Follow your feelings? 5 defects.

by Irene A Chic

After getting my bachelor’s degree in engineering and sociology, I was determined to do what I love. I headed straight to graduate school to investigate the social problems that frightened and astounded me.

Nearly a decade ago, I told everyone I met—students, cousins, and baristas at the coffee shop I frequented—that they should do the same. “Follow your passion,” she advised. “You can find out about the hiring stuff later.”

It wasn’t until I began researching this widely accepted career advice that I realized how problematic – and rooted in franchising – it really was.

Emotion principle

As a sociologist who studies workforce culture and inequality, I interview college students and working professionals to find out what it really means to pursue their dreams, which I will refer to here as the emotion principle. I was struck by what I discovered about this principle in the research of my book The Problem with Emotion.

I have examined surveys showing that the American public has a high regard for the principle of emotion as a priority in making career decisions since the 1980s. Its popularity is also stronger among those facing job instability linked to the pandemic.

My interviews revealed that advocates of passion found it compelling because they believed that following one’s passions could provide workers with the necessary motivation to work hard and a place to achieve.

However, what I have found is that following one’s passion does not necessarily lead to achievement, but it is one of the most powerful cultural forces that perpetuate overwork. I have also found that promoting the pursuit of one’s passion helps perpetuate social inequality due to the fact that not everyone has the same economic resources to allow them to easily pursue one’s passion. Here are five major flaws of the emotion principle that I discovered through my research.

1. It reinforces social inequality

While the passion principle is widely popular, not everyone has the resources to turn their passion into a stable, well-paid job.

It is best for passion seekers from wealthy families to wait until a job of their passion comes along without worrying about student loans in the meantime. They are also in a better position to get unpaid internships to get on their feet while their parents pay their rent or let them live at home.

They often access parents’ social networks to help them find jobs. Surveys have revealed that working-class and first-generation college graduates, regardless of their career field, are more likely than their more affluent peers to end up in low-paying unskilled jobs when pursuing their passion.

Colleges, universities, workplaces, and career counselors who promote the “Follow Your Passion” pathway for all, without equal opportunity, help perpetuate social and economic inequality among job aspirants.

Thus, those who promote the “Follow Your Passion” path to everyone may be ignoring the fact that not everyone is able to achieve success equally while following this advice.

2. A threat to well-being

My research revealed that supporters of passion see the pursuit of one’s passion as a good way to decide on a career, not only because working with passion can lead to a good job, but because they believe it leads to a good life. To achieve this, passion seekers invest much of their sense of identity in their work.

However, the workforce is not organized around the goal of nurturing our authentic sense of self. In fact, studies of laid-off workers showed that those who were passionate about their work felt as if they had lost part of their identity when they lost their job, along with their source of income.

When we rely on our jobs to give us a sense of purpose, we put our identities at the mercy of the global economy.

3. It encourages exploitation

Not only wealthy passion seekers benefit from the passion principle. Employers of motivated workers do too. I conducted an experiment to see how potential employers responded to job applicants who expressed various reasons for their interest in a job.

Not only do potential employers prefer motivated applicants over applicants who want the job for other reasons, but employers purposely tapped into this passion: Potential employers showed more interest in motivated applicants in part because employers believed applicants would work hard at their jobs without expecting a pay increase.

4. Promotes a culture of overwork

In conversations with college students and college workers, I’ve found that a significant number of them are willing to sacrifice a good salary, job stability, and free time to work at a job they love. Nearly half – or 46% – of college graduates surveyed rated an interest or passion for work as their number one priority in a future job. That’s compared to just 21% who prioritized salary and 15% who prioritized work-family balance. Among those I interviewed, there were those who said they would “eat ramen noodles every night” and “work 90 hours a week” if it meant they would follow their craving.

Although many professionals pursue work in their field of passion precisely because they want to avoid the drudgery of working long hours performing tasks for which they are not personally committed, the pursuit of passion perpetuates cultural expectations of overwork. Most of the passion seekers I spoke to were willing to work long hours as long as it was their passion.

5. It denies inequality in the labor market

I find that the Emotion Principle is not just a guide that his followers use to make decisions about their lives. For many, it serves as an explanation for inequality in the workforce. For example, compared to those who do not adhere to the passion principle, proponents were more likely to say that women are underrepresented in engineering because they followed their passion elsewhere, rather than acknowledging the deep structural and cultural roots of this underrepresentation. In other words, proponents of the emotion principle tend to interpret patterns of inequality in the labor market as a benign outcome of the search for individual emotion.

Avoid pitfalls

To avoid these pitfalls, people may want to base their career decisions on more than if those decisions represent their passion. What do you need from your job in addition to the salary? Expected hours? Fun colleagues? Benefits? respected chief?

For those who already work in jobs you’re passionate about, I encourage you to diversify your portfolio of ways that make sense – to cultivate hobbies, activities, community service, and identities that exist entirely outside of work. How can you take the time to invest in these other ways to find purpose and satisfaction?

Another factor to consider is whether you are getting fair compensation for the additional, passion-fueled efforts you contribute to your job. If you work for a company, does your manager know that you’ve spent your weekends reading books on team leadership or mentoring your newest team member after hours? We contribute to our exploitation if we do unrequited work for our job out of passion.

My research on “The Trouble with Passion” raises real questions about standardized approaches to career guidance and counselling. Each year, millions of high school and college graduates prepare to enter the workforce full-time, and millions more are reevaluating their jobs. It is critical that friends, parents, teachers, and career coaches who advise them begin to question whether advising them to pursue their passion may ultimately do more harm than good.

Erin A. Cech is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan


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