Don’t Follow Your Passion

Stephanie K. Eberle has some issues with one of the most common pieces of advice new Ph.D.s receive.

January 12, 2015
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Macbeth of Scotland

I begin my Career Counseling Theory and Practice class at the University of San Francisco with this famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

It is the perfect beginning to what, at its essence, is a class about meaning, self-expression, and purpose. According to the World Health Organization, one-third of our adult life is spent working.  Its Global Strategy on Occupational Health for All touts not only an economic benefit to work, but also psychological, as have many career theorists. If so much of our life is spent working, shouldn’t it signify something?

When we read Shakespeare’s works, note how prolific he was, and understand some of the political and economic pressures he faced, we assume he must have held great passion for his field and that it was all worth it in the end. I’m not sure what the career advice was during his lifetime, but I presume his impact was not solely the result of someone telling him, “Hey, just follow your passion.” We tend to equate passion with significance, but we can’t always define it, we don’t always feel it and we certainly don’t always know where to find it. Still, “follow your passion” is one of the most common pieces of career advice I hear.

In my counseling role, I hear remnants of it all of the time. “I’m here to find my passion,” many graduate students have proclaimed over the years. I respond with, “What does that mean to you?” This is a most important starting place. When someone tells you to follow your passion, don’t you first need to know what you are looking for? It’s as if, by looking under the correct rock, or rubbing the right lamp, the career of your dreams will be revealed and you will live happily ever after.

Career development is a lifelong process, the culmination of myriad decisions about how your interests, skills, and values connect to real-world opportunities. At a relatively young age, we begin exploring these core beliefs and discovering various career options to identify potential fit. Typically, trainees begin by taking assessments, reading about different professions and/or speaking to those within them. Internships, then, are a way to try out various choices. The beauty and the bane of this process, however, is that nothing is absolute. You cannot be 100 percent sure if you will like a job until you have it. Sometimes, the job itself becomes a try-out, too, and that’s part of the process.

Within my parents’ generation, the assumption was that one would find a job after high school or college and then work there until retirement. Today’s workforce does not function that way. While that makes career development less certain and more daunting, perhaps, it mimics the fluidity of human development; it is in our nature to grow. Passions change with time and experience; they are neither predictable nor consistent. What would have happened a few generations ago, if one took a job they were deeply passionate about but later developed a different interest? What will you do when that happens to you?

Have you ever thought, “I don’t like academe but I’m afraid to leave it because I don’t know if I will like the other options?” Or, “I really like [insert job of choice] but I’m not sure if I could make it?” These are not statements about knowing or not knowing what you want. In fact, it sounds like you know. Rather, they are fear statements based on your own insecurities or values set by others (wealth, for example, may be an external sign of success, while not necessarily valued by you). Herein lays the heart of the passion conundrum. We really want it, but we believe it should come with a guarantee.

There are no guarantees. While being passionate about something may inspire you to strive longer and harder toward success, it does not mean you will actually be successful. Nor does this mean success will be worth it in the end. Plenty of starving actors, divorced faculty members, and depressed venture capitalists exist, despite their passion.

Likewise, there are plenty of successful, happy professionals who simply work for a paycheck, nothing more. One of the best doctors I’ve met told me she only went into the profession to support her family in India. A few years back, I met a man who informed me that he’d been an accountant his whole life just to be able to retire and be a tour guide in Captiva, as he was doing when I met him. 

Interestingly, many professionals report only finding “passion” later in life, if at all, the key being to “hang in there” for a potential pay-off at the end. This explains why so many people’s career stories seem random. For most, a series of professional/personal events took them from one happenstance to another, and they took advantage of the opportunities along the way.

More interesting still is a professor with whom I work very closely who tells me “this passion push is kind of shaming; I’m really not passionate about anything.” When he speaks about his students, he lights up. Reading and understanding the impact his research has had on global disease prevention is akin to reading and understanding Shakespeare’s sonnets. He claims he’s not following his passion.

Maybe he’s not. Maybe he understands that work does not have to be your passion, that passion will not guarantee success, and that, to actually follow your passion, you actually have to have it, and know it, in the first place.  He knows that passion is not necessarily the same as significance.

“Follow your passion” is not bad advice. Rather, it is simply devoid of helpful advice. The phrase is used as a kind of shorthand to encourage you to dispel the fear of uncertainty and focus on what you know and want in the moment. We spend about one-third of our lives strutting and fretting at work, hoping for that one, passionate hour upon the stage. For life to signify something, don’t follow your passion. Instead, focus on the many hours which make up that life and trust the process ahead.



Stephanie K. Eberle is director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs, and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco.


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