The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Owen Carter

Don't tell students to follow their passions

It seems a given that teachers should help pupils to find and follow their passions. But things just aren’t so simple.

‘Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life’.

How often have you heard this quotation, or some spin on it?

Whether we’re being told to follow our passion, fulfil our dreams or love what we do, our society has an obsession with finding your innate love and devoting yourself to it.

And I think this is totally wrong.

Of course you want to make a difference

Let’s forestall some possible criticism. No-one disputes that we should try to help pupils find lives and career paths that are fulfilling for them. In the LKMco report Why Teach, a whopping 93% of respondents said making a difference to pupils’ lives was one of their reasons for going into teaching.

This debate is not about trying to improve pupils’ lives or whether we think fulfilling careers are important. It’s about the best route to that goal.

As pieces of advice go, ‘follow your passion’ has got to be among the worst to reach this outcome. But it's also one of the most repeated.

The graph below shows the frequency of three related phrases in books scanned by Google. From about 1985 onwards this aphorism has spread enormously, with little in the way of a decline since.

That's a problem.

Passion is important, just not in the way you think

There’s a lot that matters when it comes to finding a life path you love. Fortunately, there's a large body of research which can give us some direction. And this research suggests that pre-existing passion is by no means one of the most important factors for job and life satisfaction in general.

What are some fundamentals? Well, to start, money is not the most important thing by some distance. That said, there is a correlation between high-skill and prestige occupations and satisfaction.

Helping others also contributes. Workers in non-profit organisations tend to be more generally happy with their lives, despite lower average incomes and regardless of whether you were already happy.

It's also important to do something you are good at. Skill mismatches are fairly good predictors of job satisfaction. So if you're passionate about something, but not quite good enough, you are unlikely to be happy pursuing it as an occupation.

There's too much to cover here, but unsurprisingly engaging work (where you can get into a state of flow and are cognitively challenged) and autonomy and control are also crucial (despite added responsibility, stress is often lower amongst senior leaders and officials, mainly because they have more control over their work).

What this means

The overwhelming message to draw here is that it's not necessarily the content of a role that matters, in the sense one might say 'I'm passionate about education', or 'I'm passionate about art'. It's the context of the role and your personal match to it. 

It's all very well loving music, but that doesn't mean working as an assistant in a record company will be more fulfilling than another role which would better match your skillset.

And passions don't help us to think objectively about our path in life. If your passion is making tons of money, chatting with friends at bars, or watching TV – chances are this won’t translate into a career that is fulfilling long-term.

Of course I’m being facetious here. Normally when we use passion we’re talking about something to be distinguished from hobbies: a deeper sense of purpose or meaning that gives us direction.

But if our passions are distinct from anything anyone would wish to employ us for, doesn’t this raise problems?

[Graph from 80,000 hours. Data sources: University of Montreal and Canadian Census Data]

Passions change

There’s a deeper problem with the idea of following your passions: they change.

Ask a group of 11 year old boys what they want to do when they grow up, and at least one of them is likely to want to be a professional footballer. 

Not only is this a bad bet statistically1, but it also doesn’t take account of the fact that your passions vary.

We look at iconoclasts like Steve Jobs for career inspiration, but we ignore the fact that he stumbled into what he did.

We’re not very good at predicting what we will be interested in or what sort of person we will be. So we should probably keep our options more open than we first think. Don't go with your gut instinct.

If we pursue passions single-mindedly and devotedly, only to find that they change, we run the risk of getting into a career dead end.

Trumping passion

Here’s what it ultimately boils down to. If it’s true that our passions change over time much more than we would expect, and that they may not even match a feasible employment route, then what use are they as a basis for decision making?

Here’s a few better pieces of advice you could give.

1. Focus on skill

A large part of what we become interested in is what we get good at. Cal Newport suggests that passion is not innate: it is influenced by our effort. The better we get at something, the more it becomes a passion. Regardless of the job we are doing, it seems people can have different relationships to it. In this study, respondents divided equally over whether they called their job a job, career or calling. This remained true even for what might seem like the relatively humdrum position of college administrative assistant.

Mastery can create its own enjoyment: Newport argues for the ‘craftsman’ as opposed to the ‘passion’ mindset. Get good at something first, persevere at it, and you may end up enjoying it (or get a better idea of what you do enjoy).

2. Cast your net wide

Don’t limit yourself unnecessarily by just following your passion. If jobs that are rewarding allow you to engage, entering a state of flow, to help others and which fit your skillset and needs, that still leaves a lot of options.

Build skills first, follow things that seem to map onto those skills, and keep your mind open to careers which might not initially be that appealing.

This will help you to develop interests in areas that are likely to be fulfilling, and to be able to respond to changing desires and priorities throughout life.

3. Work hard

If practice, skill and mastery are a big part of the design for fulfilling careers, then you need to work hard. The better your knowledge of an area, the more informed you will be to make decisions about what will prove the best fit for you.

So identify your strengths and interests. See where they overlap, and where they don’t. Then work hard at developing those strengths.

That work comes ahead of passion, not after. See what passions develop as a result. You can make your passions: they’re not just born in you.

...Or don't

Takeaways for teachers

Who doesn’t love seeing a child consumed with interest? Of course teachers should draw on that engagement.

But follow your passion isn’t good advice. Because passions are made, not born, and they change. So give your students options, build on their skills, and don’t let them assume that being interested in something means that working in that area will be fulfilling.

The problem with following your dreams is that you mostly end up sleepwalking.

1. If you’re interested, with 92 professional clubs in England and Wales, at 50 players contracted to a team, you’re looking at odds of over 12000:1 without taking into account foreign competition.

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