Struggling To ‘Find Your Passion’? Here’s Why It’s Dangerous Advice – And What To Look For Instead

'Find your passion' is dangerous advice

You want inspiration, drive, energy, and contentment at work: a career you can be proud of and a life you love. There's just this one little thing you need to find first… Or is there? Natasha shares why the biggest buzzword of the career change world might be exactly what's keeping you stuck, and the three things you should be seeking instead.

How many times have you heard or read the phrase 'find your passion'?

Hear something enough, and it becomes part of the background noise of life.

If you haven't yet found your passion, you should be looking for it.

If you're not fully happy and engaged at work or in business, it's because you haven't yet found it.

If you're not on the hunt for it, you're not living full-out.

And yet…

Working with thousands and thousands of career changers, we've seen that the idea of 'finding your passion' can often knock you off-course rather than set you on the right track.

Here's why:

1. It's a dangerous starting point

The very phrase 'finding your passion' is deeply misleading.

It makes it sound like the right career for you will arrive one day in a flash of insight. It'll be like fishing for the remote down the back of the couch cushions: one day you'll emerge, triumphantly brandishing your dusty passion in your fist, yelling "FOUND it!"

Or, by studying yourself deeply enough and adding up the things you've discovered, somehow you'll realise what you're really meant to be doing.

Once the thunderclap happens to you, then you can begin the business of living full out.

Until then, it's hopeless. Until you find it, you're stuck.

But the much-lusted-after 'light-bulb moment' is (for the most part) a myth.

Instead, the journey toward fulfilling work is much more of an iterative process: experimenting and learning and connecting and discovering, slowly, over time.

As long as you're chasing (or more likely, sitting around waiting for) the flash of passionate discovery, you're letting weeks and months slide past that could be more productively used to inch your way forward, bit by bit (Dan and Chip Heath call this process 'ooching', which is worth trying simply because it's such a deliciously wonderful word).

Professor and author Cal Newport calls this the Passion Trap. He argues that the reason so many people are miserable at work is because they've ascribed to a misguided expectation: that once you find your passion, everything will fall into place. It'll be a smooth ride from there on out. Instead, he says, passion grows in the right context. If you have autonomy in your work, you're connected with people, and you're good at what you do, you'll develop a passion for your work. But it does take work. You have to show up, master the skills, put in the time and the effort, develop the relationships.

Passion is not a starting point, he says. It's a side effect.

"Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion." - Seth Godin

Ryan took part in our Career Change Launch Pad in 2016, and described the feeling of slow recognition that came over him as he experimented his way into a new career path:

"It's just this sense of calm. I always thought that finding my work would be really exciting and thrilling, and it is, but it's the peacefulness that surprised me. Just a step-by-step movement in a certain direction. And then I was surrounded with all these people, and I knew I could have a conversation with any of them and they'd understand who I am."

That gentle, quiet nudging in an unfolding direction? The sense of moment-to-moment discovery and insight? That's what we've seen career change looks like with the thousands of people we've worked with at Careershifters – far, far more than we've witnessed the famous and elusive thunderclap of insight.

2. It's too narrow

Part of the appeal of the 'passion' idea is its singularity.

Once you've found it, that's it – all you have to do is follow through to its obvious conclusion. If only you knew what you wanted to do, you could get busy on the how, right?

Except it's not that simple.

In fact, one of the most common problems passion-hungry career changers encounter is a too-narrow field of vision.

Suzanne took part in our Launch Pad in 2015, and almost quit the process when she decided that what she was ultimately passionate about was psychology.

"I think it's time I accepted that not everyone is able to follow their passion. I found mine too late.

"If I had known that this was my passion when I was younger, I could have studied and crafted a career path to follow it.

"But at my age I can't go back to school to become a psychologist. I just don't have the money to retrain, or the inclination to start from the beginning on an entry-level salary."

When Suzanne and I explored her thought processes, we discovered that she had got so hooked on the idea of a singular, all-encompassing 'passion' that she was ignoring all the different ways it could manifest itself.

By broadening her scope of interest from a singular 'passion' to the idea of an 'umbrella', she found she was actually overflowing with exciting new possibilities (including marketing, organisational change management, and teaching), all of which she could become deeply passionate about if she found the right combination of people and the context in which she was working.

Focusing on just 'the one thing' makes it incredibly difficult to be successful in your search. The broader the net you're willing to cast, the more options you'll have available to you.

3. It's likely to change (and you might have more than one)

Romantic as the idea of a lifelong passion is, you're unlikely to find one thing that fulfils you entirely at the ages of 25, 35, 45 and beyond. Think back to what you were most interested in five years ago, and you'll probably find that it's pretty different from what you're interested in today.

Condoleeza Rice was a classical musician before she turned her hand to politics. Vera Wang was a competitive figure skater before she moved into fashion design. Steve Jobs started out passionate about Zen Buddhism, and went looking for some quick cash in the tech world. But as he got engaged in the work and began to find success, he discovered that passion can grow over time.

And, in the same way as passion can grow and develop, it can also fade. Matthew loved his work in international development when he first entered the sector, but after a while it was no longer enough:

"I was over the moon when I first got this job (I was literally jumping up and down with delight when accepting the offer!), but I think I've grown out of it now."

The heady rush of passion is exciting, emotional, and powerful, and as it ebbs and flows and morphs alongside your own evolving sense of self, you need to be ready to move too.

And for those of you who are Scanners or multipotentialites, pinning down your One Big Passion can feel limiting and sad.

