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Monday, 22 February 2021

Time to scrap “follow your passion” career advice?

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” they said (Ba-humbug): This piece of ubiquitous and well intentioned advice has recently come under scrutiny, with HR and career specialists urging people to scrap the age old adage in favour of a more pragmatic approach. We’ve all seen and heard the stories of people turning their passion projects into successful businesses and careers. If you’re one of those people, amazing, count yourself lucky.

But needless to say, it doesn’t always work out that way. And the expectation that we should find passion, inspiration and fulfillment in the workplace may be driving us to expect too much of ourselves, and causing us to miss out on finding those things in other parts of our lives.

Work Won’t Love You Back: Or so Sarah Jaffe argues in her new book of the same name, in which she claims that our excessive devotion to our jobs can leave us open to exploitation, exhaustion, and mental health issues. A 2019 University of Montreal study found that 75% of workers experience burnout, with women being disproportionately more affected. But the refrain that we should love our jobs is so drilled into us, that if we don’t we may feel that there is something wrong with us.

But the idea that work should be enjoyable is a recent advent (thanks, tech bros), a variation of the ancient idea of having a “calling,” and not one to which everyone is suited. So much of our self-worth is wrapped up in our jobs and careers, that we often find it difficult to anchor ourselves to other sources of purpose and satisfaction.

Covid-19’s effect on work has been double edged, allowing many to work from home and take stock of what a reasonable work-life balance means for them, but throwing many others’ jobs into precarity. Zero hours contracts, freelance work, and the gig economy are work structures that have emerged and are sustained partly by the idea that we should do what we love; whether accepting underpaid freelance projects because we love what we do, or taking on temporary gigs to pay the bills and support our true passion on the side.

But what’s wrong with loving what you do? Absolutely nothing, and people should strive for some degree of satisfaction in their jobs so that it doesn’t end up feeling like drudgery.

That having been said, follow your passion can be bad advice for a number of other reasons. First off, not all of us have a passion, and in some cases it is more productive to dive headfirst into something you’re not good at and gain satisfaction through minor successes than to wait for inspiration to strike. Turning your passion into a career may also not be the best idea if you want to keep enjoying it, as being obligated to do what you once did voluntarily can take the joy out of it. The fallacy that every job must be fulfilling also denigrates the millions of jobs that may not be the most creative but that are integral to keep society functioning, the shopkeepers and accountants and transport operators and postal workers that keep the everyday cogs oiled and turning.

So what’s to be done? There’s a fine balance to be struck between passion and pragmatism, and one has to decide whether they are happy to merge their passion and work or whether they would rather keep them seperate, using one to fuel or feed into the other. Developing a passion, rather than finding one — by cultivating and learning valuable skills that will then allow you to make a profit — is another alternative. Reshaping the structure of work can also help us find more satisfaction, joining a union for example, or pushing for shorter working hours, or taking a proper lunch break and going for a walk. Whatever path we choose to take, being able to shift to a society that is not emotionally organized around work is the ultimate goal.

For more: The School of Life has this excellent video on the history of work, and another with some useful suggestions for how to find (or resist the urge to find) fulfilling work.

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