Passion: Superpower or Career Kryptonite?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not “Follow your Passion” is the “worst career advice ever given”. Particularly applicable to Millennials, who have heard this advice repeated from those who perhaps didn’t follow their passions early enough in life – this is a relevant debate.

So when I began thinking about the “worst advice ever”, several random – even contradictory – thoughts came to mind.

Perhaps you’ve had some of these same reactions and opinions?

Passion is NOT the Cause of High Unemployment

At YouTern, we’ve mentored hundreds of college students and recent grads. Without a doubt I can tell you that despite what you’ve heard in the media, read in myriad blog posts – and despite any preconceived notions – Gen Y’s attempts to follow their passions are NOT why so many are unemployed or under-employed. This theory is bunk. Period.

Consider the Source

Like most advice – including the “follow your passion” variety – we must strongly consider the integrity of the source. All too often this advice is from Boomers who also spew such noteworthy advice as “Get a job!” and “Passion doesn’t pay the bills!” Which is it, my Boomer friends? The reflective “follow your passion” advice? Or the bitter, parental “You need a real job” speech? Can’t be both, sorry.

Passion as an Excuse for Non-Performance

“I haven’t found my passion yet…” (Yes, this is where the Boomer in me comes out).

This gem is most often heard from the guy who just spent the entire day on his parents’ couch playing Call of Duty. Think you’re going to find your passion living at home, sleeping until 11am while Mom does your laundry? You are not. And you give a bad name to others genuinely searching for their passion through internships, volunteering and continuing education. You, my excuse-driven friend, are unwise to place passion on a pedestal while devaluing independence, contribution and the opportunity to learn and grow.

Passion Has a Shelf Life

Very few of us are fortunate enough to turn any of our passions into lifelong vocation. In fact, very few of us pursue ANY of our passions for a lifetime including hobbies, careers – even relationships. So, knowing this is the case for 99% of us, why is passion such a driver in our professional lives? Could it be that we’ve been sucked into “passion” while failing to realize that even our deepest passions have a limited shelf life?

Must Passion Come from Work?

I’m not convinced that our day jobs MUST involve passion – especially in our entry-level careers. Can’t we pursue passion as part of our work-life balance? Can’t we contribute and create outside the office? Can’t we pursue our entrepreneurial dreams while working for someone else? As some of the happiest people I know are pursuing their passions outside their 9 to 5 responsibilities, the answer seems to be “yes”.

Passion as a Synonym for Happiness

Along those same lines… I’m not sure that passion must be a pre-requisite for finding and excelling at a job. In fact, it seems general happiness from work comes down to four questions:

  1. Do I like the job?
  2. Do I like or respect my direct supervisor?
  3. Do I philosophically support the company’s mission?
  4. Does the compensation meet my current needs?

Especially in our current economy, if all four answers are “yes”… that may be a job we should be passionate – and happy – about.

Passion in “Pay it Forward” Style

For many across all generations, passion embodies “pay it forward”. We feel as though we’ve learned from our failures, enjoyed some success and, overall, accomplished something worth sharing. Now, it’s time to give back by pursuing our passions while mentoring others. With this in mind, the question for passion seekers becomes: Can we properly “pay it forward” before we’ve personally accomplished something worthy of professional respect?

Define “Passion”

Speaking of those who have accomplished…

Many now known as passionate innovators, mentors and philanthropists (Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, for example) were once one-dimensional, insanely ambitious workaholics. Their undeniable passion is why they worked so hard – and were so driven to success. Surely, this intense type of passion isn’t anywhere near the same level we think about when a young professional attempts to answer the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. So, let’s be clear what we’re talking about – and understand there are many different levels of passion on the professional playing field.

And maybe that’s where this post should end: stating that passion does have a different definition for everyone – especially when discussing career development.

And, while we’re debating, let’s agree that passion should be a superpower to be used only for good. Because when passion comes from the dark side it can all-too-quickly become an excuse for a lack of productivity, a generational stereotype or – worse yet – a buzzword that acts like career kryptonite.


About the Author: A passionate supporter of Gen Y talent, CEO and Founder of YouTern Mark Babbitt is a serial entrepreneur and mentor. Mark has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Mashable, Forbes and Under30CEO regarding internships, higher education’s role in preparing emerging talent for the workforce and career development. Recently, Mark was honored to be named to GenJuice’s list of “Top 100 Most Desirable Mentors”. You can contact Mark via email or on Twitter.



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  • When I hear “I haven’t found my passion yet (so I’m not moving and taking just anything job related…implied)’, I start talking about stepping stones to being able to follow your passion (and not lying on the couch playing video games either) but finding some place where you can make a difference. A difference whether a volunteer or in what might be considered sub-standard employment considering your talents & qualifications. BTW there is no such thing as substandard employment as you can always make a difference, help someone….clean the bathroom 🙂

    Once you experience the “high” from making an improvement for someone else (no matter how small) and keep doing this, I strongly believe you will find your passion.

