The Priest and the Parachute
It began with a joke.
In 1968, Richard Bolles, an Episcopal priest from San Francisco, was in a meeting when someone complained about colleagues “bailing out” of a troubled organization. To remind the group to return to this topic, Bolles jotted a clever phrase on the blackboard: “What color is your parachute?”
The line got a laugh, but as Bolles recalls in a 1999 interview with Fast Company, “I had no idea it would take on all this additional meaning.”
Two years later, Bolles lost his job as a priest and was shuffled into an administrative position in the Episcopal Church, advising campus ministers, many of whom were also in danger of losing their jobs. Noticing a lack of good advice on the topic, Bolles self-published a 168-page guide to navigating career changes, which he handed out for free. Looking for a catchy title, he re-purposed his blackboard one-liner. The initial print run was one hundred copies.
The premise of Bolles’ guide sounds self-evident to the modern ear: “[figure] out what you like to do…and then find a place that needs people like you.” But in 1970, this concept was a radical notion.
“[At the time], the idea of doing a lot of pen-and paper exercises in order to take control of your own career was regarded as a dilettante’s exercise,” Bolles recalls. It was also, however, a period of extreme workplace transition as the post-war industrial economy crumbled before an ascendant knowledge work sector. Uncertain employees craved guidance, and Bolles’ optimistic strategies resonated. The book that began with an one hundred copy print run and a clever name has since become one of the bestselling titles of the century, with over 6 million copies in print.
This story is important because it emphasizes that one of the most universal and powerful ideas in modern society, that the key to workplace happiness is to follow your passion, has a surprisingly humble origin. What began as a quip jotted down on a blackboard grew into the core principle guiding our thinking about work. “What color is my parachute?”, we now ask, confident that answering this question holds the answer to The Good Life.
But when we recognize that this strategy is not self-evident — and in fact not even all that old — we can begin to question whether or not it’s actually right.
And when we do, it’s dismaying what we find…
The Passion Trap
Let’s summarize Bolles’ insight as follows: the key to a fulfilling career is to first figure out what you’re passionate about, and then go find a job to match. For simplicity, I’ll call this the passion hypothesis. We can think of the past forty years — the post-Parachutes era — as a vast experiment testing the validity of this hypothesis.
The results of this experiment, unfortunately, are not pretty.
The latest Conference Board survey of U.S. job satisfaction, released earlier this year, found only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. This number has been steadily decreasing from the mark of 61% recorded in 1987, the first year of the survey.
As Lynn Franco, the director of the Board’s Consumer Research Center, notes, this is not just about a bad business cycle: “Through both economic boom and bust during the past two decades, our job satisfaction numbers have shown a consistent downward trend.”
Though many factors can account for workplace unhappiness, a major cause identified by the survey is that “fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting.”
Put another way, as we’ve placed more importance on the passion hypothesis, we’ve become less interested, and therefore more unhappy, with the work we have. I call this effect the passion trap, which I define as follows:
The Passion Trap
The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.
I argue that the passion trap is an important contributing factor to our steadily decreasing workplace satisfaction. So far, however, my evidence for this claim is circumstantial at best. We need to dig deeper.
The Young and the Anxious
If the passion trap is real, recent college graduates should be the most affected. At this young age, before the demands and stability of family, their careers are more likely to define their identity. It’s also the period where they feel the most control over their path, and therefore also feel the most anxiety about their decisions.
This predicts, therefore, that the passion trap would make young workers the most unhappy. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what the Conference Board survey finds. Roughly 64% of workers under 25 say that they are unhappy in their jobs, the highest levels of dissatisfaction measured for any age group over the twenty-two year history of the survey.
To better understand why young people are so unhappy, let’s turn to Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner’s 2001 ode to youth disaffection: Quarterlife Crisis. This book chronicles the personal testimony of dozens of unhappy twentysomethings, and as the passion trap predicts, most of the stories revolve around uncertainty regarding the search for the “right” job.
Consider, for example, the tale of Scott, a 27-year-old from Washington D.C.:
“My professional situation now couldn’t be more perfect,” Scott reports. “[I] chose to pursue the career I knew in my heart I was passionate about: politics.”
Scott succeeded in this pursuit. Though he had to start at the bottom, as a volunteer campaign aide, within two short years after college graduation he had the “Capital Hill job I dreamed of.”
Rationally, he should be happy with his work: “I love my office, my friends…even my boss.” Yet he’s not. “It’s not fulfilling,” he despairs. He has since restarted his search for his “life’s work.”
“I’ve committed myself to exploring other options that interest me,” Scott says. “But I’m having a hard time actually thinking of a career that sounds appealing.”
The passion hypothesis was so ingrained into Scott’s psyche that even his dream job, once obtained, couldn’t live up to the fantasy. Unhappiness followed.
Story after story in Quarterlife Crisis follow this same script:
“I graduated college wanting nothing more than the ultimate job for me,” says Jill. Not surprisingly, she hasn’t found it.
“I’m so lost about I want to do,” despairs 24-year old Elaine, “that I don’t even realize what I’m sacrificing or compromising.”
And so on. The passion trap strikes again and again in these pages.
This all points towards a troubling conclusion: not only is the passion hypothesis wrong, it’s also potentially dangerous, leading us into a passion trap that increases our feelings of unhappiness and uncertainty.
Happiness Beyond Passion
These initial articles in my Rethinking Passion series have been negative. My goal was to tear down our assumptions about workplace happiness, because as long we cling to the passion hypothesis, other factors will remain obscured in its high-wattage glare. Soon, however, I’ll be taking on the positive task of figuring out what does matter. I’ve written at length about the importance of ability and craftsmanship in developing passion for your work (see here and here and here), but I also want to explore equally important (and equally nuanced) factors, such as:
- authenticity (why are we attracted to the stories of people living simply in beautiful surroundings?),
- autonomy (what’s the importance of having control over when and how you work?), and
- mission (how vital is a cause for transforming work into something meaningful?).
Stay tuned for this discussion to continue, and in the meantime, I welcome your own reflections on the reality — not cliches — of finding fulfilling work.
