Follow your passion. It’s perhaps the most common advice given to job seekers. The implication: You can only be your best at work when you’re doing something you truly love.
Yet according to a growing body of research, an overemphasis on passion for one’s work can be detrimental in a number of ways.
“It doesn’t provide an opportunity to develop an identity outside of work,” said Erin Cech, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. “In addition, employers who prioritize passion expect people to give more time and energy without being paid more.”
While the idea that a job need not be a calling is not new, experts said the pandemic and the changes it advanced in the working world might be encouraging people to rethink what passion for a job really means.
“We’ve been told that you can self-fulfill only through work, but people are beginning to see there are other aspects of life as important or more important than work,” said Jae Yun Kim, an assistant professor of business ethics at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba. “People are beginning to treat work as work, and that’s a good sign.”
Before the 1970s, passion was not a priority for job seekers, said Professor Cech, who is the author of “The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality.” Rather, the focus was on decent pay, hours and security, and if there was fulfillment, it came later as you became more skilled at the job.
But that started changing in the ’70s, with the increasing job instability of professionals and a growing cultural emphasis on self-expression and self-satisfaction, a change captured in the wildly popular 1970 book “What Color Is Your Parachute?”
Notably, worrying about whether your job will fulfill you applies mostly to the privileged white-collar world. “The majority of people do not work to self-actualize,” said Simone Stolzoff, who wrote the book “The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work.” “They work to survive.”
It’s also important to consider the price you may be paying for loving your job. An article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which Professor Kim contributed to, looked at seven studies and a meta-analysis and found that passion can be used to legitimize “unfair and demeaning management practices,” including asking employees to work extra hours without pay, work on weekends and handle unrelated tasks that are not part of the job.
One of the studies found that managers from various industries perceived that subordinates who seemed more passionate about their jobs than their colleagues “would be more likely to volunteer for extra work (for no extra compensation) and be rewarded by work, and this in turn predicted increased legitimization of exploiting” that worker.
This doesn’t just apply to individuals, but entire professions, such as creative or caring fields, where people are presumed to have “a calling” that can compensate for lower salaries: nursing or teaching, for example.
Maggie Perkins doesn’t need academic research to understand the connection between passion for work and exploitation. Ms. Perkins, 31, was a middle school and high school teacher for eight years in Florida and Georgia. Her public announcement on TikTok that she had quit her job and was happier working as an entry-level employee at Costco garnered media attention and millions of views.
Six months later, that sentiment remains. “I fully believe that the education system rests on exploitation of teacher labor, even in places with strong unions,” Ms. Perkins said, adding that low pay, as well as diminishing autonomy over her teaching, drove her out of the profession.
“I was definitely cut out for teaching,” she said. “But I had to choose between myself and losing myself.” (She was recently promoted at Costco to corporate trainer.)
Choosing a major or a career based on passion can also reinforce gender stereotypes, said Sapna Cheryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Several studies she and her colleagues conducted found that when undergraduates were asked to select majors or occupations based on the advice “follow your passion” the answers fell into traditional roles: Men more typically chose computer and engineering fields and women more often opted for art or helping people, for example.
If instead they were asked to select a career based on job security and salary or to choose one focused on caring or nurturing others, this gender difference narrowed significantly, she said. The findings did not vary based on race or income, Professor Cheryan added.
While the intertwining of passion and career does exist in other countries, it is particularly strong in the United States, experts said, with its emphasis on individualism, the importance of work and relative lack of strong labor movements.
One way to determine if it you have tipped over into what Taha Yasseri, an associate professor of sociology at University College Dublin, called “obsessive passion” — when your career overshadows all other parts of your life — is to ask yourself if you’re able to switch off your job and focus on family, hobbies or other parts of your life. If the answer is no, you may want to rethink your priorities.
That’s what Alex, 27, did. (He requested that his surname not be published for fear of appearing less than passionate about his job.) For about three years, Alex worked at least 60-hour weeks at his job as a supply chain manager for a Fortune 500 company. He has always been driven and “I found myself addicted to the workplace, addicted to my job and, looking back, it was very unhealthy,” he said, adding that his relationship with his girlfriend suffered as well.
When he was promoted and moved to a new state, he decided to dial back to a more manageable 40 hours a week. He noted that he still got the same positive performance reviews without the intense working hours or constant worrying.
“My job is fine. I don’t go to bed dreaming about it,” Alex said. “And I’m A-OK with that.”