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When it comes to work, many of us subscribe to the passion principle: Self-expression and fulfilment should be the guiding tenet in career decisions. Years ago, people chose jobs for security and money. Today, we are told by career gurus and guidance counsellors to follow our hearts.

Erin Cech embraced that notion. Although she fared well in her electrical engineering studies at university, she decided she would finish her degree but not work in the field. She preferred sociology – her passion. In that work, she coined the term “passion principle.” But over time, she found reasons to question its grip on us.

“As an educator, I have been uneasy with my instinctual impulse to tell any student showing interest in my discipline to follow their passion and figure out ‘the employment stuff’ later,” the University of Michigan assistant professor of sociology writes in her book The Trouble with Passion.

Her research found three factors that form the basis of career passion. The first is a connection to the field’s knowledge content, which seems interesting, intriguing or intellectually engaging. The second is emotional, the prospective occupation offering excitement, happiness or even joy. The third is a match between an occupation and the individual’s experiences, tastes or values.

Her surveys found support for passion as a central guiding principle in picking careers. But one she conducted of college-educated workers found those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to emphasize passion than those from working-class backgrounds. Asian and Black workers were also less likely to see passion as important in career decisions. Workers without a college degree typically rated salary and employment security of highest importance in their consideration of whether they would take a new job.

Overall, passion still was by far predominant across gender, race, ethnicity and class. But for some people, it’s less affordable and thus less practical than for others.

Prioritizing passion after graduation often came at a price for students she had studied in university and followed up on three to five years into their careers. “Passion-seeking frequently meant enduring employment delays and precarity,” she says. Only 37 per cent of the passion-seekers were able to launch into stable jobs or promising graduate programs within their desired sphere. The most successful tended to be from wealthy or middle-class families who had more resources to help them navigate the challenges of confirming their passion through work.

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Similarly, she found that following one’s passion could be especially risky for working-class college graduates and those who are the first generation of their family to attend university. They often faced unstable employment while juggling large student loan debt. “Working-class passion seekers were just as committed to success in their passion as their more privileged peers, but lacking the safety nets and springboards available to middle- and upper-class career aspirants, their career outcomes often looked qualitatively different,” she reports.

Are employees who are passionate and perhaps as a result working harder rewarded for that enthusiasm? Or are they exploited by employers who know they can count on them to accept low pay and eat ramen noodles at night for the privilege? Her findings are not definitive but both in experiments where people looked at applications from passionate job seekers and sociological data, she found evidence they are not rewarded for being more committed.

Her advice to career aspirants and workers is to consider whether passion-seeking is truly the right approach for you. Figure out the sacrifices it might entail and accept that an alternative is to use paid employment to support meaning-making projects outside of work. As well, move from thinking of passion as a dichotomy – a job has it or not – to a continuum, in which different opportunities offer different passion rewards.

Her advice comes amidst talk of a Great Resignation, with widespread reports of people leaving careers in the United States for reasons of the heart, in line with the passion principle. That may be right for you. But it also may not be.

Quick hits

  • Zero inbox = sausage pizza is the formula that Ladders careers site founder Marc Cenedella uses to get his inbox clean at the end of each week or, at worst, every second week. The pizza reward spurs him on through the drudgery of the task.
  • Laura Vanderkam, after spending two days by herself at a hotel to go over the manuscript for her next book, while her husband oversaw the kids and the home front, suggests you ask for a similar “gift of space” for the holidays – 48 hours off. The cost of a hotel or Airbnb is incidental she says in her Just a Minute newsletter; the barrier is not wanting to impose on others but get over it.
  • Get over your anxiety when someone asks you a question after a presentation. Probably others share the same lack of clarity, says presentations coach Gary Genard, so take advantage of the opportunity to explain further. Questions are also a sign people are engaged.
  • The more specific your intention when asking someone for time to pick their brain, the more likely you will receive a positive response argues Anne-Laure Le Cunff of the Ness Labs coaching site. Is it, for example, particular advice on a decision or more general guidance, or mentoring?
  • The biggest risk to productivity is always the same – working on the wrong thing, warns author James Clear.

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