This post is the second in my series on Rethinking Passion, which tackles questions concerning the reality of building a deeply satisfying work life. Expect a new post in the series roughly once or twice a month. Here is the previous article in the series:
(Photo by DigiDragon)
124 thoughts on “The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable”
I have an alternative hypothesis; that it is the standardization of jobs driven by cost reduction in service of the bottom line that has made all jobs less interesting, particularly those performed by younger workers. Several generations of quarterly performance goals, outsourcing, and ‘re-engineering’ led by spreadsheet-wielding MBA’s has improved the corporate bottom line while damaging the personal bottom line. We could equally submit my thesis to your data, and perhaps even incorporate the two; there’s a dissonance between expecting fulfillment at work when the job is to perform a scripted, timed set of steps in service of goals that aren’t yours.
Thanks Cal this is great and I’m looking forward to when you focus your insightful mind on the “positive task of figuring out what does matter”. One thing I would love to see you address or factor into your analysis is the recent work by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive”. You may be familiar with it but if not here is an excerpt of a review which summarizes the key concepts:
I’m sure this plays a role. The anecdotal evidence, however, of young people discussing *why* they’re unhappy, seems to point less toward the quality of the work than the uncertainty that it’s the right work.
I read Drive and know the related research well — it’s certainly a helpful guide in picking apart what matters. What’s interesting, you’ll note, is that none of that research points towards matching work to pre-existing passions.
Which is true?
1.work hard and gain rare and valuable skill and then use that skill to get the best job(i mean by self-determination theory.) then you begin to love it 100 %guaranteed .
2.work hard and gain rare and valuable skill and then use that skill to get the best job but some humans like one Trait on work than another. (for example: some enjoy autonomy more than purpose)
3.work hard and gain rare and valuable skill and then use that skill to get the best job then you love it but not 100% guaranteed. You can always change.
Could a lack of happiness in the workplace point to an overall lack of personal purpose? To clarify, some of the happiest people I know have a defined life purpose, something that gets them up in the morning. Almost all of the time this purpose is not solely for their own fulfillment – it reaches out to others too. Therefore, for these people, it doesn’t matter what life brings them, what job they end up taking, or losing, they remain grounded and happy because their job isn’t what controls their happiness. They each know and have defined what they believe their purpose is. Their job might be connected to it, but it doesn’t dictate it. It gives them a little more versatility – it isn’t about finding the “perfect” job, but about living according to their personal purpose.
I have been one of those twenty-somethings that are unsure of the path they chose in college and wavered between interests. My mom, who sometimes heard of my complaints, declared that this was a problem of the new generation that is given more options and pushed to “pursue their passions,” when a job doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to a passion. When she was 18 years old (in Turkey), she was allowed to rank her top 20 department choices (both university and major), and her career was based on one standardized test score.
It would be interesting to compare job satisfaction to the US and European systems of college admissions and major selection.
Perhaps your “passion” hypothesis attracts hostility because of your choice of words. What do you mean by passion? Is it excitement towards a specific job (i.e. I want to be a professional baseball player)? Is it a type of value (i.e. I want to help children)? Is it a type of work (i.e. quantitative analysis)? My impression is that generically speaking, people mean passion towards a specific job. If this is true, the definition is much too narrow. If you believe that there is only one dream job for you, it’s like believing that there is only one person you can marry. You’re destined for a life of misery. I like to think in terms of broader “parameters.” Does this job fit your values, skills, and the kind of work you like to do? When I was younger, I fell into the trap of believing that I should do something important. Our society puts pressure on young people to “save the world.” Unfortunately, “important” usually means what other people think is important and not what you actually think is important. I look forward to your next post in the series.
I’m excited to see how you follow this article up, and I’m interested in learning more about your passion hypothesis.
That said, there are a lot of factors that recent articles (and the current article) haven’t addressed — I think these will be important to creating a well-rounded theory of how to make your work make you happy. First, in the quotes you provided from disillusioned 20-something workers, I keep seeing that they want a job that involves their “passion”, plays off of their “interests”, and is “fulfilling”. You question whether this mentality is the best one, because so many people who have done just that are unhappy– maybe working a job that allows you to follow you passions isn’t the right technique for finding work-related success and happiness. Another possibility, though, is that because we live in a society that values selecting a career path, defining interests, and excelling at these interests at an early age, many people may have cultivated “passions” and “interests” without fully interrogating them. How many times have you heard a pre-med college freshman say “I have a passion for medicine?”, when there is close to 0 chance that they understand what the career of medicine entails? Ditto for politics, farming, social work, law, etc… Of course, there are a small number of people who know what these careers involve, whether the work would be fulfilling to them, etc…, but at least anecdotally, it seems to me that from middle school onwards, you’re supposed to have a “passion” and an answer to the eternal question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This may cause people to select careers and interests that they think will be fulfilling, without knowing much about the fields involved. So, maybe following your passion COULD be the right move (and my bet is that it is), but the process of selecting and nurturing passions is deeply flawed.
Second, while you say that striving to find work that you’re passionate about can lead to great periods of ‘unhappiness and uncertainty’ (and I don’t disagree), maybe the solution isn’t to try to avoid these feelings, but rather to figure out how to harness unhappiness and uncertainty. Self-doubt, malaise, and confusion, when present in moderate quantities, are what can drive people to greatness– learning to embrace uncertainty means being able to place yourself in a challenging and possibly uncomfortable situation–and almost every happy recent college graduate I know has done just that.
Also, reading the themes you plan to explore in future articles (autonomy, authenticity, and mission) gave me the heebie-jeebies a bit. I agree that these might serve as excellent guides to finding great work, but boy do they sound reminiscent of Manifest Destiny–a legacy and mindset that has brought much harm and that is based in a rural romanticism that has sent just as many people down the wrong path as anything else. So, I’m excited (and a bit nervous) to see how you spin these themes.
I wouldn’t worry about any hostility. I imagine you’re intentionally provocative with your choices of words and that you’re baiting the hook for what’s to come. I’m looking forward to seeing where you go from here in this series, and have been pleased by the challenges you’ve laid down in this and the previous article.
