Following Your Passion. 3 Reasons Why It’s So Hard

How many times have you been told to “follow your passion?” It’s a message that appears everywhere from graduation speeches to job ads. We even say it ourselves.

According to a recent survey, only 20% say they are truly passionate about their work. Research shows that many—if not most—of us don’t know how to pursue our passion, and thus we fail to do so. How do we fix this conundrum? Research suggests that we need to understand three key things: (1) passion is not something one finds, but rather, it is something to be developed; (2) it is challenging to pursue your passion, especially as it wanes over time; and (3) passion can also lead us astray, and it is therefore important to recognise its limits.

Don’t Wait to Find Your Passion

One common misconception people have about passion: you either have a passion for something or you don’t. The problem with this belief is that it’s restricting, leading us to think of passion as something we discover or happen to have. As a result, we may try many different jobs looking for the right “fit,” the role that instantly flips the passion switch, and we may not take into account the fact that it often takes time to develop one’s passion for a job, along with the skills, confidence, and relationships that allows one to be passionate about their work.

To be in a position to pursue your passion, challenge your assumption that passion is something to be discovered. Focus on actively developing a passion instead. For example, you can craft your job to spend more time exploring the tasks you are more passionate about (or simply those that pique your curiosity) and working with those who inspire you. It also helps to get to know co-workers, what they are passionate about, and how they view their work. This can lead to opportunities to help each other pursue your own passion and interest. Finally, you don’t necessarily need to take on a job which inspires you. If your job does not allow you to pursue your passion, or if you just don’t want to do so at work, you can find time and space to pursue activities you are passionate about outside of your job.

Focus on What You Care About, Not on What Is Fun

One of the most common ways we try to pursue our passion is that we chase what gives us the most joy or is the most fun. The distinction is subtle but meaningful: focusing on what you love associates passion with what you enjoy and what makes you happy, whereas focusing on what you care about aligns passion with your values and the impact you want to have. A study found that those who believed pursuing passion meant following what brings one joy were less likely to be successful in their pursuit of passion and were more likely to quit their job 9 months down the line, than those who believed following a passion was focusing on what one cares about.

Why does doing what you care about make you more successful at pursuing a passion? It seems that this belief helps you weather the challenges that are part of the pursuit. In fact, the German word for passion, “Leidenschaft,” literally translates to “the ability to hardship.” The reality is that passion wanes over time, so if you just focus on happiness, you might not stick with an endeavour like you would if you focused on how it helps you achieve what you care most about. When you’re pursuing your passion, it’s important to bear in mind that resilience is key, because chasing your passion is an ongoing—and challenging—process.

Overcome the Limits of Passion

It’s also important to understand when passion won’t help you. Imagine you’re presenting a project at work that you are passionate about. We find that expressing your passion may only help you if your audience already agrees with what you are presenting. If they are not already on board, your passion for the subject may not be effective in bringing them along. Similarly, if you are an entrepreneur, expressing passion for your idea may help bring investors on board, but expressing passion when discussing the term sheet may not have the same inspiring effect because of who we allow demonstrating passion. If you are passionate about your work, bear in mind that this may lead to an inflated view of your own abilities and work output. This might make it more important that you seek out feedback from others, and clarify on where you truly stand; otherwise, you may believe that your passion propels you, while it only does so in your head.

Many of us want to pursue our passion, and organizations commonly encourage this. However, the fact remains, we often don’t know how to do this. Viewing passion as able to be developed and a challenging and ongoing process may help us to achieve our goals.