Many career-hunting resources all say the same thing: follow your passion. For some, such advice may conjure images of owning a successful business, writing a critically-acclaimed novel or moving to L.A. and taking Hollywood by storm. But for others who aren’t sure of what their passions are—or even if they have a passion in the first place—such advice isn’t very helpful. What if you don’t have a passion for anything in particular? Or what if you have no interest in pursuing any of your hobbies as a career? Where does a person’s lack of passion leave him or her in terms of a job?
An examination of how our society views work and passion in relation to identity should be helpful in answering these questions. The idea that you should do what you love stems from the American tendency to see the workplace as an extension of a person’s identity. In a Huffington Post blog post titled Jobs + Identity: Who You Are vs. What You Do, journalist Farai Chideya discusses how closely we associate our jobs with our sense of selves: we say we’re teachers or nurses or accountants, not that we work as teachers or nurses or accountants. This type of identity formation is apparently specific to U.S. culture. Chideya argues that people outside of the U.S.—such as the PhD-holders she met in Cuba who worked as tour guides and salespeople—base their identities on other aspects of their lives, such as family and national or regional origin. For these individuals, their work and their identities are two separate entities.
People who make that distinction may be on to something. According to Ray Williams, a blogger for Psychology Today, defining identity through work can lead to an identity crisis if unemployment occurs. A 2009 article published by the Seattle-based news website komonews.com profiles this two-fold loss of job and identity: a man laments that he feels “aimless” and “empty” after losing his job as a computer programmer, while one woman attempting to start her own PR business explains that “everyone says to me, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you’…But what about on Monday morning, when I wake up and say, ‘OK, now what do I do?’”
Besides leading people to potentially overidentify with their work, the advice to “follow your passion” carries another negative possibility—the loss of passion altogether. As Michelle Goodman, author of the work blog Nine to Thrive points out, the financial pressure inherent in making your passion the source of your income can turn something that was once fun and enjoyable into a tiresome burden. Goodman also asserts that many people never find a job they feel passionate about, advising those who are frustrated with their search for exciting work to instead seek emotional fulfillment through their hobbies in their leisure time. Williams offers similar advice to place as much importance on leisure activities as work activities so that unemployment does not trigger an identity crisis.
So to all my fellow college students and soon-to-be-college students who feel uncertain about their futures, please don’t fret—it’s okay if you don’t know what your passion is, or if you don’t want to pursue your passion through work. But there are two caveats to my argument to consider:
Caveat #1: Although you don’t have to be in love with your job, you should not stick with a job that makes you miserable, either. To ensure that you end up in a field that you’re (at the very least) content with, regard your first few jobs as an exercise in self-awareness: take whatever work you can after graduation and note which elements of that work you do and do not like. When you look for your next job, you’ll have a better idea of what kind of work environment suits you, and as you take more jobs and see what kind of work is out there, you’ll become better-equipped to decide what sort of job you’d like to have.
Caveat #2: By no means am I discouraging the pursuit of passion as a career, or the search to find your passion if having a job you feel strongly about is important to you. But work and passion do not have to be mutually inclusive, and finding a job you’re passionate about is not the be-all, end-all of life. As you make the transition from student to working adult, keep in mind that you can just as easily follow your passion outside of the workplace.
Angela S. is a junior at Oberlin College.