I think anyone who’s been around the block a couple of times will agree with you that passion for the job, by itself, isn’t the only or the best criteria for being happy with your work. And I do agree with your implied sentiment that having passion as the only criteria for fulfillment through work is pretty shallow and unrealistic. Where I think passion is important is in the testing of the purpose and vision that drives our work, and it also serves to let us know if our true genius and will are engaged. Passion and will are pretty closely connected. It’s extraordinarily difficult to fully invest and engage in a pursuit without there being some kind of emotional push toward the effort. I can only speak to this from my own experience and with anecdotes rather than disciplined research(although I do appreciate yours!).
I attempted to have a career doing only what I loved(playing music) and I have to say that it took most of the joy out of the activity. It also was superficial and pretty purposeless except that it encouraged my self expression and gave people something pretty to listen to. In addition, I was ignoring my real gifts and avoiding new challenges. What I see now on the back side of that experience is that happiness in work isn’t just about loving the work, nor is that the only objective that matters. I would say the same for any of the other three items you suggest: authenticity, autonomy and mission. Any of those by themselves would only provide part of the picture and not the whole thing. My suspicion is that passion is a response to work that is authentic, autonomous and purposeful. It’s more probable that you’re going to discover that you love the work after you’ve engaged in it and not so much before.
We also might want to consider that love for our work and those we serve is a more pleasant motivator than fear, scarcity or obligation. Passion for the work and the people are important qualities but not the only important qualities to look for in the work we do.
This reminds me of Lao Tzu’s quote:
“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Cal, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on internships and how to get the most out of them.
one thing that jumped out at me was bolles’ initial wording – “something you like” – vs. “passion”. we’ve super-sized everything, including our expectations.
i think meaningful work is essential for a happy life, but people confuse “work” and “job”. i wonder if some of our young adults, who’ve been told since they were toddlers that they are extra-special and they deserve every good thing, aren’t thrown off when their dream job is actually a job and not a tv show starring them.
the biggest change seems to have come in the area of values. in the good old days, many people saw their job as their way to contribute .. and they felt good about helping people and playing a part in something larger, even when their job didn’t have a big paycheck or an impressive title. these days, you’d be a fool to expect so little from your jay oh bee.
I’ve been exploring what traits cause people to be unhappy even when they do get their “dream job”, such as in Wilner’s collection of examples. My hypothesis, which may coincide with yours at some deeper level (and also agrees with a tenet of SDT), is that people need to feel control over their situation to feel happy about it. If someone “finds” their passion or dream job instead of actively generating it, then they had no real role in that achievement so they feel no pride or satisfaction in it. It’s a union between autonomy and competence, the two main factors of intrinsic motivation according to Deci (relatedness isn’t as integral to intrinsic motivation).
I think that “becoming so good they can’t ignore you” promotes desirable behavior, but for the wrong reason. It is desirable because you will become very good at something (increasing competence). Becoming unignorable as a goal may be detrimental, though. It places your happiness outside of your control and into the hands of others; it promotes extrinsic motivation, not intrinsic. Real satisfaction comes from a positive internal judgment of yourself, not a positive external judgment by others of yourself. You can’t achieve happiness by outsourcing it.
Like you, I’m still exploring this area, so this is more of an initial impulse than a real conclusion. I’m enjoying this thought-provoking series.
The concept of your “Passion” (capital P) is a lot like that of “True Love”. It relies on positivism (the impossible task of attempting to prove something to be affirmative) which leads to all kinds of madness. You can only *disprove* hypotheses, not prove them.
In other words, if you try lots of different things you can find out pretty quickly what *doesn’t* work for you. Avoid those things, use experience to iterate.
Instead of closing off pathways – “I MUST do X because X is my Passion”, maybe look at open-ended hypotheses. “I’ve always been attracted to X, so I am going to experiment with it and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out I can always try something else”.
Ten years ago I was at loose ends in my life and found myself doing organic chemistry problems in my spare time (I’m weird). I had this theory that I’d try out working in an organic chemistry lab. I’m still doing organic chemistry but I’d never call it “my passion”. It’s just one of several things I have a passion for (that comes and goes) and also happens to be a decent way to make a living.
Around the same time I also met a great girl. I really liked spending time with her. Ten years later, we’re still together – even after having to do 6 years long-distance. I love her, but I’d never call her my “true love” – that’s the same trap. You can just never know.
Just try to look at potential projects and relationships as open-ended projects, hypotheses, and experiments. Avoid Grand Pronouncements like “Life’s Work” before you get started – reserve them for when you get older and want to tell a nice story about your life. Distrust these stories, by the way – it’s only in the rear view mirror that your life path looks obvious.
I went back to school after a long break. I had left college with a must-graduate-soon English major and never got to try teaching out. So, much later, I got my certification and my first job – – but lo and behold, it wasn’t what I thought it would be.
I didn’t feel passionate about the job at all, and compared to my jobs in office work, printing and even factory work, it rated even lower.
I told myself that being a teacher would mean ultimate job satisfaction. But the reality just didn’t jive with that.
So what now? I find myself writing, blogging, and working on websites. I like it a whole lot more.
My point is, even if you think you are working towards job success and self-realization, sometimes you just have to flounder through until you find something you can live with. And you can live with a lot less, if you have to. Before my second college try, I found meaning through my non-job life. My job was useful in a small way, and it paid the bills. But other things outside my job made my life really meaningful.
You have some good comments here! I enjoyed reading them too.
In my opinin noone likes the actual work. People who say they are happy somehow always write books, blogs.
Even Cal, whom I respect seems to be a motivational speaker, blogger, and writer rather than computer scientist.
Better than passion or no passion, entitlement! 🙂
Maybe I mis-read the book (I did read, and implement it a number of years ago) but I remember it as very much focused on identifying skills and capabilities, not on looking for either specific job titles or industries to work in. I don’t really remember Bolles talking about passion as a component of the work search.
What I do remember about the book is that it offered a two prong approach to finding work; 1)the indentification of specific skill sets and 2)the process of networking to understand how those skill sets would work in a particular work environment that you were interested in being in.
I found the book empowering because it allowed me to see a bigger picture and wider applicability to the skills and talents that I had. It gave me both the courage, but more importantly, the “talking points” to go after jobs that, under normal circumstances, I would never have gone after.
