Follow Your Passion? Sorry. It’s Still Bad Career Advice.

By Jay Richards Published on August 4, 2018

This June in The Federalist, I argued that young people who want a successful career should not follow their passion. I offer a longer version of this argument in The Human Advantage.

I’m trying to counter the near-universal counsel to do the opposite. I know I’m poking at a hornets’ nest. Still, I’m surprised at the fervent anger this advice provokes in some people.

Last week, Discovery Institute hosted a book event for George Gilder and me, and I offered this tip in passing to the many students in attendance. One older member of the audience chided me for it. But it was clear from his comments that he thought I was saying something else. Something like: Do what you hate.

What I really said is that for most people, “follow your passion” is a poor guide to a prosperous career. It’s better to first find out what you might be good at that other people want, then pursue that, and passion will follow.

But the message clearly isn’t getting through. So, let’s dig a little deeper.

What is a Passion?

What is a passion? In this context, it’s a positive emotion. Your passion is something you’re excited about. As Merriam-Webster says, it’s “ardent affection.” That’s it. Nothing about virtue or insight or hard work or serving others or seeking God’s will for your life. Just: Focus on what excites you and let that guide your career choices. Seriously?

The Human Advantage cover

Since when did we decide it’s wise to encourage teenagers who need jobs just to follow their emotions? How different is “Follow your passion” from “Do what feels good”? In almost any other context, this would be dismissed as, well, stupid advice. Christians would see this for what it is: not wisdom, but a bit of Disnified emotional expressivism that fails to take the Fall or the facts of life into account.

Let’s Be Practical

Imagine, for instance, that you’re speaking to a group of low-income teenagers from single-parent homes in Youngstown, Ohio. The once-vibrant steel town has lost over 60 percent of its population since its steel industry started to decline in 1959. It’s now a sad pool of despair and social dysfunction. Far too many of its young people have little or no hope for a better life. Drugs and out-of-wedlock births are epidemic among its poorer citizens.

Since when did we decide it’s wise to encourage teenagers who need jobs just to follow their emotions?

What’s the most helpful career advice you could give to these teenagers? Assume they’ve never had a real job. Also, assume they haven’t taken aptitude tests, or spent years on piano or Kung Fu or chess lessons. And they haven’t gotten $500 robot kits for Christmas or attended SAT prep seminars.

Now, you can give them just a few tips. What will you say?

“Follow your passion” is nowhere on my list. Instead, after basic spiritual advice, I would offer boring stuff, like:

  • Graduate from high school.
  • If you can, go to trade school or college.
  • Wait until you’re married to have sex.
  • Don’t commit crime.
  • Don’t do drugs or get drunk. If your friends do these things, find new friends.
  • Find an entry level job and do it well.
  • Don’t sniff at flipping burgers at McDonald’s. It’s an on-ramp, not the final destination.
  • If you can’t find a job, move to a place where you can.

And if I were speaking to kids from more privileged backgrounds? I would tell them … the exact same things.

The False Assumptions Behind the Follow-Your-Passion Myth

Behind the follow-your-passion myth are a couple of false assumptions. The first is that your passions are fixed, like your ethnic heritage or eye color. In truth, our passions wax and wane with time and experience. No one who has never heard of baseball can have a passion for baseball.

The second assumption is that, since your passions are fixed, you can and should use them to decide what to do for a career. But that passion for baseball is not, by itself, a reason to think you can, or should, try to parlay it into a career.

Fixed Vs. Growth Mindset

In a forthcoming article in Psychological Science, Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck and Gregory M. Walton develop this point more rigorously. I discuss Dweck’s work in The Human Advantage, so news about this piece caught my eye.

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, distinguishes what she calls a “fixed mindset” from a “growth mindset.” If you think that your intelligence, creativity, character and chances of success were pretty much settled at birth, you’ve got a fixed mindset.

If, instead, you think you can cultivate virtues by hard work, careful choices and deliberate practice, then you have a “growth mindset.”

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Dweck spent twenty years doing research on children and adults. She found that a simple contrast between these two mindsets was a strong predictor of success or failure in later life. People with a fixed mindset fritter away time trying to prove their innate abilities. They downplay the value of practice.

People with a growth mindset do the opposite. They ask questions, admit their ignorance and do whatever it takes to succeed. If they fail, they figure that they just haven’t mastered the skill yet, not that they can’t.

As a result, these mindsets can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you doubt you can improve your lot in life, you won’t bother to do so. If you think you can, you’re far more likely to try and to succeed.

The good news, Dweck says, is that you can teach yourself a growth mindset.

You Can Develop Your Passions

In their new paper, Dweck and her co-authors look at five studies about the advice to “pursue your passion.” They suggest that the advice assumes that “passions and interests are pre-formed and must simply be discovered.” In other words, they’re fixed. The contrasting view is that interests and passions can be developed.

Here’s what they “theorize”:

A fixed theory was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people’s existing interests (Studies 1–3). Those endorsing a fixed theory were also more likely to anticipate boundless motivation when passions were found, not anticipating possible difficulties (Study 4). Moreover, when engaging in a new interest became difficult, interest flagged significantly more for people induced to hold a fixed than a growth theory of interest (Study 5). Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.

In other words, you’re much better off if you think you can develop passions, and then set out to do so. If you think your interests are etched in your genes or your stars, you’ll be inclined to take whatever passion you happen to have at the moment and treat it as some kind of cosmic guide, perhaps to nowhere.

Am I saying we should avoid doing things we love? Do I think we should settle for a dull life in an office cubicle just because we can draw a paycheck from it? Not at all. I’m saying that it’s unwise, when giving career advice to seventeen-year olds, to tell them to follow their passions.

I understand the desire to ground one’s advice in a more inspiring vision. For that, we should talk about calling, not passion. 
 

Jay Richards, PhD, is Executive Editor of The Stream and author of The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in the Age of Smart Machines. Follow him on Twitter.

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