    • Thank you so much for commenting, Caroline… I love the “stepping stones” concept of building toward passion. So true that making a difference, even in a little way, can be a huge catalyst!

  • Too often, the word “passion” is trotted out as an attribute, but like Mark’s post outlines… there’s no proof in the pudding. What have you done that illustrates that passion in a concrete way? If you are going to be passionate about something (or tell someone that you are in an interview), be prepared to provide concrete examples of how you have MOVED FORWARD on that passion to do good in the world.  But be careful… just because you are passionate about something doesn’t necessarily make you an expert at it.  Passion also connotes a strong emotional connection… but is that really what an employer is looking for??? They might just need someone who has the mad skillz instead.  I do agree with the point of passion having a shelf life… what is important to you know can change and not be so important at some point in the future… but replaced by something else new that you are passionate about. 

    • Dawn, as you know I couldn’t agree more on the “anyone can say they are passionate” aspect of this debate. The proof, indeed, IS in the pudding. Also really like your advice about matching passion with the needs of the employer — a far too often element of this discussion. I can see a recruiter say, “Great, you are passionate… how does that help me… or make YOU right for this position?.

      Thank you for your thoughts… sincerely appeciated!

  • Mark,

    Each one of your points would make an excellent debate and we could spend hours discussing,

    I have met older people who never knew what their passion was and never even tried to figure it out. There are like zombies, going through the motions of life and this saddens me. 

    I think you may have hit the nail on the head when you said passion is defined differently by many people. It means something different to everyone.

    Let’s not use passion as an excuse or label, but use it as a motivator to help navigate through life’s treacherous terrain.

    Well done!

    • Hannah, with strong emotions on both sides of this debate, the “passion” subject would make a fine panel discussion or Twitter chat, wouldn’t it? We just may found out that passion is a generational issue (or at least a generational stereotype issue) — but it sure would be fun to explore.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment — and for your insight!

  • Mark wrote:

    Which is it, my Boomer friends? The reflective “follow your passion” advice? Or the
    bitter, parental “You need a real job” speech? Can’t be both, sorry.

    Steve says:

    Sure can. Sorry.

    You find your passion through education (formal, professional, personal), success, and failure. It’s all called E-X-P-E-R-I-E-N-C-E. Not from waiting for it to smack you upside the head. From any – and every – job you have. From every person you meet. There are no bad experiences, only learning experiences…

    More than anything, passion is susceptible to paradigm shifts – political, economic, social, and technological (ah, my PEST acronym again) – and indeed there is a shelf life. The challenge is to monitor these shifts and as Mark notes, it ain’t gonna happen hanging out with your hipster friends slugging back PBRs. Talk with the young and the old and map out where opinions and facts lie; be prepared to follow your gut if you’re still unconvinced. But educate your passion chance you get.

    No, passion doesn’t necessarily have to come from work but don’t you think that passion is present in elements of work? Work can’t be all bad in the same way that working on something that you’re passionate about can’t be all good. Why not practice at work some of the behaviors that you’ll use once you find something you’re passionate about – like active listening, creative thinking, relationship building? A wasted minute is a minute you’ll never regain…

    You pay-it-forward by sharing your experiences with others; heck, you might even find others like you and create your own passion community (as kinky as this might sound).

    Agree with Mark that passion as a negative is a real downer. Anyone remember guys named Adolf and Osama? IMO, the greatest negative associated with passion is when you
    don’t do anything with it. If nothing else, see if you can make a career out of it; if after all the work you discover you can’t, channel the same energy into your job and try to see if you can use your passion on the side, away from your bill paying job. You never know…

    • Thank you for taking the time to write such an eloquent comment, Steve.  Well said!  Love this: “Why not practice at work some of the behaviors that you’ll use once you
      find something you’re passionate about – like active listening, creative
      thinking, relationship building? A wasted minute is a minute you’ll
      never regain…”

      Sounds like a good blog topic to me!

  • Good points Mark. I know people who can’t get off the dime because they claim to not have found their passion. Personally, I think it’s an excuse for not wanting to make a decision or to take a stand. If someone wishes to be a side-liner, certainly that is his/her prerogative, but they should not couch it as not having found the passion. Passion is such a subjective thing that it makes defining it difficult because what is a passion for me may not be for someone else.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that passion = attitude and we all know attitude cannot be trained. It’s the drive or enthusiasm inside an individual that helps steer him/her to make life-changing decisions or not. Agree with Steve’s point, passion left used is a waste and a shame.