I think you are onto something here. That this notion of following your passion came in 1970 makes sense. Not only was it coming at the end of the Sixties, but also at the point where going to college became the norm and a requirement for a middle-class life. It was also when the first generation of kids raised in suburbia entered the workforce. This meant that people had to decide what career they were interested in without necessarily having any knowledge of what people in that field actually did, or even any notion of what people who had jobs did all day. So searching within for your passion became a way to decide which area of knowledge work to head into.
The only problem is that creating something as a producer is very different from experiencing that same thing as a consumer/reader/listener/user. Which, by the way is what the film Inception is about and why so many people disliked it. “But it was boring. Dreams are so cool. Why didn’t they show how cool and amazing dreams are?” “Because the movie was about making dreams. Doing the necessary research and patient level building for that is tedious and methodical and requires an enormous, crushing burden of perfectionism. Very different from having a dream.” You have to be a reader to become a writer, but your love of reading won’t make you a writer.
Musicians in symphony orchestras are the most unhappy category of workers (either #1 or #2). Why? Being a music student, having intent and constant attention paid to you, gaining honor as an individual, having your creativity challenged is NOT the life of an orchestra musician. There you play in a group, take your applause with the group, and serve the creativity of the conductor. (Yes, you may be a happy orchestra musician, but what about your peers.) I remember talking with a violist from the Brookline Orchestra. She said the best thing that ever happened to her was not making it into the conservatory and having to go to college. Now she enjoyed being a child psychologist and she got to play music, too.
The “passion fantasy” hurts your worklife as well, because it becomes a management expectation. “But if you really cared, you would want to stay late to work on this project (that I just gave you to do at 4:45 because I spent all day gabbing with a friend/client).” At a meeting where being held to discuss a promised bonus program that never materialized, the owner told us that if we were unhappy with our pay “we could get a second job as a waitress, that’s what lots of people starting out do.” I pointed out that I was working in his call center and this was my waitress job. He was not impressed.
If your career is supposed to be your passion, this becomes the justification for pushing women off their career tracks when they become mothers. “She wasn’t committed to her career.” And it probably is a driving of the hyper-parenting that we see. If you “choose” to have children (quotes because the percentage of parents is high enough that it should be considered the default), all sorts of demands upon parents by the schools, and expectations for sports supporting, music lessons, etc.
You might want to talk to Hillary Rettig, she’s in the Boston area. She’s done a lot of work on activism and burnout and how the constant demand for proving dedication through self-sacrifice messes with people. A big part of her message is that it is better to have a “day job” where you are well paid and have benefits – and do part-time activism – than it is to be a low-paid ill-treated full time activist.
This has exactly been my life’s experience and you capture the heart of it perfectly in your definition.
“The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.”
The core of the passion trap is mental. When I set up something as that which I am passionate about, I constantly compare that ideal to my current less than ideal situation, thereby degrading my current situation.
My experience is that this became a habit that I would repeat even when I was doing what I regarded as my passion. When I became a professional cyclist I really believed that this was what I was meant to do. However the habit of comparison and seeking the “true” passion soon came back and bit me and I quickly came to believe that an academic career was my true passion.
My cure for this madness is first to acknowledge it, like you do here Cal, and then to focus on, as you put it, loving what you do (very similar to the meditation practice of staying in the present moment). When I start to idealize again, I practice letting go of those mad thoughts and coming back to the present moment.
It could be argued that the nagging feeling that you aren’t passionate enough about your job is the opposite of taking pride in simply doing a job well and treating the people well who you work with. In other words, a job doesn’t just exist to make us excited and passionate, just like a romantic partner doesn’t. Maybe in some cases, if one is lucky. But in general, in life, the important thing is what we bring to any situation.
When I look at what I do outside of work work, I realize that I could call almost everything “work.” I work in the garden, I write, I make almost all my meals from scratch, I have home projects I tend to. I just don’t happen to make money off those activities. I’m choosing to work on these things even if I don’t have to, because I like doing them.
Work, therefore, is not just about making money to pay the bills. But we need to do some work in order to pay the bills. The problem is, many people want lifestyles that require too much working in order to support. I think that leads to the desire to have a job that is uber fulfilling. If we all lead more balanced lives, we’d work only as much as we needed to. And we’d have more time left over for doing other work, non-paying work, that was fulfilling. And the pressure would be off to find that perfect, satisfying job.
I think we need to zoom in on the words “passion” and “dream job” for a minute. Have you read a copy of “What Color is your Parachute”? If you have, you should have noticed that Bolles uses those words somewhat differently from how you do.
You define dream job in your other article as “an occupation built around a hobby or casual side interest that you enjoy.” Fair enough, that’s actually a pretty good definition. It captures people like your farmer guy, or people who want to grow up and write books, basically anyone who wants a job that “sounds cool.” That’s a great definition of “A Dream Job”
But Bolles almost never says “A Dream Job,” he usually says “Your Dream Job” and I think the switch between the article and the pronoun is pretty dang significant. A lot of his book isn’t about finding dream jobs – there’s advice in there that is totally relevant to non-dream job seekers – but when he does start talking about “Your Dream Job” he does it in the context of a pretty big self-inventory.
His program goes like this: In the self-inventory you gather lists of: skills you are good at using(that people will pay you to use), interests (these do matter a little bit, right?), geography, people environments, organizational values, working conditions, and information about salary/level of responsibility (which you could read as autonomy). Once you develop this thing, you show it to people and get feedback and do research and talk and take in new information. Somewhere, in all this looking, you will find something that probably will really excite you.
“Your Dream Job” ends up being the product of hard work and self examination and it probably won’t even be anything like what you dreamed about being in high school or college (I wanted to play bass in a just-good-enough-to-be-cool indie band. yeah…that didn’t happen.)
For all you’ve made of “passion”, Bolles rarely uses the term. It’s not in That fast Company article. It’s listed in the 2008 Parachute index twice. Once in a sidebar where he’s giving advice to shy people on how to get over being shy. And once in the section on “Your Dream Job” (which, again, is different from “A Dream Job”)
I think you’re underestimating how much those other “many factors” are causing workplace unhappiness. Probably that “64% of people under 25 are dissatisfied” figure is wonky. We’re in the middle of a huge recession. If you could show that the 25 and under bracket became dissatisfied faster than other age brackets over the course of the 20 years between 1987 and 2007, then that would be better evidence of the “passion” becoming a more important meme.
