By Erin A. Cech
After earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering and sociology, I was determined to do what I love. I headed straight for graduate school to investigate social issues that frightened and fascinated me.
For nearly a decade, I told everyone I met—students, cousins, baristas at the cafe I frequented—that they should do the same. “Follow your passion,” I advised him. “You can figure out employment issues later.”
It wasn’t until I started researching this widely accepted career advice that I realized how problematic — and rooted in privilege — it really was.
The principle of passion
As a sociologist who examines workforce culture and inequality, I’ve interviewed students and working professionals to find out what it really means to pursue their dreams, what I’ll call here the principle of passion. I was amazed at what I discovered about this principle in researching my book “The Trouble with Passion”.
I’ve looked at surveys that show the American public has held the principle of passion in high regard as a career decision-making priority since the 1980s. And its popularity is even stronger among people facing a job instability linked to the pandemic.
My interviews revealed that supporters of the passion principle find it compelling because they believe that following one’s passion can provide workers with both the motivation to work hard and a place to thrive.
Yet what I have found is that following one’s passion does not necessarily lead to fulfillment, but is one of the most powerful cultural forces perpetuating burnout. I have also noticed that promoting the exercise of one’s passion contributes to perpetuating social inequalities due to the fact that not everyone has the same economic resources to allow him to exercise his passion with ease. The following are five major pitfalls of the passion principle that I discovered through my research.
1. Reinforces social inequalities
Although the principle of passion is widely popular, not everyone has the resources to turn their passion into a stable, well-paying job.
Enthusiasts from affluent families are better able to wait for a job in their passion to come along without worrying about student loans in the meantime. They are also in a better position to accept unpaid internships in order to get a foot in the door while their parents pay their rent or let them live at home.
And they often have access to parents’ social networks to help them find jobs. Surveys have found that working-class and first-generation graduates, regardless of career field, are more likely than their wealthier peers to end up in low-paying, unskilled jobs when pursuing their passion .
Colleges and universities, workplaces and career counselors that promote the “follow your passion” path for all, without leveling the playing field, contribute to perpetuating socio-economic inequalities among career aspirants.
So those promoting the “follow your passion” path for everyone might overlook the fact that not everyone is equally capable of achieving success by following this advice.
2. A threat to well-being
My research revealed that passion proponents see pursuing one’s passion as a good way to decide on a career, not just because working in one’s passion can lead to a good job, but because it’s believed to leads to a good life. To achieve this, enthusiasts invest much of their own sense of identity in their work.
Yet the workforce is not structured around the goal of nurturing our authentic sense of self. Indeed, studies of laid-off workers have shown that those who were passionate about their work felt they lost part of their identity when they lost their job, as well as their source of income.
When we rely on our jobs to give us purpose, we place our identities at the mercy of the global economy.
3. Promotes exploitation
It’s not just the wealthy enthusiasts who benefit from the passion principle. Employers of passionate workers too. I conducted an experiment to see how potential employers would respond to job seekers who express different reasons for being interested in a job.
Not only did potential employers prefer passionate candidates to candidates who wanted the job for other reasons, but employers consciously tapped into that passion: potential employers showed greater interest in passionate candidates, in part because employers thought candidates would work hard at their jobs without expecting a raise. in pay.
4. Reinforces the culture of overwork
In conversations with college students and graduate workers, I found that a significant number of them were willing to sacrifice a good salary, job stability, and free time to work in a job. that they like. Nearly half – or 46% – of college-educated workers I surveyed ranked interest or passion for work as their top priority in future employment. This compared to just 21% who prioritized salary and 15% who prioritized work-life balance. Among those I interviewed were those who said they’d be willing to “eat ramen noodles every night” and “work 90 hours a week” if it meant they could follow their passion.
Although many professionals seek work in their area of passion precisely because they want to avoid the drudgery of working long hours performing tasks to which they are not personally committed, the pursuit of passion ironically perpetuates cultural expectations of overwork. Most enthusiasts I spoke to were willing to work long hours as long as it was a job they were passionate about.
5. Rejects inequalities in the labor market
I find that the Passion Principle is not just a guide its followers use to make decisions about their own lives. For many, this also serves as an explanation for labor inequality. For example, compared to those who do not adhere to the principle of passion, supporters were more likely to say that women are not well represented in engineering because they have followed their passion elsewhere, rather than acknowledging the deep structural and cultural roots of this under-representation. In other words, proponents of the passion principle tend to explain labor market patterns of inequality as the benign result of the pursuit of individual passion.
Avoid the traps
To avoid these pitfalls, people may want to base their career decisions on something other than whether those decisions represent their passion. What do you need from your job besides a paycheck? Predictable hours? Pleasant colleagues? Advantages? A respectful boss?
For those who are already employed in jobs you are passionate about, I encourage you to diversify your portfolio of ways you create meaning – to nurture hobbies, pursuits, community service and identities that exist entirely outside of the work. How can you take the time to invest in these other ways to find purpose and satisfaction?
Another factor to consider is whether you are fairly compensated for the extra passion-fueled effort you contribute to your work. If you work for a company, does your manager know that you spent the weekends reading books on team leadership or mentoring your new team member after hours? We contribute to our own exploitation if we do unpaid work for our work out of passion.
My research for “The Trouble with Passion” raises sobering questions about standard approaches to mentoring and career counseling. Each year, millions of high school and college graduates prepare to enter the full-time workforce, and millions more re-evaluate their jobs. It’s critical that the friends, parents, teachers, and career coaches advising them begin to consider whether advising them to pursue their passion is something that could end up doing more harm than good.
Erin A. Cech is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan
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