Maybe you don't want a single focus in life. Maybe the expectation that there's a 'right' answer is just completely at odds with who you are.

And that's OK. But it does mean that an umbrella might be a better thing to look for than a single passion.

4. It's biased

Some people suit the word 'passion' down to the ground. Others, not so much. You might describe them as committed, or dedicated, but 'passionate'? It would be a squeeze.

Similarly, not all activities or causes or careers lend themselves to the word 'passion'.

So, if 'passion' is your starting point, you're only playing with a fraction of the possibilities out there.

"I like organising things. A LOT. It makes me happy, it uses my natural weirdo tendencies, and I'm proud of what I achieve when I've finished a job. This is what I want to be doing. I'm really, really happy. But is organising a passion of mine? No. That doesn't even sound right. When you think of a passion, you think of the arts, or sports, or saving starving kittens. You don't think Excel spreadsheets and hard drive backups.

"But for a long time the whole passion thing knocked me off track. I thought if my soul didn't burn for something, if I couldn't finish the sentence 'I'm passionate about...', then I was screwing up.

"Not true." – Emma, digital housekeeper (previously a care home assistant)

If you don't feel like a particularly 'passionate' person, but you're trapped in the expectation that you have to have one in order to be happy, it might be time to let go and choose a different goal. 

5. It's not enough

If you're doing your best to be cautious and level-headed about your career change, we don't blame you.

Your work is a fundamental part of your life.

It's how you put food on the table, take care of the people you love, and mark your place in the world.

Which is why ideas like 'follow your passion and the money will come' are so dangerous.

Mark took part in one of our online calls:

"I suppose I'm lucky to be able to say that I have things I'm passionate about. Frankly, if I were to follow my passion I'd be on a bike riding from pub to pub all day. But I'm more passionate about my family, and about making sure they're taken care of. And riding my bike isn't going to pay for my children to go to university."

'Passion' can certainly help to guide your thinking about what you want to do, but as anyone who has worked with a nightmare team in an office three hours away from home for low pay and minimal recognition will know, your career is about much more than simply what you do all day.

Loving what you do matters – it just isn't the whole picture. And yet it's incredibly easy to get seduced into a single-minded search for your passion, without considering the other factors that make something a career. Context is just as important as content when it comes to your work.

See our Fulfilment Sweet Spot below for the other key ingredients.

If not passion, then what? 3 things to look for instead

1. Your fulfilment sweet spot

At Careershifters, we believe that fulfilling work ultimately lies at the intersection of three questions:

  • What energises me?
  • What am I good at?
  • What will the world pay for?

And inside of these questions are a whole host of other considerations:

  • Who do you love spending time with?
  • What physical environments light you up and bring you alive?
  • Which of your talents, skills, or abilities are most engaging to you, and most useful for the world around you?
  • What's financially viable, and what isn’t?

By seeking the 'sweet spot', you're balancing practicality with passion, cashflow with competence, and ultimately ending up with a career that works on all levels.

And the best way to find certainty in that sweet spot?

Our Lean Career Change process, which allows you to test and measure each of your ideas against the Fulfilment Metrics.

2. Your contribution

Ben Horowitz is the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most successful venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.

In his famous commencement address to Columbia University in 2015, he argued that what really matters in life is not a me-centric desire to feel good all of the time (i.e. a passion), but what you can contribute meaningfully to a world that has never been better equipped to receive you:

"When you go through life, what you'll find is what you take out of the world over time — be it money, cars, stuff, accolades — is much less important than what you've put into the world. So my recommendation would be follow your contribution. Find the thing that you're great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better and that is the thing to follow."

What can you start putting into the world that will benefit the people around you? You don't have to be solving world hunger to contribute – anything that adds value counts as a contribution.

And as you start to contribute, you start to get positive feedback. You gain more recognition and success (according to Professor Adam Grant, people with a 'giving mindset' are ultimately the most successful at work), and, much like Steve Jobs, your 'passion' can develop alongside your pursuit.

3. Your 'Sticky Idea'

When you started thinking about what you want from your future career, how far did you get before you concluded "I don't know"?

Jonathan Acuff, author of Quitter and Start, is a firm believer that the biggest hint to the work you should be doing is already in existence and in your life. You're probably just ignoring it. It might be because of fear, or self-doubt, or a lack of belief that it's a feasible career path, but it's worth considering anyway.

Finding your fulfilling work, he says...

"...is more than a revelation or an act of discovery. I believe it's a process of recovery. More often than not, finding out what you love doing most is about recovering an old love or an inescapable truth that has been silenced for years, even decades. When you come to your dream job, your thing, it is rarely a first encounter. It's usually a reunion." - Jonathan Acuff, Quitter

I've noticed a pattern with a lot of career changers I've worked with. This isn't the case for everyone, but I find a lot of people have what I call a 'Sticky Idea' – a thought or a hunch or a notion that just won't go away. No matter how much they think it's unreasonable or unrealistic, no matter how many times they keep pushing it aside, it keeps flying back and sticking to their face like a Post-It in the wind.

And these Sticky Ideas? They're usually sticky for a reason.

This was certainly true for Nina. When she joined our Career Change Launch Pad, she had been harbouring a secret love for a long time.

"I'd been thinking about writing for over ten years but I'd never allowed myself to truly talk about it. I'd ruled it out before I started the course, as I couldn't see a route to being successful. I thought I'd already tried and failed, so that was that."

But when she allowed herself to truly 'consider the obvious', it all fell into place.

Have you got stuck looking for your passion? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.