But you’d still have to correct for other factors. Here are two [related] big ones : “inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers .. rose by an anemic 0.1% a year from 1979 to 2007.” Ouch. And “During the expansion of the 2000s, productivity jumped by 11% while the median hourly compensation went nowhere.” (And the gap between productivity and median family income starts around 1979, as you can see here.)
source of the quotes:
So people are working harder and not seeing much in the way of a payoff? That sounds like a recipe for increasing dissatisfaction. (Totally getting off topic)
I think a fairer characterization of Bolles’s advice is something like “If you work hard to identify what you are good at, the kinds of people and situations you work well with and in, the kinds of values you cherish, and, yes, the topics that interest you. If you get a handle on all of that and then look hard, you will find a job that is a much better fit for you than if you didn’t do that.” (which really, it sounds like neither Scott, nor Elaine nor Jill did anything like that.)
The irony is that this is something that I think you would agree with. You guys aren’t really that far apart, you’re working on the same kinds of problems. For instance, his last chapter is on Mission. So your article was kind of a frustrating read, watching you turn a potential ally into a strawman. Maybe give the guy another chance?
I’m delighted to see a young person with the presence to look at this topic with such clear headed, original thinking. It was Buddha (and probably a lot of other people, too) that said happiness is not getting what you want, but being content with what you have. My life experience (I’m 55) fully supports the points you’ve made in this series so far. I’m very interested in your next articles!
BTW, I read a book when I first graduated from college in 1978 that I’ve long since lost and can’t find anywhere, but was a fascinating study done by the Rand Corporation. They followed literally thousands of people through 20+ years of their career and statistically analyzed their findings on career phases. One of their key findings was one that surprised them – that most people didn’t really figure out what career they wanted and then went after it. Rather, most people adapted to the career that circumstances led them into and found happiness and fulfillment in proportion to their ability to adapt themselves to their jobs…and more importantly, their ability to adapt their jobs to their personalities. That is, outgoing people who wound up in engineering could be happy if they founds a role in, say, engineering sales…while introverted types could find happiness in, say, the medical profession by gravitating toward lab work, etc.
I sure wish I hadn’t gotten rid of that book. Can’t find it now after much searching, but it was *very* helful when I started my career. It was particularly helpful in that I did *not* spend a lot of time worrying about whether I was in the right career. Rather I focused on finding a position within that career where I enjoyed the people and the situation.
Very interesting article and some excellent comments. I’ve recently read Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity which advocates a constructivist, “feeling your way” approach through involvement, exploration and testing – have you read this?
This article made me think that it might be interesting to draw some insights from the ‘paradox of choice’ debate (look at the amazing presentation by Barry Schwartz. Further also, Dan Gilbert, on misconceptions about what might actually make one happy.
Cal, this is great. I work as a HR professional – no stranger to unhappiness from within the walls of work and it’s impact on, well, you name it.
I’m curious to see how your passion trap evolves. I’ve found passion itself to be a variable, and its required dosage dependent upon the circumstance.
For example, some work places still require hour commitments. If a person is required to perform 10-16 hour days for 5-6 days a week for an extended period of time, absent some purpose or passion, we often find a state of burnout inevitable. Whereby, the same person, if to perform the same tasks instead for only 4 hours a day, would need to “borrow” less from purpose or passion and may avoid burnout.
Ten+ hour work days leave little time for contemplation, examination, body restoration, and serendipity. If a person is unhappy in this situation, a common response is, well, if I have to work 16 hours a day and I’m unhappy, maybe if I did something I liked, I could survive the 16 hour days.
Mary Arrr wrote that passion became the touchstone in 1970, when going to college became the norm, and the first generation of kids raised in suburbia entered the workforce. As she wrote, “This meant that people had to decide what career they were interested in without necessarily having any knowledge of what people in that field actually did, or even any notion of what people who had jobs did all day.” It meant that people did not grow up watching their fathers work, let alone assuming that they would follow their father’s path. And the fathers, the people who had chosen to move the family out to the sociable suburbs, said, “My work is too hard.” They didn’t just say, “Become a lawyer, become a doctor,” they also said, “We’ll be behind you, no matter what you decide to do.” So young people had infinite choices, little information, and little guidance.
Dan Pink, R.O.W.E., …..it even starts with education in Maria Montessori. Each individual is unique & if you have them work at their passion, but also have to do menial labor, reporting etc on it it can make it unsatisfying, as the goal of passioned behaviour is the work itself & not even exactly the results.
Drucker had it right but noone has the cajones to put it into practice fully. hayekian emergence of order
I am really quite confused. I am an undergraduate who wants a job related to my field of study, International Relations (I’m also a Philosophy major). Right now my goal is to get an MA in International Relations and join the Foreign Service, which I realize can be quite a boring, bureaucratic job but it meets my lifestyle goals which is to be able to travel abroad and work in something related to government policy, international law or development work.
Am I stuck in the dream job delusion? Should I just buckle down and do something “practical” and “unsexy” like take the LSAT and go to law school like a lot of my peers?
Very interesting post, Cal, however I don’t agree with your leap from “fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting,” to “as we’ve placed more importance on the passion hypothesis, we’ve become less interested and therefore unhappy, with the work we have.”
In my corporate coaching and organizational change work, I have come to find that the issue is more about the meaning and purpose of one’s work rather than about passion or loving the work you have. Simply put, people want to believe that what they do on a daily basis matters in a way more meaningful than just profit.
I believe several factors contribute to this increased search for meaning:
1. Many are beginning to “awaken” (at least in the U.S.) from their consumption-driven nightmare and are realizing it is about who you are and what you do with your life rather than the stuff you have. Gen Xers are particularly in tune with this since many of them have seen their Boomer parents sacrifice a big part of their lives to the “work hard for more money” trap.
2. Never before in the world’s history have their been more opportunities to make your own path. This is a double-edged sword, however, similar to the consumer’s paradox. Too many career choices can lead to analysis paralysis.
3. Larger organizations are still hardwired to meet the demands of the fading industrial age. Conformity and standardization reign supreme to enable optimal productivity. We’re drowning in “sameness” and feel compelled to differentiate ourselves in some way.
