“If unwilling to rise in the morning, say to thyself, ‘I awake to do the work of a man.’” –Marcus Aurelius
In recent years we’ve heard people constantly giving the advice to ‘follow your passion’ or asking us ‘what are you passionate about?’ More broadly, we have developed a cultural assumption that it is better to be intrinsically motivated than motivated by outside obligations or commands.
Is this true when applied to what you do for an income? Or is this another consumerist fad, driven by what sells in the positivity and self-help industry?
What the idea is
The idea, as I understand it, is based on the concept that inner motivation trumps outer motivation. We look at high achievers and see that they put in hours of work. We conclude that they are passionate about the work, or the result of their effort, and we think that the passion must make that level of work possible. Therefore, we believe, if we find our passion, it will be easy to put in the effort needed to excel.’
This is then expanded to the idea that everyone has a passion, and that if they follow it they will naturally achieve success. This will be because they cannot help but put a winning amount of effort into their passion.
Why it might not be good for you…
There are some problems for people that buy into this and try to succeed by finding their passion. The first problem is, what if you don’t know what your passion is? How will you find it? Or more importantly, what will you sacrifice trying to find it? People who are trying to find their passion sometimes quit good jobs they aren’t passionate about to pursue something they think they are passionate about, only to find that it’s hard to distinguish passion and interest when you aren’t in the middle of the work. I am interested in biology. But that means that I like reading articles and watching nature shows, not that I want to be a lab eight hours a day.
Your interests may change, and if you think your job should always be what you are most interested in and passionate about, what do you do when that change happens? Jumping around won’t give you the experience and depth you need to grow. But the logic of pursuing your passion says that you have to. If you aren’t intensely enjoying what you are doing, you should move on. But since everything can be difficult when you are climbing the learning curve or having a bad day, and every job has tedious parts, doesn’t that mean you will never find what you are looking for? This kind of mindset can result in people never committing to anything long enough to get past the learning curve. It prevents you from discovering the truth – meaning often comes with time, as you get enough skill and understanding in your area to be able to make a difference.
And what if you do find your passion, but your passion is worthless? What if my true passion is creating sculptures from mashed peas? A true believer would say that I will be happier pursuing that as a starving artist and that my passion will eventually earn me a place where that is appreciated. This seems more like religious faith than good career advice to me, and even if it happens, we are back to the question of what I am giving up. Did this path let me have a family, housing, vacation, or other things I might have wanted?
… or good for the people around you
The question of family leads us to the next point – the philosophy of passion is essentially narcissistic. It tells us that we deserve to be working only on the things that we are fully immersed in from the standpoint of personal passion. But this ignores any obligations to community and people around me.
What if I am a great doctor, with a wife and kids, and my passion is to work at McDonald’s because I love hamburgers and customer service? Do I have a right to pursue that career if it takes away from my ability to provide for my wife and children’s future? What about my community? I’m sure they need great medical care more than they need me to flip burgers. But the philosophy of passion ignores the satisfaction that comes from working to be useful and fulfill responsibilities to the people around you, no matter who they are.
They should want you to be happy, right?
Pure passion might not be as real as we think anyway
We talked about the difficulty of finding your passion. But I think even the classic examples of passion and indefatigable intrinsic motivation aren’t so clear cut. Let’s look at Michael Jordan. The intrinsic motivation story is that he was motivated to practice for hours on end, to overcome not being as naturally talented, because of his love for the game.
But can intrinsic and extrinsic motivation be so easily separated? Basketball is a competitive game. You could also say that one of the things that kept Jordan going was his competitiveness – he wanted to be better than other people. The desire to win was his extrinsic motivation. Do you think he would have kept doing basketball so intensely if no one was watching and keeping score? You could ask the same question about Steve Jobs or anyone else. He wouldn’t have made an iPhone without customers. A musician wants listeners and might write for themselves even if no one was listening – but they would do it in their free time, not day in and day out for pay.
The truth is intrinsic and extrinsic motivation go together. You may be interested in what you are doing and enjoy it. But some days you won’t be, and that’s when paycheck, responsibility, or competition keep you going. This isn’t somehow less valuable or authentic than the days when you were self-motivated. It’s maturity and consistency.
The passion philosophy sells a lot of books and the commercial aspect is clear. But I think there is also a degree of disingenuousness that it encourages. It can easily become a virtue-signalling competition. People try to look like they are passionate about what they are doing even when they aren’t, because you aren’t supposed to say you are doing your job because it’s a job that needs doing and someone has to do it, and the pay is good enough. As one of my friends said – working is better than being homeless or useless. That’s not a good enough answer though. To be more passionate is to be more virtuous.
he language of passion has even crept into the relationship between employer and employee. We see job postings now asking for passionate people, and the language may appear in interviews. But when this language is used the employee may feel they have to imply they are ‘passionate’ about the career path or job to get or keep it.
In doing so they may psychologically trap themselves. It may become harder for them to say no to more hours – in fact they may try to be seen ‘working more passionately’ – so as not to contradict the image they sold.
It also makes things easier for the company to have everyone believe that passion equals hours and intensity of work, and comes only from inside the employee. The virtue competition gives the employers more work for less caring.
But a less-hyped interaction would recognize that the company wants hard work and dependability in the end, not ‘passion’ – and it’s easier for both sides to acknowledge that hard work and dependability have reasonable limits and will be influenced more by the environment than something spiritual like passion.
Be motivated by what needs doing
The truth is you should not let yourself become totally sucked into this cult. You should know what interests you and what doesn’t. But you should also know what you are good at, what your responsibilities are, and what actually needs to get done. And you should navigate your life with all of these things in mind. It may mean your job is not vibrantly passionate at all times, but if you do it well, it will be satisfying.