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 ever 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 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. I’ll discuss that in a follow-up piece.

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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  • robert wagner

    I’m shocked that Jay Richards would get it so twisted. In critiquing O’Keefe, Dweck and Walton, he misses the truth entirely.

    God has a plan for each of us, and He does not hide it from us. Your talents and passions are keys to understanding His purpose for you. Forget these researchers and geniuses and stick with The Bible. Matthew 6:24 (King James Version) says:

    No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

    Serve God, people. Want to know joy? Want to know peace? Want to know treasure no man can count? Serve God.
    And guess what? When you discover His plan for you, I guarantee that you will find that you ARE pursuing your passion.

    • Paul

      If past article series by Jay are an indicator, I’d suggest waiting until reading the entire series to fully understand his point of view.

    • Rick

      I mean no offense but my first thought after reading you comments was, “that’s a mighty small box you’re putting God into”.

      Just as one example, I don’t think Joseph had any idea what God had planned for him for many years, and after much suffering.

    • Juan Garcia

      I think you just restated exactly what Jay has argued, just in spiritual terms rather than pragmatic. Jay is a very devout guy and a great teacher. He’s laying the groundwork for the path that you are already traveling. You are very fortunate to be on that path, most people are not. Show a little humility and gratitude for the Grace you’ve received and love for your brother Jay who is speaking to a very wide audience.

  • Tim H

    Finally someone with a platform is telling the truth. Thank you for this piece Jay. I like the short version at the top – find out what your good at that others might want and pursue that. Passion will follow.
    I’m living proof. I’m past 45. So I have experience here. No one offered me any career advice in college. Everyone was afraid to limit me or my freedom. Oh how I wish someone had helped me understand Jay’s advice.

    I got a degree in business but my first love was philosophy and theoretical economics. Who’d buy that? After searching around a bit through my 20’s I finally landed in a corporate job. I honestly didn’t like it but with responsibilities to feed a family I kept at it. I eventually found a niche for the most part that I can pursue with gusto. I work with some really excellent people, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about myself and large organizations, I’ve helped a lot of people through the work I provide to them as customers. It’s not perfect and I have to get my fix for my other passions elsewhere but it is a great job with many good things coming to my family because of it.

    I actually did have to pray a lot about keeping this job. And at times it was very very difficult. But after nearly 20 years there, I could easily move to something else but I dont find myself wanting to.
    If I had to do it over, I might do more research about companies to work for. But if anyone I trusted had really confidently and with love offered me the advice Jay is giving, it would have saved me a lot of anguish.

    One more piece to this though. I do really think God can help you discern your place in life, but you have to recognize that we are finite creatures. Choices mean something. Most of us will never do all that we aspire to, partly because we dont have the drive and partly because we simply dont have the time.
    If you determine you are called to the married state in life (I’m presuming we all know kids are part of that) then you are going to face sacrifice and compromise with some dreamy half formed vision you had as a teenager. Some of you were blessed (I mean that) with perfect sight into what you wanted to be AND you were given the abilities and opportunities to accomplish them. But many of us have to find our way with imperfect sight. And Jay’s advice will save much heartache if you will follow it. I’m not saying don’t set goals. Talk with God. Listen to him. Connect your goals to what’s going on in the world – find something someone wants. Pursue doggedly. Reevaluate at 5 or 10 year intervals.

  • Paul

    Jay, I agree with your rejection of the typical passion advice. It is entirely inadequate, devoid of the much needed specifics to guide a person to a desired outcome or destination. I look forward to the rest of your series.

  • Matt

    Good advice. I probably gave up over a million in lifetime income by following my passion. The things we love doing generally pay the least.

    • What would you gain if you lost your soul for money?

  • Irene Neuner

    You won’t find your life hidden in Christ without a growth minset!

  • Ray

    Usually people tend to enjoy things in life they have a God given talent for. It’s as if they were meant to flourish naturally in that work. Therefore they enjoy it. When involved in it, they often experience a peace or joy or satisfaction that comes with the activity as if they are a fish in that stream. it’s as if everything in nature comes together for them and they are in harmony with it. Perhaps it’s by God’s design. Some people have natural God given abilities for certain things like music, or art. Sometimes children only a few years old will be playing a musical instrument with remarkable ability. They do it because they enjoy it. It wasn’t because of many years of practice that they developed that ability, for they have not lived many years. Such things are a gift, and gifts of God should be developed. We are responsible for what we do with whatever God has given us.

  • Ray

    How many people excel in things they have little passion for, and how many people don’t do well at things they are passionate about? How many people like spending a lot of time doing something they have no interest in? When passion and ability go together, it seems to be a powerful combination, one that provides motivation for excellence.

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