    • You are absolutely right, Cyndy… passion DOES equal attitude! And, regardless of generation, self-motivation and the willingness to take a risk are big part of the equation here. Of course, side-liners can choose to be side-liners… they just can’t expect too much from that position… of themselves, especially.

  • “Passion” is a word that’s a lot like “motivation”, “inspiration” or any other kind of emotional state of being.  Technically called “nominalizations”, these states can never really be cohesively defined, only observed.   I mean, can you put your motivation into an envelope, and mail it to me?  Could you put your passion in a wheelbarrow, and share it with a friend?  Passion is a word that’s often misunderstood, because it is so hard to define, in general…and harder than Chinese Algebra when the subject gets personal.

    While I agree that you can’t find your passion while playing video games, I think the definition of passion is what gets people into trouble.  As you clearly point out: does a job have to have some over-arching personal satisfaction, in order to have value?  Grand expectations will make you turn to Grand Theft Auto, instead of taking action to fuel your dreams.  

    For a lot of people, a job simply provides that fuel.  With some financial success, and skills, you can connect with the things that really matter to you:  pursuing social causes, having a family, creating community impact, participating in extreme sports…or other “passions”.   In other words, the paycheck isn’t the passion – it’s the thing that enables your passion.   

    And slinging around buzzwords IS career kryptonite – “passionate” “self-starters” are a dime a dozen.  The only antidote?  Becoming clear and specific about what matters to you…and getting up off the couch to go and get it.

    • Brilliant: “Grand expectations will make you turn to Grand Theft Auto, instead of taking action to fuel your dreams.”

      That’s the thing about passion… it is not quantifiable. And passion without action is just words. Maybe it is the “action experience” we can put in a wheelbarrow to share — or at least articulate on a resume or proposal?

      Thank you, Chris, for continuing the conversation with some excellent points!

  • Ellenbremen

    Mark, thank you for your insightful posts, as always. I love, love, love everything that comes out of YouTern! (You know that!).

    I tend to agree with what you’ve said here. I think that passion is such a catch-all term, but that in these times, it cannot be the end-all goal for finding career satisfaction. I worked in healthcare for seven years (I blogged about this). I had a passion for writing, but that could not economically sustain me due to my life circumstances, so I had to do what was practical. So, I did. Then, other forces in the universe led me to what I realize was my true passion–and it was NOT writing, but rather teaching communication in higher education. This was when I found my “authentic self” (a’la Oprah) and when all the doors seamlessly opened.

    I now realize in my 40s that had I scored my “passion” job, I would have hated it. I want writing to be something that I do because I want to do it–not something I do because I’m bound by a paycheck and a deadline. In essence, I don’t want to be forced to do it… that will beat the passion right out of me. I realized this when I was able to write within my academic job–I loved it… because it was on my terms. And, as things tend to come full-circle, I have a book coming out in less than 90 days. Again, on my terms.

    I’ll contrast this with my spouse, who has a fine “job” but does not feel that he’s found his professional passion. At 44, he’s a global service center manager for a bladder scope company. If he had his passion, he’d be working for a corporation involving cars or coffee. But that hasn’t happened. So, instead, he focuses on the “other” things that make him feel satisfied about work: Reasonable pay, traveling internationally (won’t say how that makes the wife feel with two small kids–ha ha), some status (he has his first direct report), a great boss, feeling valued in the company, etc. He gets his passion filled elsewhere in his life. Through running, his Nissan Leaf and his electric car group meetings, and Starbucks–we live in Seattle, after all. It’s all worked out fine.

    This is an important subject, Mark. You’re making me think that I need to pose these conversations with my Comm classes when I’m back in the fall. Off to share on Twitter now.

    Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof:disqus

    • Thank you, Ellen… designating the difference between “practical” and “passion” is important. Also important: knowing in your core that practical and passion are NOT mutually exclusive!

      Who ever said that you can’t be both practical AND passionate at the same time?! You can… and what a great attitude to have versus allowing your passion to ultimately be the source of huge stress that, as you say, “…beats the passion right out of me…”

      Well said… I thank you!

  • I agree with Hannah that each point could lead to hours of discussion.  You’re so good at getting people thinking Mark! 🙂  I have to disagree with the statement that, “Very few of us are fortunate enough to turn any of our passions into lifelong vocation.”  There are many, many people (and not just famous ones) who are following their passion and making a living doing it.  Just like week I was part of an event called Dreamers into Doers and the room was full of people following their passion.  I also spent six years interviewing people on my Sirius radio show who had made a living from work they love.  You get what you look for and what you believe.  If you don’t in your heart believe it’s possible for you to have a career that you’re passionate about, you’re right.  But the good news is, the opposite is just as true!

    Thanks for the article Mark and the conversation. 

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