Is Passion Necessary?

Lately I’ve been finding the idea that your work should be your passion about as oppressive as the idea that work should be boring well-paid drudgery or that you should pick your career based on what your father and his father and his father’s father did for a living.

I’m not even talking about the fact that only certain fortunate people even have the privilege of being able to choose to do something they love, although that’s also something that the Do What You Love crowd ignores.

I’m talking about the fact that when we accept the idea of your work being your passion, we accept unfair treatment of workers as a reasonable price to pay.

Whenever I mention (in some relevant context) that my field is underpaid, the response is often, “But at least you get to do What You Really Love!” They’ll sigh, and add, “I wish my work actually made a real difference. Instead I just sit in an office and move people’s money around.”

When I talk about the difficulties of living on a low salary and the lack of institutional support for the self-care our employers all patronizingly insist we prioritize, they say, “Well, that’s a small price to pay for getting to Follow Your Passion.”

(Actually, my work isn’t my passion. My passion is reading books and spending time with people I love, but nobody’s monetized that yet.)

I do love and enjoy my work, but I also really get a kick out of being able to pay off my student loan debt, take the occasional vacation, be allowed adequate time off to do all those Adult Things that can only be done during business hours, have my own apartment, and not worry about money all the time. That would really be fulfilling. You could almost say I have a passion for it.

The idea that Your Work Should Be Your Passion seems empowering on the surface. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could get paid to do something they really love? How great would it be if you could spend most of your day actively making the world a better place, or whatever it is you care about most?

But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.

If your work is your passion, but suddenly you’re asking to work remotely or part-time because you just had a baby, maybe you’re just not that into your work anymore and your job should go to someone who’s more passionate.

If your work is your passion, then “attitude” matters more than actual competence. “Passionate” people are more fun to work with and we assume that they’ll be more dedicated to their job, so we hire people who are “a good fit for the company” rather than people who have a proven record of getting shit done.

Which leads into the other way that this emphasis on passion becomes counterproductive and ultimately harmful: the idea that “passion” is ultimately the reason people succeed.

Erik Devaney breaks this myth down in his article about passion and work:

Ultimately, the role passion plays in a person’s success depends on the context of that person’s unique situation.

For some folks, the road to success is smooth and straight, and being smart and hardworking and passionate can help those folks travel down that smooth and straight road even faster.

For others, the road to success is full of hurdles and potholes, and even if they’re just as smart and hardworking and passionate as the folks on the other road, they’ll never be able to catch up.

Life, as we all know, isn’t fair. But that doesn’t mean that the folks with the unfair advantages get to decide how everyone else thinks and feels.

Besides the fact that people with relatively little privilege face roadblocks that no amount of passion can overcome, this idea that passion is what makes for success also masks the often massive amount of practice and skill-building involved. And that, ironically, is easier to do than to force yourself to feel passionate about something you’re just not passionate about. Changing behavior tends to be easier than changing feelings, and pretending that your feelings are other than what they are can be counterproductive. Ferrett writes:

“Look,” I said.  “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in better touch with your friends.  But what you’re doing is this fucked-up equation where you go I miss my friends == I need to use the Internet == I want to use the Internet.  And because you think the only way to do something is to be the sort of person who wants to do it, you’re psyching yourself up to be something you’re not.”

“…this is like the way you hate exercise, isn’t it?”

“Fucking loathe it.  Went for a hard twenty-minute workout on the elliptical this morning.  Hated it every step of the way.  I realize I hate exercise so much I literally have to do it right after I wake up, because if I hold off until my brain comes online I’ll manufacture good excuses why I don’t have to work out all day.   I can only get exercise because I’ve acknowledged that I fucking hate doing it.”

You can, in fact, do things you’re not passionate about–even things you dislike–in order to achieve something you do really care about. You may not be passionate about playing scales on the piano for hours, but you’re passionate about the beautiful music you’ll create as a result. There’s no point in obscuring the fact that becoming a talented pianist requires more than just PASSION, but also a lot of rather boring hard work.

Many people would argue that if you don’t enjoy doing something, you shouldn’t choose it as your job. But that comes from the idea that Work = Passion and that things you’re not passionate about can never be things you’re good at and would be satisfied doing for money so that you can spend that money doing the things you are passionate about. In fact, the entire concept of being satisfied with your job rather than LOVING your job seems all wrong.

But it’s not. I know people who have pretty boring but acceptable jobs, who then go home and enjoy not worrying about putting food on the table. Instead, they do their hobbies, take vacations, spend time with their families, and donate to causes they care about.