One of the biggest challenges people have is that they often ask themselves the wrong question. Most ask, “What I want to do?” but should instead ask, “Who do I want to be?” Clearly answering the latter places the emphasis on creating a framework for your life that is foundational to everything you do, including your work.
I want to note, in general, that I am finding your comments incredibly useful. As you know, these are issues I’m thinking a lot about. One of the things I love about having a blog, is rapid feedback on ideas. Though I’m ont necessarily responding to each comment to this post, I am, more so than other posts, following up on the citations you’re providing.
Work hard for more money and praise is coming to an end, notably through the minimalist society. It may be a bit extreme, but they are noticing the pattern of “working more = more output” doesn’t work as the society likes to ingrain people to live by: https://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6994343n&tag=contentMain;contentBody
Just want to have a 2 cents here as I will also be publishing a literacy manifesto relating this problem to both students and young professionals who are lost between their desires and external demands to conformity at the expense of their freedoms.
I have some friends who went to law school, so I thought I’d comment from personal experience…
First of all: NO! Do not, under any circumstances, follow anything that you personally describe as “practical” and “unsexy”. It is a recipe for burnout, resentment, and deep anxiety. Law school in itself is not, objectively speaking, “practical” or “unsexy”. The point is that every field (law, international relations, engineering, medicine, philosophy…whatever), has long stretches of rough, “unsexy,” boring work that requires pure grit to get through.
Career satisfaction is not about fulfilling a dream about about world-hopping and hobnobbing with top government officials (that would be “dream-delusion”). Nor is it about “practical” stability. It is about the challenge of becoming the best you can be in your particular field. It is that confidence that you are extremely good at what you do that makes work enjoyable and makes you have a “passion” for it. Cal was pointing out in his post that people go into their “dream” career, where they have all these delusions of grandeur that take hold before they have put in the work required to get to the top. They immediately get scared off by the “unsexy” bits of the job. They say: “All this boring stuff is not fun. Maybe this is not the career for me, after all.” People who do develop a passion for the job instead get curious about their field. They look at the challenges their colleagues face and spend their time developing ways to overcome them (while keeping up with the “unsexy” work). They spend years pushing themselves to come up with better and better solutions. This earns them respected, and eventually appropriate compensation (if they know how to cash-in their skills while being true to their values). That feeling that you are able to have great influence over a part of your world is what many people refer to as “passion”.
So, the question is not: “Should you follow a certain life-style design or do something more ‘practical’?” The question is: what will you choose to be good at? What will you be better at than anyone else in your field? Life-style design comes in as an addendum to that. What will your life be like once you are at the top? Once you have the skill capital you can choose to cash in for more autonomy, free time, and financial freedom. Few people strive to be an over-worked or under-paid top expert.
I second a suggestion for readers to look at Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice (as well as “The Happiness Hypothesis), but perhaps more importantly, an amazing read by Daniel Haybron The Pursuit of Unhappiness
Interesting article with a lot of thoughtful replies. Good work.
I’m in the process of leaving my first job out of college to go back to school in an unrelated field. When I started working at my current job, I knew the work was not what I would want to do forever. Therefore, I tried to find ways to make the work more enjoyable by volunteering for jobs that I found more interesting. In my (brief) experience at this and other jobs, it has been the people I work with, more than the work I do, that brings happiness and enjoyment at work.
I like the comments folks have made that point out that maybe some dissatisfaction is justified. For a great book on how changing the standard idea of work can produce better outcomes for people, read “The Seven Day Weekend,” by Ricardo Semler.
I find meaning in my life not in the work I do, but in my commitment to others. What does my work mean for my wife? my kids? my God? Something that I’ve been thinking about recently is that while supposedly we work for money, there are many more compelling reasons to work than the fact that we get paid for it. For example, I know a lot of people who work hard in order to help other people become more free. Maybe our job isn’t where we should look to find our life’s work. Maybe a job is just something you do to pay the bills while you are saving some little part of the world.
Thank you for this article! I always thought something is wrong with me.
As sufferer of the Dr Faustus syndrome (always wanting to learn and explore) I had enjoyable and significant experiences in all jobs I held so far. So my occasional ventures into reading ‘women’s magazines’ usually leave me distraught and full of self-doubt because finding and holding your dream job is usually proclaimed as the non plus ultra. However, I don’t know any job that would be my dream job, because there is just too much out there that would be fun, exciting and challenging.
funny. I did similar stuff… I went the normal college route, had job, got burnt out, thought to do something fulfilling, and realized that nothing is really that fulfilling. Now I just blog and do web development, and well, that is fine. I am looking at moving to the countryside now out on a farm and becoming more DIY. I am just not into corp world/capitalism/anything along those lines.
Reading this entry and all the comments, I came to a realization: It does not matter what career or life path one would choose to follow. Each one is pretty much equal having its own balance of exciting and boring tasks. When one chooses a career path, he/she typically does so because of the exciting tasks awaiting, but in reality, it is not always as exciting. What matters is setting yourself apart in that field by mastering a rare and valuable skill as you have already mentioned.
But what I’m struggling with is how this would apply to students. You’ve always said that one should choose his or her own major or path in life indepedently and let intrinsic motivation do its thing, but what if you did not choose that path, yet it is a promising path ensuring financial stability and prestige? Say, in my case, my parents’ high expectations and fears of my uncertain future comepelled me GREATLY into being an engineer, but that path does not interest me. My question is: would it really matter?
Currently, I detest my work and procrastinate a lot due to aforesaid reason and am really hesitant to switich or not. (I’m only in my first term of first year) I’m afraid that if I do, I might be making a really BIG mistake that will cost me my life. My parents’ career preferences played a major role in my decision to go into engineering. Will this “passion” hypothesis still come into play? Is it preferable to endure years studying engineering and sacrificing my life and personal interests knowing that in the end I will inevitably master a “rare and valuable” skill that is marketable, relevant, and pricy?
Finding your dream job is nice, but happiness lies in being satisfied with what you have.
I feel that if we push ourselves into things we cannot imagine doing, they might end up surprising us.
I couldn’t imagine I’d do what I do, but I love it! It’s surprising that something so challenging could be so interesting, but it’s what my brain and life needed, and I’m thrilled my passions (i.e. hobbies) are on the side, rather than as a career for me.
