the advice to ‘follow your passion’ can backfire
[Source illustration: Beboy_ltd/iStock]

College commencement speeches often revolve around the common theme: following your passion. While this sounds like great advice—who doesn’t want to wake up excited to go to work?—there’s a downside, says Erin A. Cech, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and author of The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality.

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“The passion principle suggests the way to avoid the drudgery of work is to love what you do, but this concept might have a negative dark side,” she says. “It helps culturally legitimize an underpaid and overworked white-collar labor force while reinforcing class, race, and gender segregation, as well as financial inequality.”

Why Passion is Dangerous

People, especially the college-educated workforce, understand the expectations of overwork and devotion to the company, says Cech. “They think, ‘I better love what I do,’ but it’s problematic for number of reasons,” she says.

First, following passion presumes access to springboards and safety nets that give you the ability to manage long spans of un- or under-employment or unpaid internships that get your foot in the door.

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“You may need to have a social network to get connected to people in the work that you’re passionate about—a network that only middle- and upper-class folks often have access to,” says Cech. “If we present this narrative as something that everyone should do, regardless of their background, it tends to reinforce the socioeconomic inequality aspect of it. But there are wide discrepancies in who is ultimately able to parlay their passion into stable, well-paid jobs.”

Another way following your passion perpetuates inequality is on a cultural level. “If I’m passionate about the work that I’m doing, and I go into a field where the likelihood of my overworking is higher, I’m playing right into those expectations, rather than channeling a critique on the demands of the labor force or of my employer,” says Cech.

Employers not only desire workers who are passionate about their work; they seek them out partly because they believe that they will get more work out of that person without a pay increase, says Cech. “This problem has been prominent in the labor force for decades, especially for white collar workers,” she says. “It’s an expectation for work devotion. Employers knowingly exploit the passion of the people who work for them.”

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According to Cech, becoming wrapped up in your work is especially prominent in specific industries and occupations. “In academia, for example, it’s particularly clear to see the dangers of having such a strong attachment to one’s work,” she says. “Graduate students will be socialized into their professional occupation and expected to work really long hours and express their devotion to the work that they’re doing to their professors and advisors. But the labor market for PhDs, especially in some occupations, is quite limited. You often see some adjunct faculty struggling to manage the kind of treatment that they experience within departments, with low pay and no job security.”

Passion and the Pandemic

The pandemic has also exasperated the drive to follow your passion, as people become burned out and decide to do something they love. While researching her book, Cech found that college-educated workers who lost their employment or were furloughed during the pandemic were more likely to believe in the passion principle than workers who had kept their jobs.

“A lot of them are thinking, ‘Life is short; why shouldn’t I go and do work that I love?” says Cech. “I understand it. I argue that the thing you love doesn’t only have to be your job.”

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A Better Way of Choosing Your Career

Understanding passion’s dark side begs the question: What should you do instead? Cech suggests striving for balance between the kinds of the kind of effort you put into work, family and friends, and leisure activities.

“Choose work that can be contained into a footprint with a set number of predictable hours,” she says. “That might bring better life enjoyment overall rather than following something you’re passionate about and having very little time for outside interests and hobbies. I call this ‘diversifying your meaning-making portfolio.’ We should all look at our lives and find places outside of our paid employment to find meaning. Labor should be designed to support us in our search of our own self-expression.”

Finding meaning outside of work has the added benefit of helping you weather change. “Someone may lose their job, their organization could get bought out and their job could change, or maybe their industry changes in some way,” says Cech. “A big part of your sense of identity could evaporate when your sense of identity is so firmly in your work.”

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While Cech says solving the passion principle ultimately requires an individual-level solution, educators, parents, and employers should consider their part. Following your passion shouldn’t be an expectation of graduates where they are left to figure out the employment details later.

“The capitalist labor force was not designed to support employees’ personal growth and fulfillment,” she says. “It was designed to increase profit and value for owners and stakeholders. By understanding the power of the passion principle, we can be better equipped to envision alternatives to it—for our organizations, for our institutions, and for ourselves.”

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