The Problem with Passion

“Passion” is a lot of pressure, right? Think about the word and what it implies. It’s the language of love and desire. It’s intensity. It’s a few steps up from “this is kind of fun”. I’ll let you come up with your own mental imagery, but whatever you are thinking about when I say “passion” it’s probably not a polite handshake, right?

Passion is an overwhelming emotion. It often wipes away all the others. If you are truly passionate about something, you are going to pursue it, somehow, no matter what obstacles are in your way. Roadblocks, dead ends, failure, pain and suffering—none of it will matter because you are getting to do something you love.

It’s easy for us to see this type of activity in our personal lives; in our hobbies or daily activities. You might love listening to music or playing an instrument, you might love running, you might like reading mystery novels. Things you do where time just seems to melt away. Almost everyone can identify one thing that they really love to do, but most people have a hard time connecting that to a career path.

When we start talking about careers and following your passion, some problems come up for many students.

One: I’m not passionate about anything; Two: I’m passionate about LOTS of things; Three: I’m passionate about something, but it isn’t something that will make me a good living; Four: I’m passionate about something, but I’m afraid to fail at it; Five: I’m passionate about something but I’m not good at it/have no experience in it; 

We will talk about each of these things, but let’s first talk about the process.

First, let’s dial down the pressure for a moment. Saying “I’m going to figure out what my passion is right now!” is a lot like saying “I’m headed out to the bar tonight and I’m going to find the guy I’m going to marry!”. Like many things in life, this is not about big leaps. It’s about baby steps, followed by reflection and using the wisdom gained to take another baby step.

Think of it like a game. You have things that are fun and interesting to you. Just because you can’t see an immediate path from those interests to a meaning full career doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Start with your interests. I often ask students I work with: “What do you do for fun?” This can be a great way to start the thought process. No job or career is going to be 100% sunshine and roses. No matter how passionate you are about what you are doing, you will have bad days, bad bosses, and bad circumstances somewhere along the way. It’s not about achieving “workplace bliss”, it’s about finding work that is meaningful to you in a way that makes putting up with those inevitable negatives an easier thing to do. Passion and motivation are different, but often go hand in hand.

One last “process” tip. Don’t engage in the task of reflecting on the intersections of passion and career when you are in a bad mood. If you are tired, angry, panicked, nervous, or depressed you will be very susceptible to negative thoughts that can cloud your judgement. Wait it out and proceed with the process when you are feeling better.

I’m not passionate about anything: Start small. Remember, baby steps. Think about things from your personal life that energize you. Energy is one of the great indicators of interest. Think about the type of activity or action you like to take no matter how tired you are. Is there anything like that in your life? We all have something like this in our lives even if it is as simple as “hanging out with my friends”. It’s not about connecting to a career yet, just think about what makes you happy almost all the time.

I’m passionate about everything: This is actually a good thing. If you have lots of things that really get you excited and motivated to act, you can start to think about testing those assumptions and exploring your options. Pick one and start there. You aren’t picking a career for the next 30 years, you are simply going to do some more research. You can always change your mind and not every interest will, or needs to, be part of your eventual career.

These next three have a lot of similarities to them, but are each slightly different:

I’m passionate about something, but it isn’t something that will make me a good living. You might be right, but this is a good time to examine your own personal values and reflect on what is most important to you. What is a “good living”? We all have a different definition of that, different burdens to consider, and different tolerances for deviation from an “ideal” scenario. This is the time for greater research. If the definition of a “good living” is financial and you are worried about earning power, are you sure that no one is following that particular passion to financial success? Is it a scenario where some can be financially successful but the odds are extremely long? If so, is there something close to your goal that might still ignite your passion enough to keep you motivated and energized at work while providing for more financial security? If not, is there another way you might be able to indulge your passion outside of the working world? If so, could this be some kind of activity that might be a baby step to an eventual career (through volunteering, organized activities, part-time jobs, part-time businesses)?

I’m passionate about something, but I’m afraid to fail. At some level, everyone is afraid to fail. No matter how confident others may seem, everyone deals with fear in different ways. Some are motivated by it, and driven to over-prepare in order to reduce the chance of failure. What is sometimes helpful for students trapped in this thought cycle is to think about the risk, not the result. What is the fear of failure based on? Is it simply embarrassment? Is it financial? Something else? Think about WHY you have that fear and how you can mitigate the risk. As with our last answer, could the risky choice be done as a part-time job or business? Could you establish a reputation in an industry as a volunteer in a way that might lead to opportunities later? Could you partner with others who can help manage some of the aspects of the process you find most intimidating?

I’m passionate about something but I’m not any good at it/have no experience. First, consider if there are ways to get experience. Can you volunteer? Do an internship? Simply do it on your own even if you aren’t getting paid to prove your ability? (I want to be a writer). If you can’t get experience, or there is a passion and interest not accompanied by the talent needed to directly participate (I want to be an NFL quarterback), then how close can you come? What about working in some other capacity for an NFL team? What about working for some other kind of sports team? What about working for a corporation unrelated to sports, but being involved with sports (Pepsi sponsors a Punt, Pass and Kick NFL promotion)?

So how do you get started?

First, remember to start small. Baby steps. Think of one interest and start to research it. What careers are associated with this skill/activity? What industries are associated? Do I have the skill level to get hired? If not, how can I develop my skills to that level? If it isn’t realistic to develop my skills any further, what other things can I do that are similar, or can the skill level I have be applied in a similar or related industry? Our two free tools “What Can I Do With This Major?” and are great self-guided tools to help with this process.

Second, take a test drive. Look for an internship in your chosen field/function. If you can’t get an internship yet, or if you just want more information first, reach out to some people and try to have informational interviews to find out more about the industry and what it really is like on a day-to-day basis. Searching for job descriptions related to your intended function/industry can be another good way to get an idea of what is really expected in a job rather than just relying on other information you might find on the internet in other places.

Lastly, reflect back on the ideas you initially started with, and the information you have gathered through your research/internship/volunteer work. Does it all work together? Did your initial impressions of what it might be like, and what might be required of you, stand up to reality? Does the reality sound interesting to you? Can you imagine yourself going to work in that type of role every day full of energy and excitement, or will you be hitting the snooze button five times every morning before eventually dragging yourself out of bed? If you think you’ve found your passion, and a path to connect it to a career, great! If not, is there another interest you can investigate? Are there other people that can assist you (academic advisor, other faculty, director of career development, family, friends, older students/mentors)?

This is a process that will go on throughout your life, not just now. Passions change as you do. What were once driving passions influencing your career can become hobbies later in life, or things you lose interest in entirely. Most of us are passionate about many things and often some doors will only open later in life as you gain additional expertise. Always keep your passions at the forefront of your decision-making process.

The closer you can be to combining your passions with your occupation, the happier you will generally be on a daily basis.



By Rick DelVecchio
Rick DelVecchio Director of Career Development Rick DelVecchio