“If you’re not happy with what you have, how could you be happier with more?” People more and more are confusing work with entertainment. If you don’t like what you do, do less of it and do more of something else. 40 hours is less than 25% of the hours you have in a week (168). If you don’t like what you do, find a way to make what you do interesting to you. This can come from any number of things. If you run into insurmountable barriers to your proposed fixes, then at least you have something tangible to blame your move on. Chances are your improvements will enhance the experience of yourself and others. Simply put, invest some time and effort in making your job interesting and you will enjoy it more!
One more to close: “Success does not lead to happiness. Happiness leads to success. -Albert Schweitzer”
The people in the examples above were looking for something more fulfilling. This is a good thing. If people were always satisfied then there would not be progress in the world. Plus, it’s absolutely normal to feel confused when going through a change. The 27-year-old politics guy is in a process of changing his state of mind. It is unavoidable that between state of mind A and state of mind B lies a sea of chaos and confusion.
Finding your passion is a process not a destination. You can always keep getting closer. So this is closely related to experimenting: you try one thing and then you see to what extent it matches your needs. You see, you cannot really simulate how something will feel like in your mind. You have to actually do it to see how it will strike you.
Note that I abstain from a black and white approach. I am not saying “this is a passion, this is not”. I am saying “this is more of a passion than this”. Passion is a process, a destination. It evolves with time!
I know I’m coming to this late but I’ve thought a lot about this and want to add my 2 cents. There are many good comments here already. As a 20-year veteran of the “passion trap” I have come to a few conclusions.
1) Paid work is paid because it is generally of a nature that no one would do it for free. Therefore, it’s not going to be particularly fulfilling. If it’s actually fun, stimulating, and pleasant you probably won’t get paid for it.
2) I can’t think of any activity I want to do 40-plus hours a week, every week of my life. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. If we worked less at our paid jobs, with more time to enjoy all our interests, we would like our jobs more. Or at least be less aggravated by them.
3)For many people, workplace dynamics are similar to a dysfunctional family in which members have no real ties or obligations to each other and where problems seldom improve. These conditions do not promote passion or job satisfaction.
Thanks for identifying one of the fundamental misconceptions people have when searching for passion: that they have to come up with what work they love to do. From our experience, this is impossible for most people. Because you’re trying to figure it out before you experience it, your idea of your “dream job” is entirely based on your concepts about what that job would be like, which are probably far removed from the real experience, just as Scott discovered about politics.
Even if we try to do an assessment and then find jobs that match the things the assessment says we are good at, we can only know that we may have some skill or talent for that work, but that still doesn’t tell us if we will actually love it.
That’s why The Passion Test takes the approach of identifying what are the things that are most deeply meaningful to you. What do you love, what do you care about most, whether related to work or not. The Test then provides a simple way to identify which are your top 5 “passions.”
We define “passion” as the things that matter most to you because when your life, your work, your relationships are connected to those things, then you feel passionate.
Once you know your top 5 passions, now you have a powerful decision-making tool. Whenever you look at a new job opportunity, you can ask yourself, will this help me be more connected to the things I love and care about most, or will it take me further away from them. Research has shown that people who consistently make significant decisions based on the things that have greatest meaning for them not only enjoy more success, but enjoy more fulfillment as well (see “Success Built to Last” by Porras, Emery and Thompson).
Thank you again for addressing this topic. It’s critical for everyone, but particularly for those leaving college ready to begin their work careers.
Hello, I found your blog a week or so ago and have been sifting through some of your posts. I’m sure I’m not the first person you’ve heard say this, but I don’t agree with a lot of the ideas you present in your posts; but that’s not why I decided to comment. I feel that your argument against the passion hypothesis is flawed, or at the very least under informed. You argue that as a result of the idea first popularized by What Color is You’re Parachute?, the mindset that you should pursue your passion in life was established among the masses. Unfortunately, you do not present any evidence that the cause of declines in workplace happiness is a result of the supposedly mainstream idea of “following your passion.” Although you admit that “Though many factors can account for workplace unhappiness, a major cause identified by the survey is that ‘fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting,'” you fail to point out that the fact that fewer workers may consider their jobs to be interesting is in itself based upon many complex and interrelated factors. From the arguments you have presented in this specific post, I remain unconvinced that the passion trap truly exists; or that following your passion is correlated with greater on average unhappiness in the workplace.
Personally I think the passion hypothesis is overblown. You know I started music long before I could even talk and spell P-A-S-S-I-O-N and things were fine. I know a guy in college who keeps talking about finding passion, but name anything and he asks “What’s the point?” That goes even for relationships and it’s disturbing. I believe this is because at the bottom of it, he believes everything is meaningless.
And the fact is he isn’t someone who’s had a difficult life by any means. So it’s probably his belief system that is screwed up. That’s the problem. He keeps his eyes closed where others keep them open and doesn’t see value.
I was reading a real life story about a guy who lost his passion in work and life because over time he neglected his health, had few things that could help recover his energies, was screwed up with his relationships because he was not spending enough time and care on them and finally he was feeling that his work and life were disconnected from his values and beliefs. On a scale of 1-10 it was probably between 2-3. That’s because he was operating on survival mode by this point.
Then he began to fix all those issues by healthy routines to build up his health and his relationships and also started taking proper breaks to recover his energies. He identified his values — health, loving relationships, energy, family and focused on spending enough time on them. The results spilled over on to his job and soon he could connect his job to what he valued. Just 6 months later, he was reporting his life as 9/10 on the scale. It shows just how something wrong in some areas of life can screw up with all others, and more importantly where the real problems and solutions are.
From all these real life cases (and my own life), lack of passion and love is not the actual problem, but it’s a SYMPTOM that something is wrong at a deeper level that needs to be fixed and it’s usually in the 4 dimensions – physical (health), intellectual, emotional (relationships) and spiritual (values). You need to value and believe the right things and you need to ensure that your energies are high at all 4 levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. When they are unrealistic and based only on concepts that can’t stand the test of reality, they will crumble.