The problems endemic in our approach to work were not caused by the idea that passion is mandatory, nor will they be fixed by taking a more reasonable view on passion’s role. (And they won’t be entirely fixed by better vacation policies or workplace discrimination laws, either.) Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

However, it pains me to see progressive folks perpetuating the myth that passion should be central to work. That makes it too easy to disregard unfair, exploitative, or even abusive working conditions. It asks people to accept receiving less than a living wage because getting to do What They Love ought to somehow make up the difference.

Loving my job doesn’t pay the rent. Loving my job won’t help when my job has taken over my life to such an extent that I can’t care for myself. Even if I love my job, it’s not the only thing in the world that I love.


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Is Passion Necessary?

14 thoughts on “Is Passion Necessary?

  1. 1

    This is all excellent and very true. I’ve been thinking a lot lately that I’d like a pleasant enough job that is stable and decently-paying and then do all the shit I love and am passionate about on the side. A lot of times that’s also phrased as “selling out” or some shit. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting some stability.

  2. 2

    The passion stuff is pretty lousy. I’ve seen it cause college students a mess of anxiety when it comes to choosing a major/occupation – each one examined fails the ‘passion’ test or else people forget that most people’s passions are really for things outside of work so that maybe their passion isn’t even anything they can choose in terms of major/job. Probably very few people would look at something like accounting and say ‘wow, that’s something I can get passionate about’ but I know at least one artist who is kind of glad they took a few bookkeeping courses. Dull work, but probably beats the stress of the types of jobs many people end up having to choose to pay the bills. I think the work == passion leads people to choose the wrong path because they’re misled that your WORK is your passion, and not just a means to a kind of life you want.

    Another issue – not only is there an issue with ‘if your work is your passion we can pay you less, right?’ there’s also the idea that if your work is your passion you’re always up for more work, more hours and more responsibility. Even if those things might come with more pay at some point, even something you love can start taking up too much of your life. Or maybe that’s the angle – ‘come on, don’t tell me you won’t give more time and effort for your passion!’

    When I think of people I encounter in their jobs, I really think that asking for them to be passionate is a bit excessive – responsible and competent yes. How passionate about being a psychiatrist should my psychiatrist be? I’d hope she’d have a life outside of her professional identity and I don’t really want to see a psychiatrist who is overloaded with work and way too many patients. And then there’s the question of how a workaholic mental health professional can credibly assess the work/life balance issues of their clients.

    And sometimes I think we need to defend that it’s okay not to be that passionate (jobs sometimes just need to be done) and that maybe it’s even okay to be mediocre. Being good enough and committed enough should be plenty for most jobs out there, even ones that require skills and education.

  3. 3

    Other problems with this idea:

    1. There is a hell of a lot of shit that needs to get done that absolutely nobody is passionate about. I don’t believe that anybody in the entire world is passionate about cleaning toilets, or washing dishes, or dealing with the trash, but it’s got to be done.

    2. There’s nothing like doing something full-time, day after day, whether you want to or not, for money, to take all the fun out of it.

    3. I don’t know about any body else, but my passions tend to drift on a much shorter timescale than is needed to build a career out of any one of them. I’ll become very passionate about something for maybe a couple of years, then get bored with it and move on to something else. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now. The longest I’ve managed to remain truly passionate about any one thing was maybe five years. Long enough to become reasonably expert, but certainly not long enough to build it into a career… All too often, the price of doing what you love is getting stuck doing something you no longer love, or even particularly enjoy.

  4. 4

    Sure, loving or liking what you do greatly helps, but as you said, it’s also a way in which people get exploited and worked raw. My sister used to be a nurse. First paediatric, then geriatric. She’s one of the people who really care. You’d want her for a nurse. She’d never leave your needs unmet just because time is running out, so if you can pay people for 8 hours but they will work 10 hours because of the patients, hey, profit!
    Worked her raw, broke her down. Her and many of her colleagues. The ones who stayed, the ones who can keep working at that job are the ones without passion or love or care. The ones who’ll simply put the food in front of a person and clean away the tray 30 minutes later no matter if the patient has eaten or is even capable of feeding themselves.

    Also, what does this “passion fetish” say about people whose job is simply boring but necessary? Today I needed new license plates. The last person’s job is to look at your paper slip, take your plates, validate them with the official stickers and hand them back to you. Probably not very exciting, but I’m glad he’s there doing his job cause I need those silly license plates…

  5. 5

    I have worked for years in organizations that used volunteer labour. And it’s great, working with people who are there because they are passionate about your own goals. But it’s also extremely difficult, because a side effect of that passion is that they tend to have strong ideas about how things “ought” to be done, or about priorities and organizational structure, and their ideas tend to clash with those of their equally passionate co-workers. And they’re usually not too good at compromise; they feel that it leads to failing to reach the goal. And they tend to be snooty to those poor souls who are there to do a job, for pay, even though they depend on their labour. Herding cats is child’s play; it’s more like herding angry goats.

