Why being passionate about your job shouldn't be the expectation : Life Kit Passion and work often feel inextricably linked, but that's a fairly new phenomenon — and maybe it shouldn't be the expectation. Sociologist Erin A. Cech talks about why the career-passion combo favors privilege and can lead to burnout.

It's OK to not be passionate about your job

It's OK to not be passionate about your job

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Illustration of a woman, pictured from behind, working at a desk. Her desk setup is in black and white, desaturated from color. Beyond her desk is a large window that she looks out of over her laptop. The world outside is in Technicolor, alive with animals and activity. The image represents the idea that you can find passion and purpose outside your job.
Sol Cotti for NPR

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The world has some career advice for you: Find a job you're passionate about.

Whether you're graduating from college or changing fields, this is the commonly shared "secret" to sidestepping a dull career or prevailing in a difficult industry. But is it really that easy?

In her book, The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality, sociologist Erin A. Cech says maybe not. She shares new research on what she calls the "passion principle" — the idea that you should pursue passion in your career, before fair compensation or job security.

Erin A. Cech is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and the author of The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality. Left: University of California Press; Right: Photograph by Moni Valentini hide caption

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Left: University of California Press; Right: Photograph by Moni Valentini

There's nothing wrong with finding fulfillment at work. But passion goes further than that. It's loaded with the expectation that you'll do whatever it takes for your career, which Cech says can lead to exploitation and inequality in the workplace.

We talked to Cech about why passion is valued so highly in the workforce and how pursuing it is more complicated than simply "loving what you do."

Passion hasn't always been a priority

Prioritizing passion is a relatively new concept when it comes to job searching. In the 1940s and '50s, career advice centered around stability, and workers were encouraged to land positions that would support them and their families. But during the 1970s, '80s and '90s, self-expression overtook stability as the main motivator.

At the same time, Cech says, work also became "more precarious." Industries known for long-term, stable employment outsourced their labor abroad. Now, workers don't stay at one company for decades anymore. Careers are out; gigs are in. In response to the instability of the job market, college-educated workers began circling around the idea that passion should fuel workers, not job security.

When we praise passion, we reward privilege

In 2005, Steve Jobs, then Apple's CEO, underscored the role of passion in work when he gave a commencement speech at Stanford University. "The only way to do great work is to love what you do," he said. "If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."

Jobs, as well as many of his peers, famously followed their passions by dropping out of college and pursuing business ideas that changed their industries and made them wildly wealthy. Their stories make pursuing passion feel not just romantic, but destined.

But finding success after following your passion is hardly guaranteed.

"The stories of the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs have cultural relevance because they are success stories," Cech says. We don't hear the stories of the people who followed their passions and weren't successful.

Low-income or first-generation college students are much less likely to have the financial safety nets or the springboards from their social networks to translate the things that they love into employment that both aligns with their passion and draws a decent salary, says Cech.

Based on her research, people from wealthier families are more likely to be employed in jobs that speak to their passions and are stable, compared with people from less wealthy backgrounds.

Employers can take advantage of workers who work for passion

"People motivated by passion first are more likely to work harder than people who aren't personally invested in their work. But they aren't necessarily paid any more," says Cech.

Sometimes, this lack of compensation is by design. The reason why many employers want to hire people who are passionate about their work is not only because they think they'll be hard workers, Cech says, but because "they expect that people who are passionate about their work will put in more work without demanding an increase in pay."

Pushing passion doesn't actually guarantee better work

People who work in education, health care, social work, journalism, nonprofits and other fields that prioritize passion are known for their long hours and their devotion to a shared mission.

But conflating passion with working overtime can lead to outcomes that erode that very mission: burnout, resentment, resignation.

If you're a teacher, "it's one thing to be kind, considerate, helpful and attentive to a child. And it's another thing to perform that work as though that's the soul or core piece of one's identity," says Cech.

Untangling your sense of dedication from the number of extra hours you put into the job can actually be good for you, your boss and your team in the long run.

"When we give workers more rest, more control over their schedule, more vacation time, they're actually more productive, they're more resilient, they're more creative," says Cech.

"It's actually not to an organization's benefit to demand this culture of overwork all the time, even though there seems to be a logical connection between expectations of passion and productivity."

You don't have to nurture your passions through work

Reminder: Passion wasn't always a priority for workers. If you don't feel personally fulfilled by your job, it doesn't mean you're incapable of performing it well. And it doesn't mean you can't live a happy life, full of fulfillment beyond your career.

Cech calls this "diversifying your meaning-making portfolio."

Instead of drawing all your passion from one place, ask yourself: What are the things that excite me outside of paid employment? How can I invest time, energy and attention in cultivating passion in that space?


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.

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