Doing work that is fulfilling has become ubiquitous career advice, but no one should depend on a single social institution to define their sense of self.By Erin A. Cech
Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have been talking seriously with friends, family, and themselves about the shortcomings of their modern-day work lives. Millions of people have joined the “Great Resignation,” and many, especially the college-educated, have vowed to follow their passion and embark on a different career.
But this yearning for more meaningful work isn’t new: Over the past three decades, college students and college-educated workers have turned to what I call the “passion principle”—the prioritization of fulfilling work even at the expense of job security or a decent salary—as a road map for how to make decisions about their career. According to my research, which draws on surveys and interviews with college students, graduates, and career coaches, more than 75 percent of college-educated workers believe that passion is an important factor in career decision making. And 67 percent of them say they would prioritize meaningful work over job stability, high wages, and work-life balance. Believers in this idea trust that passion will inoculate them against the drudgery of working long hours on tasks that they have little personal connection to. For many, following their passion is not only a path to a good job; it is the key to a good life.
Yet, as I discuss in my new book, The Trouble With Passion, prioritizing meaningful work in career decisions has many drawbacks, and they’re not limited to the ones you might think. Sure, pivoting from a stable but unfulfilling career to a more meaningful one could be financially risky. But the passion principle also poses existential hazards. Put frankly, the white-collar labor force was not designed to help workers nurture self-realization projects. It was designed to advance the interests of an organization’s stockholders. When people place paid employment at the center of their meaning-making journey, they hand over control of an essential part of their sense of self to profit-seeking employers and the ebbs and flows of the global economy.
The passion-principle doctrine has become ubiquitous career advice; even most of the college career counselors and coaches I interviewed espoused it. But advising career aspirants and burned-out workers to “follow their dreams” presumes financial safety nets and social-network springboards that only upper-middle-class and wealthy individuals typically have reliable access to. I found that when working-class college graduates pursue their passion, they are about twice as likely as wealthier passion seekers to later end up in unstable, low-paid work far outside that passion.
Recommending that career aspirants do what they love and figure out the “employment stuff” later (something I was guilty of before beginning this research) ignores the structural obstacles to economic success that many face, and blames career aspirants if they cannot overcome those obstacles. The passion principle is ultimately an individual-level solution. It guides workers to avoid the grind of paid work by transforming it into a space of fulfillment. But it does nothing to address the factors that make paid work feel like drudgery in the first place. Many companies, for their part, also tend to exploit workers’ passion. My research finds that employers prefer workers who find their jobs fulfilling, precisely because passionate employees often provide additional uncompensated labor.
Expanding social safety nets and protections for workers would go a long way to make passion seeking less financially risky. And advocating for collective solutions—better working conditions, more predictable hours, better benefits, more bargaining power, less overwork—in our workplaces and through national policies would not only make paid work more manageable, but also make work better for people in jobs that have little potential for the expression of passion.
In order to circumvent the existential problems of passion, individuals can shift their personal philosophies about work. One solution is to trim paid work to fit into a more confined space in our lives: Work that can be contained in predictable hours, that provides freedom to engage in meaningful outside activities, and that allows ample time for friends, family, and hobbies may be a more desirable and self-preserving goal. The more pertinent question, then, isn’t “How can I change my career path to do work that I love?” but rather “How can I wrangle my work to leave me with more time and energy for the things and people that bring me joy?” Another solution is to diversify our meaning-making portfolios—actively seek out new places to root a sense of identity and fulfillment. No one should entrust the bulk of their sense of self to a single social intuition, especially one within something as tempestuous as the labor market.
To be sure, I am not advocating for the elimination of joy from work. Working for pay can be tedious, disappointing, even crushing, and having meaningful work is one way to make the hours pass more pleasurably. But the solution to those challenges should not necessarily be to position work as a centerpiece of our identity. By understanding the traps of passion, we can be better equipped to envision alternatives to it. Follow your passion if you must, but also find places outside of work to anchor your sense of self.
Erin A. Cech is an associate sociology and mechanical-engineering professor at the University of Michigan and the author of The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality.