Is following your work passion overrated?

When your career overshadows all other parts of your life, you may want to rethink your priorities

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,” says Erin Cech, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. “In addition, employers who prioritise 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.

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“We’ve been told that you can self-fulfil only through work, but people are beginning to see there are other aspects of life as important or more important than work,” says 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, says Cech, 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 fulfilment, it came later as you became more skilled at the job.

But that started changing in the 1970s, 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 fulfil you applies mostly to the privileged white-collar world. “The majority of people do not work to self-actualise,” says 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, to which Kim contributed, looked at seven studies and a meta-analysis and found that passion can be used to legitimise “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 legitimisation 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. Perkins (31) was a middle school and high schoolteacher 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.

@itsmaggieperkins

I used to be a teacher and now I work at Costco. This is my first year not having a winter break. I do not miss it at all. My pace of my work life now is so much better, I am not sick or exhausted like I used to be when I was a teacher. When I was a teacher I used my winter break basically to recover and go into the next semester of just surviving. fformerteachertteacherquittokccostcotiktokrretailworkereexteachertiktokccareertransitiont#teachersonbreak

♬ original sound - Maggie Perkins

Six months later, that sentiment remains. “I fully believe that the education system rests on exploitation of teacher labour, even in places with strong unions,” 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 university course or a career based on passion can also reinforce gender stereotypes, says 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 courses 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 says. The findings did not vary based on race or income, adds Cheryan.

While the intertwining of passion and career does exist in other countries, it is particularly strong in the United States, experts say, with its emphasis on individualism, the importance of work and relative lack of strong labour movements.

One way to determine if you have tipped over into what Taha Yasseri, an associate professor of sociology at University College Dublin, calls “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. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times