Career advice books published in the 1950s and 1960s typically advised workers to find a stable, well-paying career and gradually learn to enjoy the work itself. The prevailing wisdom at the time suggested that fulfilment would come from mastering a craft, but made little mention of aligning career ambitions with personal interests.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a narrative started to build around finding interest and fulfilment as a centrepiece of career decision-making, says Erin Cech, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.
“Having work that is interesting and meaningful is of central importance to workers at least since the early 1980s,” says Dr. Cech, author of The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality.
Around that time, employment was becoming more precarious, largely because of a struggling economy, Dr. Cech explains.
With job-hopping and career transitions becoming more the norm, workers put more emphasis on aligning their interests with career choices. At the same time, career decisions were viewed as a form of self-expression.
Forty years later, employment has only become more precarious and more intertwined with personal identity.
“Even in this moment where people are really struggling and re-evaluating their relationship to the paid labour force, many are seeing self-expression and passion as the dominant way they want to think about making career decisions,” Dr. Cech says.
“The pandemic certainly hasn’t tampered that down in any way and may have even amplified that as a popular cultural narrative for good career decision-making.”
While many want to find a strong balance between passion and profit in their career decisions, finding the right mix remains a challenge, partly because there is no “right” answer. Some may find joy in turning a passion into a career pursuit, while others may find it preferable to keep their hobbies distinct from work activities.
“We’re not taught to have any of those self-realization tools during the process [of career selection] in school,” says Miriam Groom, an industrial therapist, career coach and founder of Montreal-based career counselling provider Mindful Career. “Usually, we leave it to parents, and a lot of parents have preconceived notions about what their kids should do.”
Ms. Groom explains that not everyone is able to properly identify his or her passions and strengths, especially at a young age. Furthermore, even those that do are often subjected to societal and familial pressures that push them in different directions.
However, having a job that you are passionate about is associated with better performance, which, at least in theory, should also result in greater compensation.
“If you are working within your skill set, there is a correlation to making money, but not directly,” she says. “Just because you’re [passionate about being] an artist doesn’t mean you’ll sell all your paintings, but you’re more likely to stay in the role for longer, you’re more willing to do the grunt work, whereas if you’re not passionate, you’re more likely to give up.”
Ms. Groom also says it’s important to acknowledge that many are truly passionate about amassing wealth and power or climbing the corporate ladder and will find more fulfilment from those pursuits than following their interests.
“Everybody’s motivators are different, it’s so individual, so you have to figure out what motivates you,” she says. “Some people are driven by making a difference in the world; for others, it’s about living in a big house and driving a nice car and having that status.”
There is also another danger that comes with mixing hobbies and career ambitions. Turning one’s passion into a career can take some of the joy out of that activity, says David Fisch, the chief executive officer of Ladders, a job search platform for six-figure salary roles.
“If you try to migrate your hobby into work you run the risk of that not becoming your hobby or your passion any more, but a way to earn a pay cheque,” he says. “I would like to be passionate about my work, but I also like to have hobbies that I have strictly to enjoy.”
It’s also never been easier to dabble in a passion project to determine whether it makes sense to pursue full-time, Mr. Fisch adds. He says online marketplaces and the gig economy have made it easier to explore opportunities as a “side hustle” before fully committing to a full-time career. The transition to remote work has also given people more time to experiment with side projects.
“Technology is getting better every hour in making those things more accessible,” he says. “There are so many tools and resources out there now to actually accelerate somebody’s business idea, and having the ability to dedicate the time during the day – because it’s not being chewed up with things like commuting – offers that on ramp that wasn’t there even two years ago.”