Wright Foundation | January 21, 2021

Why “Follow Your Passion” is a Formula for Failure

Do you love your job? Do you wish you loved your job more but don’t? Do you worry that you’re not in your dream job or on your dream career path?

A young man sits on a couch in a corner office working on his laptop. The advice 'follow your passion' is a formula for failure.


Do you love your job? Do you wish you loved your job more but don’t? Do you worry that you’re not in your dream job or on your dream career path?

Most people go through life hearing they should do what they want, follow their passion, and live out their dream. Others may feel like they didn’t follow their ideal path, and it’s led them to a job that’s less-than-exciting. The truth is, “follow your passion” isn’t the best advice for happiness.

It may sound unbelievable at first (especially since the idea to “follow your passion” has been drilled into us—particularly the younger generations—since elementary school). Still, there’s more to life and a career than simply following your bliss.

Here’s why following your passion isn’t the answer to success or career fulfillment.

Does a Job Need to Be Creative to Have Meaning?

We’ve heard for the past thirty years or so, “people need to follow their passion to find happiness and succeed at a job.”

On the surface, the idea of following our passion sounds ideal, doesn’t it? We’d like to believe part of the reason we’re unfulfilled in our current job is it’s not the right “fit” for our creative side. Plus, this notion is reinforced by tales of people who left their careers to become YouTube sensations or who jumped careers to pursue their true passion.

And of course, this sounds tempting…like those who believe a fairytale romance is out there waiting to “complete” them. We all like to think there’s a perfect person; someone out there who will change our life or a job that would make all our problems melt away.

Time and time again, people are looking for a magic answer to satisfaction, and our society is busy selling them this concept that there IS a perfect solution. If we haven’t discovered the ONE, we need to look harder.

Even employers use “what is your passion?” as one of their common interview questions. For some jobs, this question might give a clue to an employee’s aptitude for the new role, but it’s a silly question in most cases. Most potential employees aren’t going to say, “selling insurance.” Or they’ll give simple answers that they think the hiring manager wants to hear. A better question would be, how do you find your passion for the job you’re doing?

John often relates a story about how a brilliant attorney came to him and said, “I hate the law!” As they started discussing why he hated his career, the real truth came out.

John said to him, “Why don’t you tell me how it’s going at your office?”

He said, “Well, a bitchy senior partner is chewing me out on my briefs all the time. Everyone is super uptight. I feel criticized and attacked. I keep thinking growing up; I always wanted to become a poet, a novelist, or a politician. I’m wondering if I went into the wrong field.”

The truth was, he had stopped stretching for the meaning in his work. Yes, he was smart and had secured a great job at a major firm, but because he was smart enough to get by and to carry himself, he’d never had to really stretch or push himself in the career.

So John said, “Do me a favor before you quit your job and go off to write the next Great American Novel. Prepare like crazy for your next meeting. I want you to go all out. Prepare as you’ve never prepared before. Research the topic until you own it. Push yourself.”

Well, low and behold, he returned the next week with a big grin on his face. When John asked him how it went, he said, “You know what? I had a lot of fun! I knew more than everyone else in the meeting, and I ran the entire thing. It was actually really great!”

After a few months of this exciting experiment of applying himself, he ended up excelling so far at his firm that they offered him the position of Chief Information Officer at an even bigger firm. The position developed into him becoming the COO, and he’s now developing a new line of contextual law.

He didn’t end up on the NY Times Best Seller list, but he ended up finding more purpose and satisfaction in his job than he previously believed possible. He discovered a renewed zest for what he was doing.

People don’t realize that to love your job and find satisfaction in your job, you must engage in your career. It’s not merely about getting paid to do something you enjoy, but about fully immersing yourself in the company. It’s about taking ownership of your role in the success of the business. A better idea is finding your passion in the circumstances rather than following an idealized version.

Loving Your Job vs. Following Your Passion

People who love their jobs have worked hard. They’ve gone through barriers. They’ve overcome obstacles, made mistakes, faced setbacks, and forged ahead.

They don’t love a job because they’ve followed their passion and it was easy. They don’t love something because they possess an innate talent or natural aptitude. They love it because they’ve disciplined themselves to become excellent. The meaningfulness of a career comes from the growth people experience as they become excellent…and the learning that comes with striving to become even better.

When people are bored with their job or feel less-than-passionate about their work, it’s often that they’re doing “good enough to earn a living,” but they aren’t striving for excellence. They haven’t decided where they want to go with their job, or they’re chasing a false idea of what happiness looks like.

Happiness isn’t the absence of struggle. Happiness comes from working through—and overcoming—challenges. Our joy and satisfaction in our job stem from our ability to do the job better and better.

