What to do instead when you can’t follow your passions
You know the clichés about work and passion.
“Just follow your passion.”
“Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
And so much more!
Everywhere we turn, people are telling us to follow our passions. It’s especially popular in the high school and college graduation speaker circuits.
The advice is so ingrained in our society that it makes following your passions seem easy. That something is wrong with you if you can’t do it, aren’t able to, or don’t know how. Following your passion shouldn’t be hard if everyone’s telling you to do it.
But is it really that easy?
If you’ve ever spent any time in the working world and needed a job to put food on your table and pay the bills, you’ve probably come face-to-face with the reality that following your passion for work isn’t always feasible. Many of us have to take on jobs that pay the bills and don’t foster our passions. If we’re lucky, maybe we at least like our jobs. And maybe some of us get REALLY lucky and love our jobs.
And to further complicate the issues, a 2019 study conducted by Standford researchers shows that people who follow their passions are ultimately less successful than their peers who don’t actively pursue their passions for work.
The study concluded that people laser-focused on following their passions typically assume the path will be easy. And when it’s not, they become frustrated and give up easier than their peers not actively pursuing passions.
Be open to new possibilities
Becoming overly focused on pursuing your passion can also make you close-minded to learning new things and overlook opportunities for collaboration. Often, the study points out, many great ideas are developed from collaboration with people outside your own areas of interest or studying other fields that may help you form connections you might not otherwise see by being myopic in your interests.
Some researchers also argue that following your passions can be especially difficult as a young professional as you’re trying to gain experience in the working world. But as you establish yourself as a professional and begin to bring in more income, the financial safety net opens up opportunities to explore your passions more safely.
And there are other camps that say pursuing a passion is simply a function of economic security. Rich kids and adults are more able to pursue their passions because of the financial security nets they have. Low- or middle-class workers don’t have that same luxury when they have mouths to feed and bills to pay, so they’re more likely to take on jobs that aren’t related to their passions.
So what’s the solution then, for some modicum of happiness at work or in starting a business if pursuing your passion isn’t in the cards?
Pursuing your strengths
Let’s face it. We may really love something and be passionate about it, but is it our strength? If it is, that’s phenomenal! But some people are passionate about things that aren’t their strengths. And because of that, it may not make sense to pursue it as work, or the work opportunities may not be lucrative enough to make a living wage out of the gate.
I’m passionate about music. But I suck at singing, and I can’t play any instruments. Well, I was in a band in high school and played the saxophone, but I don’t know that I’d remember what to do with it if you handed me one to give it a go right now.
But pursuing your strengths in your work is one way you can find at least some happiness in your work. When we feel like we’re good at something, it makes our work easier. And as you further develop your talents and strengths, there is a possibility you can become passionate about your work. People enjoy doing things they are good at, making them easier to pursue for an extended period of time.
Pursuing what you care about
When we think about passion, we think about something that brings us joy. We see that joy as something fixed. We’ll always find joy in doing it, right?
But what if we don’t? What if you pursue something you’re passionate about when you’re 25, and your passion wanes? What are you left with?
Some experts will argue instead that we should pursue things we care about versus things that bring us joy. When we care about something, it deeply resonates with our values, not just a flitting feeling of joy. We tend to hold our values close to us, and many times those values will follow us for a lifetime. Valuing something deeply can better help us persevere and weather the bad times. But if we simply find joy in something and all of a sudden it doesn’t carry that same joy, we’re more prone to become frustrated and move on.
Pursuing what is valuable
Maybe you know this feeling. You’re incredibly passionate about something. You spend all your waking hours invested in it. And then you get an opportunity to share it with others in some formal or informal venue. And they’re less than enthused about it. Maybe some of them question it and wonder what value your passion brings to the world.
I’ve been there when it comes to my writing. Writing is one of my passions, and I’ve been fortunate enough to also pursue it as work, but I’ve had many people not understand the value of good writing. Or think it’s dumb that I’m a writer, especially in the face of advances in AI. And it can sting a bit.
Simply put, your passion might not be enough to onboard others. And if you’re trying to grow a business related to your passion, that can be devastating. If your audience doesn’t see value in what you’re doing, no amount of passion will change their minds.
We tend to persevere in work that others also find some sort of value in. I’ve worked in positions before where I felt my boss didn’t value what I was doing or value the programs I was running as much as other programs they oversaw. It makes for a tough work environment.
But if you can pinpoint something people value and throw yourself into becoming good at it, there’s happiness in that, too. You can feel like you’re making a real impact, and gaining some public recognition from your boss and colleagues for your work can give you that added sense of accomplishment and make what you’re doing matter.
And the more people who find the work you do valuable, the more they will generally buy in, and the more successful you will be.
Everyone will Question your Passion
I’ve seen the question of passion come up in my own work. I’ve always been passionate about writing. I’m most passionate about creative writing. I used to say as a kid that I wanted to be a writer. But I had a sense as I got older that my poetry and short stories weren’t great, so making money off of them likely wouldn’t be in my cards.
So instead I pursued work in higher education. Our world, for the most part, still values education. So it was work I found value in. I felt a lot of times I was making a difference. And there were aspects of my work I was really good at.
You don’t have to determine your passion based on People’s Expected Timeline
Into my late 30s, I still realized I had a passion for writing and wanted to do something more with it. Could I turn it in to work? I didn’t know.
I tried by launching a freelance copywriting business alongside my 9–5 job. I read the top 30 copywriters and wanted to mimic their work. But it wasn’t the type of writing I was most passionate about. Instead of creative writing, I turned to copywriting and content writing. These are both types of writing that others find highly valuable, and they’re the types of writing I excel at. And because of that combination, I am happy with my work.
Dare I even say passionate about it now? I’m able to do something I enjoy immensely and make a lot of money doing that even though I wouldn’t say it’s my absolute passion.
And I’m pretty certain if I had just pursued my passion of trying to become the next great poet or novelist in my 20s, I probably would have crashed and burned.
In the end, it’s not wrong to want to follow your passions. But having a healthy dose of reality about what that looks like is key. It’s important to remember that you also can do other meaningful work or launch a meaningful business, even if it isn’t your passion right now. Passion can be fleeting, but strengths and values are less so. And the act of becoming better at that thing you’re pursuing sometimes is enough to foster it into a passion, or at least work you can enjoy doing.