‘Passion’ Is an Unreliable Leader

During more than 20 years as editor of Arkansas Business, I reviewed hundreds of applications for internships. I concluded that someone had persuaded college students that the word “passion” was as vital to a cover letter as an email address is to a resumé.

It wasn’t just the cliché that bothered me. I started to worry that too many young adults had truly embraced the advice to follow their passions. I was routinely invited to speak to college classes, and I made a point of encouraging them not to limit their opportunities by assuming that they already know what kind of work they would enjoy and be good at. I was my own best example, having stumbled in my 30s into a rewarding career that my 20-year-old self would never have considered.

Now it turns out that my experience is not just anecdotal evidence. It’s supported by academic research, specifically concerning women. Women are more likely to “follow their passion” into traditionally feminine roles in academia and the workforce, a study published earlier this year by the American Psychological Association concluded.

And it wasn’t just my imagination that passion had become more ubiquitous in the language of career development. “The phrase ‘follow your passions’ has become very popular in recent decades in the United States, increasing in English-language books by nearly fortyfold from 1990 to 2019,” the researchers found.

So this is no surprise: When the researchers asked American students with newly declared majors how they chose their course of study, “the most commonly generated influential factor was the follow-your-passions ideology.” 

How else would anyone choose a field of study or career other than following a passion? The research identifies the two primary alternatives as the “resources ideology,” the belief that one should choose a college major or occupation that provides high income and job security, and the “communal ideology,” which promotes “helping” fields regardless of gender. These are more common paths in cultures that place greater value on society than on the individualism that is deeply rooted in Western culture.

An experiment found that students, male and female, were more likely to express an interest in studying engineering or computer science — highly paid, male-dominated fields — when they were advised to “do what is practical” than when they were advised to follow their passions. Following one’s passions resulted in more gender disparity because men and women tend to choose fields that are already dominated by people of their gender. Of course they do.

Earlier studies cited by the researchers had already found that the idea of following your passions was endorsed by a majority of Americans, despite a growing body of research that found negative consequences. Like what? Well, like making young people believe that their interests are already fixed and leading them to sacrifice other considerations, including salary. 

While the recent study did not specifically predict lower income among passion-following women, Alizah Salario, writing for Chief, went there. “[A]ll this begs a troubling question: If passion is so fruitful and fulfilling, then why are women who follow their bliss all the way to the top still passed over for prestigious (and lucrative) positions?”

So what’s the lesson here? I don’t think it’s that you should study something that doesn’t interest you or stay in a job you hate. I think it means we need to encourage ourselves and the young ones in our lives not to limit their exploration to fields that are already comfortable. There are potential rewards to be found by following something other than what we are already passionate about.

And you might leave passion out of your cover letter. 


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