Many people’s inner artist says, “I must be creative.” So they look for a creative field that’s straightforward with the opportunity to express themselves. When they don’t break into a creative field (and sometimes even when they do), they’re left disappointed and full of regret and dissatisfaction.

What they don’t understand is life itself is creative. It’s actually harder, more stimulating, and more challenging than drawing or creating something. If you want to be the artist of your life, you have work to do. Nothing that comes automatically will ultimately feel satisfying.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with creative expression. There’s nothing wrong with people becoming an artist, or a musician, or a writer. It’s not that people shouldn’t pursue a creative career. Creative careers can be wonderful. But even the most extraordinary artist will only feel satisfied and fulfilled if they’re continuously striving and working toward the next goal. If someone wants to be an artist, they should push to be at the top of their field. Don’t only create what comes naturally, create what comes unnaturally. Choose the path with the most challenges.

Most people want to feel fulfilled, but they don’t want their job to feel challenging. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how we frame it), the key to fulfillment is overcoming obstacles.

Finding the FLOW

A job is part of a larger picture. If someone isn’t providing value to others, then it’s pretty hard to earn a living. There’s real meaning in our role in the fabric of society. Look at the jobs we may write off—street-cleaning, trash collecting, or janitorial services, for example. Without these extremely valuable services, our entire society would fall apart. Every job has a purpose and plays a part in the larger world. To think a job only has value because it’s the worker’s passion or true calling…well, that’s not how the game works. To find more fulfillment at work, we have to dedicate ourselves to the purpose and meaning in the job.

Hungarian Philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discussed the concept of flow and job satisfaction in his TED talk. After witnessing WWII as a child, he became curious about the idea of satisfaction and happiness. What was it that brought people joy, even in dire circumstances or poverty?

Csikszentmihalyi found that most people don’t have a greater sense of purpose in their work because they don’t have meaning and purpose in their everyday lives.

Happiness doesn’t come from money, it doesn’t come from self-expression, following our passion, and it doesn’t even come from doing what we enjoy. We derive our happiness from a sense of “flow.” Flow is the feeling we get when we’re challenged. When we’re turned on, engaged, and working toward a goal. Regardless of their job or life circumstances, the happiest people found meaning in what they were doing.

Just Because a Task is Easy Doesn’t Mean It’s Worth It

People think things should be easy, and that includes jobs. But work is WORK. Worthwhile pursuits require us to stretch and engage. It’s part of embracing a growth mindset.

Our gut tells us we should look for something easy, but easy jobs are never as satisfying as challenging ones. We can address what’s in front of us and what life throws our way and use these opportunities to learn and grow. When we do this, new opportunities continue to open up in front of us. People miss what it means to complete a task. They want to break out or escape. If they aren’t winning, they want to walk away.

When we feel like we’re ready to throw in the towel, we should challenge ourselves to become MORE engaged with our work. Go to our boss and say, “What should I do to learn and grow? What else in my job can I master?” If the boss doesn’t have an answer, then it may be time to BECOME the boss (or move somewhere else). But most bosses will offer plenty of ideas and areas to work on.

People look to get into the “right” career, but they don’t look into how they can become the “right” person for the job. Talk to any employer, and they’ll say employees who initiate and step into responsibility are critically hard to find.

Now, most of us reading this may not be the most desirable employee on the planet either. There are times when we all phone it in or slack off. Even if we think we’re giving 110%, what would the boss say? Would they feel that way if they were standing over our shoulder? There’s almost always something we can do to become better.

It all comes back to the fact that people who find the purpose, meaning, and challenge in what they’re doing are the happiest, most satisfied people—and the best employees.

We had a 15,000 piece mailing we were putting out. We hired a young man who was doing odd jobs in the community and two temps from an agency. The two temps thought the work of stuffing envelopes was tedious. They put on music and spent the day complaining.

On the other hand, the young man who had been doing odd jobs simply got to work. He made a game of it. He challenged himself to see how many he could do, how quickly he could get it done, and how he could make the job interesting. He ended up getting more accomplished than both of the temps combined, and he enjoyed it. Today he’s a respected entrepreneur in Milwaukee!

If you’re trying to figure out your passion or how to pursue your passion in life, reframe. Start to push yourself to do the best at whatever you’re doing, and your passion will find you. Love your life and create experiences for yourself and others. No matter what pursuit you’re on. Live as an artistic creator of a creative human being (yourself) who takes responsibility for your life.

For more on finding your passion for success, please join us for a webinar on WrightNow. We offer many courses and interactive webinars to help you get MORE out of your career and life. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to find MORE satisfaction and happiness.