By Emma Hickey
You’ve seen it written on throw pillows at Target, hanging on the wall of the guidance counselor’s office in school, and as a caption on an Instagram influencer’s post: the dreaded inspirational quote about work. From “choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life,” to “do what you love, love what you do,” to the very existence of the American dream, people in general and millennials in particular are inundated with the message that our jobs must reflect our passions. And if your job isn’t your passion, the subtext is that you’re falling short and you should aspire to more. Is this true, though? Does your job need to be your passion? Are you falling short if it’s not? Is having a job that’s also your passion really the key to living a fulfilled life, as so many people would have us believe? There are many ways to interact with your passion (if you have one!) outside of making if your career, though our culture of aspiration may have you thinking otherwise. It’s possible to find joy in a career based more on curiosity than passion, and it’s possible to live a fulfilled life while pursuing something you love outside of work. This is a case for that mode of thinking.
We live in an aspirational culture, and the idea that your job should be your passion is a product of that. Everyone is striving to be the best possible version of themselves and to live the best possible version of their lives. There’s nothing inherently malicious about that—why wouldn’t you want to grow as a person, after all?—but social media gives people a platform to present themselves as having attained what other haven’t in a way that often makes their audience feel bad about their lives. Monetizing this and selling aspiration to strivers has also become a powerful industry. Gwyneth Paltrow even built a $250 million company in this space, which Taffy Brodesser-Akner profiled in a New York Times feature. As Brodesser-Akner dives into Paltrow’s company, Goop, she reaches the following realization: “I thought about the word “aspiration,” how to aspire seems so noble, but how aspiration is always infused with a kind of suffering...” and in the final paragraph of the piece she concludes, “We are doomed to aspire for the rest of our lives. Aspiration is suffering.” And she’s right! You can’t aspire to something without also indulging in a feeling of inadequacy. The reality of our aspirational culture is that someone will always be selling you something that seems better than what you have, meaning you’ll never truly achieve your aspirations. Going through life constantly aspiring to a job you’re passionate about, rather than aiming for something more attainable or finding peace in your current situation, is not the path to professional happiness. Your job doesn’t need to be your passion, is simply needs to sustain you.
Just because your job isn’t your passion doesn’t mean you should suffer in a role you hate. In order for a job to be sustainable, you should enjoy it, you just don’t have to be in love with it. A more measured “like” will do just fine. A job that’s sustainable is a job you don’t mind doing that gives you the time, space and resources you need to build a life you’re proud of outside of work. A job that’s sustainable feeds you, both literally and spiritually, but in a way that’s different than passion. Elizabeth Gilbert captures this idea in her book Big Magic, which is about living a creative life. She writes in direct reference to creative careers, but the foundation of what she says applies to all jobs. At one point in the book, Gilbert discusses coming up with an idea for a novel and how she doesn’t wait for fiery, passionate inspiration to strike because that’s simply not a sustainable work flow. Instead, she suggests aiming for something more tempered, writing “As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still had not ignited in me, I didn’t panic. Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.” In fact, she has a whole section in her book called “Passion vs. Curiosity,” and it opens with the request: “May I also urge you to forget about passion?” Gilbert believes curiosity is just as valuable as passion, and it’s more sustainable. This advice extends beyond seeking inspiration for your novel and applies to all careers. You don’t need to follow your passion to be happy. Passion is tempestuous, unreliable, and for many of us it’s hard to identify. You can find just as much—maybe even more!—joy in following your curiosity.
Let’s say you do have a clear passion. Whether it’s baking, basketball or Broadway, you’re asking an awful lot of the thing you love by requiring it to pay your bills. That’s a lot of pressure to put on your passion, and you run the risk of ruining it for yourself by making it your job. In Big Magic, Gilbert argues that making your passion your job is in many ways a negative. She writes about how she always had a day job in addition to her writing career, and she only quit her day job after the publication of her blockbuster memoir Eat Pray Love, which was a success she couldn’t duplicate if she tried. Gilbert says, “I held on to those other sources of income for so long because I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life,” and “Going into massive debt in order to become a creator, then, can make a stress and a burden out of something that should only ever have been a joy and a release.” She makes a great point. The quickest way to ruin something you love is to put pressure on it to support you financially. Every minute you spend baking, or shooting hoops, or singing show tunes in pursuit of money you need is a minute spent growing closer to losing the joy it gives you. If you can firmly and painlessly support yourself through your passion, then those are the conditions under which Gilbert gives you her blessing, writing, “Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic. That’s everyone’s dream, right? But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare.” Don’t let your passion morph into the thing that keeps you awake at night.
Despite what the proverbs say, you don’t need to be passionate about your job. Constantly striving to attain a job that is also your passion is bound to be—to borrow a different kind of proverb—a grass is always greener-type situation. There’s comfort and value to be found in the pursuit of something you’re curious about. You don’t have to go seeking a torrid, temperamental passion that will bring you as much pain as it will happiness. You can preserve your passion as a relaxing outlet and a source of joy by engaging with it from a place of desire, not need as you would have to do if it were your career. No matter what the Instagram influencers say, your job doesn’t need to be your passion in order to live a fulfilled life.