Following Your Passion Isn’t the Path to Happiness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "So Good They Can't Ignore You" by Cal Newport. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does following your passion lead to joy in your work? What does the research say?

Cal Newport shares the evidence against the “passion hypothesis”—the idea that you can find a job you like by first figuring out what you’re passionate about, and then looking for a job that allows you to use this passion. According to scientific research, surveys, and interviews, following your passion shouldn’t be your focus if your goal is to find a job you love.

Read more to learn why following your passion is not the way to find happiness at work.

Rule #1: Don’t Concern Yourself With Passion

In this rule, we’ll look at the “passion hypothesis”—the idea that a job that lets you exercise a pre-existing passion will be enjoyable. Then, we’ll look at the evidence that suggests following your passion isn’t going to make you happy.

The Passion Hypothesis

The “passion hypothesis” is the idea that you can find a job you like by first figuring out what you’re passionate about, and then looking for a job that allows you to use this passion. 

The author doesn’t know exactly when this idea evolved, but he thinks it was sometime around 1970 when Richard Bolles published What Color Is Your Parachute? The book’s thesis is that the best way to change careers is to figure out what you enjoy doing, and then find somewhere you could get paid to do the activities you like. (Shortform note: To learn more about Bolles’s ideas, read our summary of What Color Is Your Parachute?)

This message was groundbreaking at the time, and readers liked it and passed it on to younger generations. It’s now a staple of culture. Most career counselors teach it, most career books cover it, and people who have followed their passions, such as professional athletes, are admired. Additionally, a spin-off theory states that traditional office jobs are inherently devoid of passion and that if you want to be happy, you have to avoid them.

For a select few, the passion hypothesis does describe how they found their work. For example, Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone, has taken notes on movies since he was a child, and most professional athletes have loved the sports they play since childhood. However, these cases are outliers—there’s far more evidence against the passion hypothesis. The evidence indicates that following your passion isn’t the key to job satisfaction.

Evidence Against the Passion Hypothesis

The author believes the passion hypothesis is flawed and there are three pieces of evidence to support this: scientific research, Conference Board surveys, and Roadtrip Nation interviews.

Piece of Evidence #1: Scientific Research

Scientists who study passion have discovered that there are several reasons people enjoy their work. Interestingly, having a pre-existing passion for the work is not one of the reasons. Following your passion isn’t the path to finding work you love. Scientific research about career satisfaction has discovered:

Discovery #1: Passion Isn’t an Ingredient for Motivation

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), the best scientific understanding of what motivates people, states that there are three crucial ingredients to motivation, whether in the workplace or elsewhere. These traits are applicable to any field:

  • Independence. In the workplace, independence refers to having control over your responsibilities, which inspires you to do them well.
  • Capability. In the workplace, capability refers to being skilled at what you do. This results in a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, and often also results in you acquiring more independence.
  • Connection. In the workplace, connection refers to your relationship with your coworkers. If you like the people you work with, you’re more likely to be happy.
You’ll notice that following your passion isn’t one of the ingredients for motivation.
Discovery #2: Most People Don’t Even Have Occupational Passions 

In 2002, Robert J. Vallerand, a psychologist, surveyed Canadian university students about their passions. He discovered that 84% of students had a passion, but less than 4% of the passions were related to work. The passions were mostly hobbies and the most popular ones were swimming, reading, dance, hockey, and skiing.

Discovery #3: Occupational Passions Can Be Developed

Amy Wrzesniewski, an organizational behavior professor, surveyed workers from a variety of fields and discovered that most people slot their occupations into one of three categories:

  • A calling is work that’s an important part of your identity and life.
  • A career is a stepping stone to better work.
  • A job is simply work that makes you money.

A believer in the passion hypothesis would expect to find that people who consider their occupation a calling would be working in fields that match common passions. For example, helping people is a common passion, so doctors would probably describe their work as a calling.

However, that’s not what Wrzesniewski found. When she looked at college administrative assistants—a position that doesn’t match any common passions—she discovered that about a third of people who held this position saw their work as a calling. This suggests that jobs of all types have the potential to be enjoyable and passion-satisfying, not just the ones commonly seen as aspirational. 

Next, Wrzesniewski asked the college assistants why they categorized their work the way they did. She discovered that the assistants who saw their work as a calling had been working the job the longest, which suggests that people develop passion for their work as they acquire the ingredients of motivation such as becoming more capable and connecting with coworkers. Additionally, the longer someone is on the job, the more opportunity they have to see evidence of their work’s positive effect on others, which also increases their job satisfaction and helps them learn to love their work. In other words, developing your passion, rather than following your passion, is more likely to bring joy.

Piece of Evidence #2: Conference Board Surveys

Since the rise of the passion hypothesis, workplace satisfaction has actually decreased. The Conference Board has been studying job satisfaction since 1987. In 1987, 61% of Americans said they were happy with their jobs. By 2010, only 45% of Americans were. Of young people specifically, 64% aren’t happy with their jobs. These numbers aren’t attributable to recessions—there have been both busts and booms since 1987 and the satisfaction has been steadily declining regardless of the economic conditions.

Additionally, anecdotal evidence shows that even people who have jobs that match their passions aren’t happy. For example, 27-year-old Scott, who works in politics, admits that his job is practically perfect. He’s passionate about his field and he loves his company and coworkers. However, even though everything seems right, Scott isn’t convinced that his job is living up to the standards of the passion hypothesis because he doesn’t enjoy every single task. 

Piece of Evidence #3: Roadtrip Nation Interviews

Roadtrip Nation, a nonprofit organization that helps people find careers, interviewed a large sample of people who liked their jobs. Most of the people found their careers not by following their passions, but by taking a circuitous, messy route—it’s difficult to guess in the abstract what you might learn to like.

For example, Andrew Steele, an astrobiologist who loves his job, didn’t know where he was going to end up when he started his Ph.D. program. He signed up because it gave him options, not because he was passionate about the subject.

If you’re like most people, following your passion isn’t likely to be the path to finding joy in your work.

Following Your Passion Isn’t the Path to Happiness

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  • What makes people love their work
  • Why following your passion is not the path to loving your work
  • The four rules for loving your work

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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