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The Many, Many Problems With "Follow Your Passion"

The Many, Many Problems With "Follow Your Passion"
Published August 28, 2015 by William MacAskill
A lot of career advice is built around slogans like “follow your heart” or “follow your passion.” A popular YouTube video, "What If Money Was No Object?" narrated by British writer Alan Watts, suggests that unless you ask yourself “What makes you itch?” and pursue the answer, you will “spend your life completely wasting your time.”

Taken literally, however, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice.

The Problem with Passion

In 2011 I co-founded 80,000 Hours, a non-profit focused on helping people to find satisfying careers in which they will have the largest social impact; the name refers to the amount of time you’ll typically work in your lifetime.

In the past four years, as well as delving deep into existing research, we’ve interviewed hundreds of people across a wide range of careers and coached hundreds more. One of the most glaring things we’ve discovered is that trying to pursue some preordained “passion” is entirely the wrong way to find a career you enjoy that makes a big difference to the world. Why? Well for starters, most people’s passions just don’t fit well with the world of work.

Most people’s passions just don’t fit well with the world of work.

A 2003 study of college students by the University of Quebec found that 84 percent of them had passions, and 90 percent of these passions involved sports, music, and art. But only 3 percent of jobs are in the sports, music, and art industries. The result is massive competition for a few highly-prized jobs. And just because you have a passion for, say, music, doesn’t mean that you’ll be a particularly good professional musician.

Our interests and passions also evolve over time: psychologists have shown that they change much more than we anticipate. Just think about your greatest interest 10 years ago; chances are, it’s completely different from what you’re interested in today. You might plan your life believing you’ll never want to have kids, but then find when you’re 30 that your preferences change dramatically. 

And while we’re at it, the idea of “following your gut” to find work you love is also terrible advice. The evidence suggests that we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. We overestimate the negative impact of bad changes to our lives, because we overlook all the good things that stay constant across changes. What’s more, we forget to appreciate how we’ll psychologically adapt to new situations. This means that our gut judgments about what will make us happy are far too influenced by the status quo: we like what we’re already used to, and overweight the risks from switching the path we’re on.

So whether you follow your “passions” or your “gut,” you risk committing to projects that in the long run will no longer interest you. Surely there’s got to be a better way to find a fulfilling career?

Getting Engaged

What we’ve found is that the best predictors of job satisfaction are features of the job itself, rather than matters of pre-existing passion. Research shows that what you should be looking for is work that is engaging: find that, and you’re likely to develop long-lasting passion for that work.

Engaging work can be broken down into five factors:

  • Independence: How much control do you have over how you go about your work?
  • Sense of completion: How much does the job involve completing whole pieces of work so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible?
  • Variety: How far does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?
  • Feedback from the job: How easy is it to know whether you’re performing well or poorly?
  • Contribution: How much does your work “make a difference,” improving the well-being of other people?

Each of these factors also contributes to motivation, productivity, and commitment to your employer. Other factors that also contribute to job satisfaction include whether you get a sense of achievement from the work, how much support you get from your colleagues, and “hygiene” factors, such as not having unfair pay or a very long commute. You’ll notice, none of these have much to do with whether the work involves one of your “passions.”

Personal Fit

There’s no one-size-fits-all “perfect job”—personal factors are crucial to choosing the right career. Different people have different strengths, and you’ll need to play to your strengths in order to develop mastery at your work, another important part of enjoying your job.

For this reason, at 80,000 Hours we’re extremely interested in what we call “personal fit.” To assess your personal fit with a career, the key question is this:

If you were to invest the time, how good would you become at this career, compared to other careers you might choose?

The focus is on what you could become good at, which isn’t necessarily what you’re good at now. If you’re straight out of university and you look only at your current strengths, you might feel that your best career options would be in music, baseball, or philosophy. But narrowing your options in this way would be a grave mistake. True, you probably don’t yet have in-demand skills like management, marketing, or coding. But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop them and excel in these areas.

The focus is on what you could become good at, which isn’t necessarily what you’re good at now.

If you want to predict how well you’ll perform, the first step is to learn as much about the work as you can. Speak to people in the job, ask which traits they think are most important to success, and see how you measure up. Ask why people end up leaving the job. Find out how people similar to you have performed in the past.

It may sound like a lot of effort, but we’re talking about 80,000 hours of your life. That’s worth a bit of research.

Planning Ahead

We have more freedom now to choose our careers than at any point in history. Maybe that’s why talk of “following your passion” has become so popular, allowing us to indulge in fantasies of pursuing what we currently enjoy full-time—and getting paid well for it.

In reality, jobs in “passion-based” fields like sports and the arts are scarce and highly competitive. Only a few people will actually be good (or lucky) enough to get these jobs, and others will be left with little to show for years of trying.

The good news is, this isn’t the only, or even the best way to find a satisfying career. Instead, look for jobs at which you could excel, even if they don’t immediately excite your passions. Learn as much as you can about these jobs and try out any that seem promising, checking that the work meets the engagement criteria listed above.

This may not sound half as exciting as “following your passion,” but it’s the best way to develop deep and lasting satisfaction in your career. And ultimately, isn’t that more important?

This article is based on ideas in William MacAskill’s new book Doing Good Better. Want to find which career is really right for you? Take the 80,000 Hours career quiz.

How about you?

Do you agree that "following your passion" is bad advice?

More about William MacAskill

William MacAskill is the cofounder of 80,000 Hours, which gives social impact careers advice, and the author of Doing Good Better, a guide to effective altruism. He’s an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University. 

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