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Is Follow Your Passion Good Career Advice?

The author of 'Doing Good Better' is no fan of following your passion


(This article is adapted from the new book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacAskill)

Career advice is commonly built around slogans like “follow your heart” or “follow your passion.” A popular YouTube video, What If Money Was No Object?, narrated by British writer Alan Watts, suggests that unless you ask yourself “What makes you itch?” and pursue the answer you will “spend your life completely wasting your time.

Taken literally, however, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice. I co-founded a nonprofit, 80,000 Hours (the name refers to the number of hours you typically work in your life) to answer the question of how people can choose the careers that will enable them to have the biggest social impact. In the course of four years of research, one of our conclusions is that believing you must find some preordained “passion” and then pursue jobs that match it is all wrong.

3 Problems With Pursuing Your Passion

First, and most simply, most people don’t have passions that fit the world of work.

In one study of Canadian college students, it was found that 84 percent of students had passions, and 90 percent of these involved sports, music, and art. But only 3 percent of jobs are in the sports, music, and art industries.

There’s a lot of feel-good misinformation about finding a job you'll love. The real route to job satisfaction is somewhat counterintuitive.

Indeed, often the fact that you’re passionate about something is a good reason why it will be difficult to find a job in that area, since you have to compete with all the other people who are passionate about the same thing.

Second, your interests change.

Psychologists Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson have shown that happens much more than we anticipate, so we overrate the importance of our interests. Just think about what you were most interested in ten years ago; chances are, it’s completely different from what you’re interested in today.

If you focus only on what you’re currently passionate about, you risk committing to projects that you soon find you’re no longer interested in.

This leads to the third point against passion: The best predictors of job satisfaction are features of the job itself, rather than facts about personal passion. So if you find work with certain important features, passion will follow.

William Macaskill Author and Book Cover

The 5 Factors of Job Satisfaction

Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors:

Independence To what extent do you have control over how you go about your work?

Sense of completion To what extent does the job involve completing a whole piece of work so your contribution to the end product is easily visible?

Variety To what extent does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?

Feedback from the job How easy is it to know whether you’re performing well or badly?

Contribution To what extent does your work “make a difference,” as defined by positive contributions to the well-being of other people?

Each of these factors also correlates with motivation, productivity and commitment to your employer. Moreover, they’re similar to those required to develop flow, the pleasurable state of being so immersed in an activity that you’re completely free of distractions and lose track of time. Some psychologists argue this is the key to having genuinely satisfying experiences.

Other factors that also matter to your job satisfaction include: whether you get a sense of achievement from the work, how much support you get from your colleagues and “hygiene” factors, such as not having unfair pay or a very long commute. You’ll notice, they have little to do with whether the work involves one of your “passions.”

In short, passion is a poor way to determine whether a given career path will make you happy. Rather, passion grows out of work that has the right features.

Of course, personal factors are relevant to choosing the right career: different people have abilities in different areas, and it’s important to find a career that’s a good match for your particular abilities. But at 80,000 Hours, we prefer to talk about “personal fit,” rather than “passion.” Finding a career that’s the right fit for you is crucial, but believing you must find some preordained ‘passion’ and then pursue jobs that match it is all wrong.

To assess your “personal fit” with a career, the key question you should ask yourself is:

How good would I become at this career, if I were to invest the time, compared to other careers I might choose?

The focus is, first, on doing something at which you’ll excel, because a core part of doing work you love is doing something at which you develop a mastery. This is relevant to how much of a social impact you make in your work, too: If you’re not in a job where you’ll excelling, you’ll be less productive and more likely to burn out, resulting in less impact in the long-term.

Second, the focus is on what you could become good at. If you’re straight out of university, you probably don’t yet have skills in management, marketing, or coding, but you might have skills in music, sports, and your major. If you were thinking just about what you’re currently good at, you might narrow down your options to becoming a flautist, baseball player, or philosopher. That would be a mistake.

Should You Follow Your Gut?

What about “following your” gut to find work you love? The evidence suggests that won’t work, either, since we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. You might plan your life believing you’ll never want to have kids, but then find when you’re thirty that your preferences change dramatically. Simulating future events is hard to do.

It’s difficult to predict where you’ll be most satisfied and where you’ll perform the best. Even corporate recruiters regularly make mistakes, and they have huge amounts of resources at their disposal to find the people who fit best.

If you want to predict how well you’ll perform, the first step is to learn as much about the work as you can. Speak to people in the job, ask which traits they think are most important to success and see how you measure up. Ask why people end up leaving the job. Find out how people similar to you have performed in the past.

Identifying a job with good “personal fit” involves finding out as much about a job as you can, because it’s the features of the job itself that are much more important in determining how well you succeed and enjoy your work than whether that job corresponds with your preexisting passions.

Reprinted from Doing Good Better by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright ©2015, William MacAskill.

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