Avoiding the Heartbreak of Career Passion

“Following your passion isn’t enough. It’s just your ticket in.” - Evan Carmichael

It may seem counterintuitive for a career professional to despise the “P” word (passion), but I do; not because I don’t believe in the importance and benefits of the pursuit of passions, but because people use the “P” word quite inflexibly and often to their own detriment. In fact, society pushes the “P” word as an idealized goal, but passes on little information on understanding the word itself and its implications; i.e., where to look for one’s passion, how to identify a passion, or what to do when you find it, other than to follow it (Really? WTF does that even mean?). Consequently, we feel embarrassed or ashamed if we can’t articulate our passions when asked, and we’ll probably feel like a real jackass if we are doing nothing to discover it.

So, how do you know if you are experiencing career passion heartbreak and what should you do instead?  You may be headed for heartbreak if one or more of the below situations resonate with you.

You are on the passion merry-go-round and can’t seem to get off. You are too scared to quit your search for the perfect career as you will probably miss “your calling” as soon as you get off the ride.  

Don’t confuse passion with perfect. No job is perfect; people miss opportunities all the time because the options aren’t perfect. As Thomas Edison appropriately quipped, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  We all have to do a variety of tasks on a regular basis, both personally and professionally, that we dislike. Your job is to understand what your ideal split of enjoyable work versus unenjoyable work is (e.g., a 90/10 split or an 80/20 split, etc.). And more importantly, what you need to do to make sure you get and maintain that split, or how to get even more of the stuff you like, and less of the stuff you dislike.

Pay attention to the times when you lose yourself in your work; the stuff you do where you become so engrossed that you forget to eat or pee and time literally flies. That is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow,” which is a state of high mental focus, also sometimes referred to as being in the “zone.” It’s important to note that flow inducing activities require a certain skill and challenge level. Once your skill set increases, you then require heightened challenges to experience flow. Consequently, what used to produce flow will not always produce flow; therefore, it requires work on your part to create continued flow.

When I ask people what they are passionate about, most often there is a pause followed by an, “I don’t know.” I’m often skeptical of this response, as in many cases what impedes someone’s ability to identify their passion is their perception of how the question should be answered. In fact, most people try to answer this question with a job title.  If you can’t articulate your passion, do not let that prevent you from getting out there and exploring ideas and challenging yourself to think more broadly about your interests.

You assume passion is inherent and instantaneous. If you can’t intuitively identify your passion, you feel like a passionless putz. You have been experiencing a passionistic plague for a while now and you expect it to continue for the foreseeable future.  

Your approach to passion may be hindered or helped by your mindset. If you possess a fixed mindset, you are apt to conclude that your interest and skills are fixed and relatively unchanging. Consequently, you are relegated to finding your passion within your existing repertoire of knowledge and skills. Alternatively, if you possess a growth mindset, you might approach your passion and your own development from a perspective of discovery. Moreover, you are likely to accept the possibility that passions can be discovered and cultivated.

I am a firm believer that passions can be grown and developed, but for many people, they have to either know it exists or have been exposed to that career area. Therein lies a significant problem: If you don’t have previous knowledge of the existence of a particular career, task or subject, how can you develop that passion? Also, even when one has knowledge of a career, many folks make assumptions about its probability to foster passion. Think about how many careers that you are absolutely unfamiliar with. Instead of finding your passion, think of it as learning or exploring activities that may lead to your passions.

Here I implore you to tread carefully, as passion is insufficient on its own. In Morten Hansen’s book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More, he too suggests pursing passion alone is insufficient and suggests that only doing what you love can lead to disastrous outcomes.  Instead, Hansen argues that individuals must match passion with purpose or aim to achieve what he calls “P-squared” (the result of matching passion (doing what you love) with purpose (do what contributes) is P-Squared (focused energy).*  Therefore it’s important to know why you want to pursue a particular job or career.

You are riddled with guilt by such phrases as FOMO (fear of missing out) and YOLO (you only live once). 

Acronyms such as FOMO and YOLO can send some people into a career tizzy over the desperate identification and pursuit of passion. I’ve often wanted to shove someone’s YOLO up their FOMO because those who espoused it often induce stress, guilt or embarrassment versus instilling confidence, skills or the motivation required to pursue passion.

Don’t assume that simply being in awe of someone else’s pursuit of passion will be adequate and sufficient to inspire you to identify and pursue your own passions. People don’t know what they don’t know, and if they can’t identify a passion after concerted effort, they may need to enlist the support of a career professional to think about things differently. And it’s also likely that they will need to try different things (more than once) to discover new ideas.   

You firmly believe that you have to demonstrate strong skills in the career area in order to pursue the passion. 

It’s true that some folks do seem to have a knack for some things at the outset, and aptitude is certainly important, but most of us normal folks aren’t good at most things right away. We need time to develop skills and knowledge to derive passion from the activity. Can you think of many musicians who played spectacularly the first time they picked up an instrument?

Although passion can be correlated with ability, it’s not always the case. Passion is not always instantaneous but for those who experience career passion, they do demonstrate a strong desire to learn, achieve results, and get better at what it is they love as opposed to expect to be great at something immediately.  Passion can take time to develop and may wax and wane, so don’t assume you will feel the same way about a career every day.

And make sure that you don’t define your passion too narrowly as this may undermine your confidence in identifying, pursuing, and developing it. I once worked with a graphic designer who confessed to me that she no longer felt passionate about her work. She had been working as a freelancer for quite some time and although she had an existing roster of repeat clients, she simply wasn’t as motivated as she had been when she first started. We explored many factors which could have explained her sentiment, but it really came down to her perception of her passion. When I asked her, “What are you passionate about now?”  her response was clear and succinct: sign making and murals. She proceeded to tell me about freelance jobs she was considering to get more experience in this area as well as the influencers she was following on social media who did this type of work (see the desire to learn here). I reflected to her that it sounded as though her passion actually had remained somewhat consistent and she looked at me with a puzzled look. I said, “It sounds as though you still possess a passion for communicating through creative mediums.” Enter insight. She had defined her passion to narrowly and in fact had ascribed it to the job title as opposed to an outcome, task or purpose. By framing her passion more broadly, she was allowing herself flexibility in its execution as there are many ways to be creative through communication mediums.  

You believe in the saying, “Chose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Sorry, Confucius, but this is just plain bullshit. While I get the sentiment, many people have had to work hard to get to where they are, and work just as hard, or harder, when they get to where they want to be. Even if one truly demonstrates passion for the work they do, shit happens, sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance (hello Pandemic!).  I’ve seen many clients work 10x harder in the position they love than the ones they hated because of factors such as discrimination, economic volatility, mental health, relationship issues or because as an entrepreneur, it was up to them, and only them, to get things done.

Nowhere does it say that passion means it will be easy.  And guess what? It’s okay to like your career if you don’t love it. Hobbies and leisure activities are a great way to integrate your passions (and likes and interests) into your life.  Don’t forget that you are a whole person and career is just one part of you; it’s unrealistic to assume one piece of you (i.e., paid employment) can satisfy all of you, yet most people place this expectation on their career. 

*Hansen, M. (2018). Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More. Simon & Schuster, New York.  

If you have a career question you would like a viewpoint on, leave a comment or send me a message, I may pick it for my monthly Q & O!