One of my friends out there is probably the happiest guy I’ve ever known. When I asked him about it, he told me that love and passion are within us and they are not located in our life’s work — we put them there. The more we seek to be happy the more miserable we become. When we know we are happy, we put it in everything in our life. It isn’t about seeking passion or the “dream job” that gives you most happiness — the reality is that we HAVE passion and love as our qualities and we put that in what we value. It isn’t seeking. It’s about having and giving.
Now that is a big art and it develops over years and decades. There are mistakes, and there are lessons. There are challenges and there are successes. But really it’s all about experiencing reality and learning to adapt to it. The find your passion hypothesis has no room for adaptability to reality and so it fails. The way we first started loving as a kid is just on infatuation and dreams and the way we love after several decades of experience in loving is totally different, mature and based in reality.
Interesting article. As a graduate I wanted keenly to pursue my passion. I was one of the lucky few who got the chance, and yes, it made me very happy.
However in searching for a permanent role I discovered that passion and enthusiasm weren’t valued at all by management – instead graduates these days need to sit lots of aptitude tests and show their all-rounded personalities and social skills instead. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about making widgets, if you don’t pass Widget and Co’s aptitude test (which is usually an intelligence test, not testing aptitudes specific to making widgets but more objective intelligence) or if Widget and Co deems you not to have the right mix of social skills and personality, you will be rejected.
Whereas if you are bright and personable but hate widgets, you will still stand a good chance of getting hired, as long as you don’t mention that you hate widgets in the interview.
It is ridiculous but this is how it works. So there are plenty of graduates stuck in jobs they hate, because they couldn’t get to do the kind of work they would enjoy, whilst the very cleverest can choose anything that interests them. A great deal if you are a genius, but not so hot for those (like me) that aren’t bright enough for their chosen career! Perhaps we could help graduates when they are still in high school by pointing out the minimum IQ needed to succeed in each career path, so people like me don’t waste our time aspiring to a career path thinking that hard work, enthusiasm, willingness to start at the bottom or having fresh new ideas will get you anywhere….
Yes I’m bitter, but that happens easily to passionate people when they can’t do the one thing that really makes them happy.
I wish I read this article three years ago. I quit a well paying job, went travelling, filled out questionnaires all in the hope of finding my ‘passion’. My advice to others from all this is to not waste time soul-searching or self-flagellating for something which society says you must have in order to succeed. Just start.
This article reminds me of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The star of the documentary Jiro embodies many of the ideas mentioned in this article and one of his key messages is that you must fall in love with your work. This supports your theory that trying to find love/passion is misguided and instead we must start where we are. I read a good review of the documentary at GetRichSlowly https://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2012/11/06/lessons-from-a-master/
I think the core error is that people expect to *love* their jobs. All jobs have unpleasant elements, even the job that is in line with their passions.
That said, Cal’s core error is to assert there’s no such thing as passion. There IS such a thing as passion, and you WILL experience your work as more meaningful if your work is closer to your passions than if it is not. My own life experience (of which I have a great deal more than Cal) has extravagantly confirmed this. Passion is when you encounter a subject and think: “this is what I want to spend the rest of my life thinking about”. There is no substitute for that.
Read 1996 Emotional Quotient, for the analysis of scientific research on emotion and the actual brain structure that generates them. Real “passions” emanate from the amydalas, the flight-fight-feed-and f*** and in classical times were regarded as innately bad. A good working definition of passion would include the test, “does it drive people to kill?” If the answer is no, it ain’t a passion.
Passion derives from latin for “suffering”. I.E., the Passion of Christ. Being in the grip of uncontrollable feeling from the amygdala was regarded as a bad thing.
Someone around 1800s it seemed Victorian rebels in the style of Oscar Wilde and artists like Dante Rosetti Gabrielli (I think)? of the “pre-Raphaelite school” romanticized and generalized sexual passion and somehow made that one of the classic “passions” seem like a good thing. It came to be used in other contexts like the arts I think as intentional giving the finger to the establishment, using terminology considered vulgar and obscene and saying we think it is good; their equivalent of the 1960’s “if it feels good, do it”.
Indian philosophy said “to scratch an itch feels good. But it is better to not itch to begin with”. The modern US philosophy is that we are all supposed to be overcome with continuous irresistible “itching” which can only be relived by indulging passions.
True passions are chemical outputs of the amygdala responding quickly to situations matching past memory in response to sensory inputs for rapid survival responses. The cerebral cortex doesn’t have the outputs to generate such amygdala response. Higher level cognitive functioning can’t generate passion. That’s as much a sham as “smellevision” that through persuasion convinced people their televisions could now emanate smells. Only direct sensory input (touch, smell, motion, hearing, sight, sound) can generate “passion” output from the amygdalae, or trained method actors who can use past memories to make themselves cry or feel rage. Yet engineers are now interviewed by asking what’s your passion; I picture the ridiculous Meg Ryan’s faked orgasms in “when harry met sally” as applicants are supposed to convincingly say that calculating complex tensions and strains in truss beam structures just makes them overcome with ecstasy!
As I read this article is made me really think about having passion for a job and finding it along the way. I agree 50/50 with this article. When the priest in this article said, “the key to a fulfilling career is to first figure out what you’re passionate about, and then go find a job to match” I agreed at that very second, but as I kept reading it guided my way of thinking in a whole different direction. As kept reading I learn about the passion trap: “The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.” As I kept reading and learned about others stories about “following your passion” it made think that is not all that is cracked up to be, the expectations can be so high that after a while you get your dream job and are not satisfied with the outcome. It will always be 50/50 when finding future job for myself, to be passionate about it becoming realistic with the idea and to explore different options too.
Several years ago (and several times since) I had a conversation with my daughter who is a young adult. She was complaining about some difficulty at work and wanted my advice. Since it dealt with a coworker, we hashed out a strategy for her to try and solve her problem. “Why does dealing with people have to be so difficult?” she asked. The alternative, I said was harder. Seeing her confused face, I stated life would be much harder if it was just you. Society provides a lot of benefits; food, clothing, housing, medicine, etc. Sure it’s hard, but the alternative is harder. I told her that you are going to have to work hard your whole life because life is hard. A better life is provided if you work harder and provide more benefit to society. You can learn to love working for working’s sake. You need to take pleasure in earning your way no matter what you do. A long time ago, this was know as pride in your work, be it a janitor or an executive.