  6. 6

    While any employer claiming they value “passion” in their employees above all else is one to run far away from, I’ve noticed that many charities and progressive non-profits are particularly guilty of this. They’ll claim that because their employees are doing critical, valuable social-justice work – which they are! – then they should be content with low pay and poor benefits, because their job offers compensatory “psychic rewards”. And that, of course, leads to overwork and burnout in short order.

  7. 7


    How passionate about being a psychiatrist should my psychiatrist be? I’d hope she’d have a life outside of her professional identity and I don’t really want to see a psychiatrist who is overloaded with work and way too many patients.

    Well, yes, good point. How about teachers?

    This thing about passion is problematic to me as well. I work with students and I see it as a part of my task to convince them that … well, that the stuff I teach is interesting and worth doing. But if the teacher is not passionate about the stuff, there is a very real danger that the message will fall dull and flat.

    The problem is that: (1) I don’t see motivating students as an additional, extra, voluntary work, which I might just as well skip. I see it rather as a part of my job – that’s what I’m getting my (admittedly, small) salary for! (2) teaching involves repetitions and after so many years I find the elementary courses immensely boring. I worry sometimes that I could give such a course at 2 am, just after being suddenly awaken from a deep sleep … and nobody would notice a difference.

    Do you think that passion is necessary for teaching? A student’s perspective, anyone?

    1. 7.1

      With teaching, I have some experience as a professor and I’d say that passion both for the subject *and* teaching (since people can sometimes have the first but not the second) goes a long way. A few people have advanced the hypothesis (I have yet to see it tested) that a reason few people are really enthusiastic about mathematics is that few teachers really like that subject much themselves. If anything, a teacher can point to how and why something is worth learning, exciting or interesting, it’ll go a long way.

      At the same time, I think with teachers we all have to be realistic that eventually you wind up teaching the same things for years on end and that’s going to have a consequence. After a decade of teaching something, one can feel a bit robotic. And day to day, enthusiasm can wax and wane. I had some major psychiatric issues for a while and sometimes I just hoped to keep it together, answer questions and then get done with office hours, but it was more in the back of my mind I didn’t want to short-change students because of what I was going through.

      So I think with teachers, you need some passion, but I also think that people need to be realistic about the challenged of teaching, the repetition, the burnout, dealign with students who are only in a class because it’s required who have no interest in it at all (I mean, what’s the impact on one’s own passion for something when you run into people who think it’s a waste all the time?) I can imagine someone simply viewing ‘clean toilets’ as a job to be done, but teaching requires a bit more. But I also feel people can be unfair to educators in that they’re asking them for PASSION! year after year, class after class. I guess in that way it’s kind of like waiting tables. After a long day, you’re still supposed to sound super happy and enthusiastic as you repeat the same specials over again.

      And with teachers, I think that ‘the teacher needs to have a life outside of work’ needs to be understood by everybody. Enthusiasm can get burned out of you.

  8. 8

    I guess in that way it’s kind of like waiting tables. After a long day, you’re still supposed to sound super happy and enthusiastic as you repeat the same specials over again.

    I like the comparison.

    One of my colleagues says that we work in show business (“whatever happens in your life, just go on with the show. And you’d better be entertaining – the management doesn’t like empty chairs!”) I prefer your analogy, mainly because of one crucial factor: in show business they have better wages.

  9. 9

    I’m a family doc in Ontario. Doctors buy into this passion thing whole hog. We pay our staff maternity leave that we aren’t eligible for, put big money into nice surroundings for our patients, volunteer tons of time and take on financial risk by agreeing to supervise interdisciplinary teams for no extra pay. And the public counts on it, the government (our employer) counts on it. So next year at some point they have told us they are going to decide they have spent enough on healthcare and just stop paying doctors because they know we’ll keep working because we are passionate about our jobs and care what happens to our patients. That’s what passion gets you.

  10. 10

    Opposition to a living wage (or to a minimum wage at all), and to welfare of any sort, and to unionization, and to UBI (not that UBI is being seriously floated anywhere in the political mainstream nowadays, more’s the pity) all seem to me to stem from the idea that Work is a duty in and of itself. “You should be passionate about your work” just sounds like a more secular-sounding version of the same idea.

    But what I came here to say is that “should” itself is oppressive.

  11. 11

    […] “But if your work is your passion, then it won’t matter so much that it doesn’t pay that well…right? If your work is your passion, you might want to miss your kid’s sports game or musical performance so that you could stay a few hours late and keep working. And if you want to, surely it’s not too much to expect you to.” Read more. […]

  12. 12

    My previous employer, who fired me because he mistakenly thought that I was an OSHA whistleblower, explicitly used the “you should be happy we’re making the world a better place” thing as an excuse to pay me and others less. Like, he made this clear in company meetings.

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