Why “Find Your Passion” is Bad Advice

Find your passion is a common piece of advice. It’s the wrong advice.

Passion fades. This is a scientific truth we should all recognize. The body will always strive for homeostasis. When thrown out of whack, it will come back to balance.

Passion throws the body out of whack – pleasantly, of course – but unsustainable nonetheless. If we advise people to chase their passion, whether it is in their professional or personal life, there will come a time when that is simply not possible.

On one’s 30th wedding anniversary, the love for a spouse might be more deep and meaningful than ever before, better than they could have ever imagined – but the sensation would not be labeled “passion.”

If you enter a profession like coaching, or any sort of education, you cannot rely on passion to pull you through the early mornings or the late nights. There will be difficult students, long hours, union strikes and all sorts of unanticipated concerns. You will see the value of the work in student relationships and outcomes, but again, that would not be referred to as passion. What you should build for, and be able to rely on throughout a career, is a clear sense of purpose.

So don’t chase passion, chase the work you’re willing to do.

This conversation came up at a recent Good Athlete Project workshop, and an administrator from a Chicago-area school was kind enough to share the story of an employee named Ramón.

Ramón works long hours and cares deeply about doing his job well. He began his career as an aid in the Special Education department, and after 23 years, he has not moved up in rank, and has only made small jumps in hourly pay.

His career equilibrium has nothing to do with lack of effort or dependability – Ramón does not speak English well. He knows that the language barrier has limited him professionally. That doesn’t bother him. He shows up on time, he cares about the people he works with, he accepts challenging, thankless tasks and does them well. Ramón is a model employee.

Ramón lives a frugal life. On Sundays, Ramón shops at Aldi. His meals for the week are determined by what’s on sale. Often times, this means a sandwich and some variation of nuts, candy, or chips. It’s the same for seven days in a row, until he can get back to the store. He says he has never purchased a bottle of water in his life. He drinks from the fountain.

He rides his bike to and from work. Regardless of the weather – rain, shine, or Chicago snow – he rides his bike. When there are storm or frigid cold advisories, he will take the bus to work, but that’s the only exception.

He has no interest in Netflix or cable television. He does not go out to movies. If he is in need of entertainment, he will go to a community sporting event. Though he goes to the laundromat for his clothes, he washes his bedsheets in his bathtub and air-dries them. He has done this for 23 years. He does not have to do this, he chooses to.

He chooses to do this because there is a strong motivation back home. Ramón has been slowly saving money to buy bus and, more recently, airplane tickets for immediate and extended family members to come live with him in the U.S. – he doesn’t have to do this, he chooses to. He makes an above average income and saves all of his money. He could buy new clothes, a new car, and treat himself to frozen yogurt all summer. He does not. He saves his money, and spends it on others.

His motivation is so clear, his mission is so specific, that these habits are no longer difficult for him.

Still, people in the school where he works call him lazy. They mock him for his lack of style, and roll their eyes at the poor grammar used in his emails. It would be nice to say that it doesn’t bother him, but it does. In those moments, held up against the standards of those around him, he feels inadequate.

But as soon as he goes home, all of that fades away. Life is not easy, but he is surrounded by people he cares about. There are arguments. There are difficult times. The home he owns on the west side of the city routinely houses one or two more than would be comfortable, but he takes great satisfaction in recognizing that there are loved ones to argue with. He says that he will often think back to when he first arrived in the U.S. and all he could do was think about his family and, without consistent communication, worry about them. “This is better, we are together,” he says. He does not have to do these things, or think the ways he does – he chooses to.

He is not “passionate” about waking up at 5:00am to ride his bike to work, but it is work he is willing to do. He has purpose. He understands the connection between his behaviors and his goals.

Ramón is happy.

There are many who chase moments, who work for weekends and photo opportunities. There are many with fancy cars and big paychecks who can’t claim the same sort of satisfaction that Ramón feels whenever the family gets together.

Let’s be clear: there are many who make a lot of money and drive fancy cars who are happy. That should be obvious. But as coaches and educators, we have to make it clear that those quantifiable successes are not the only way to happiness.

Don’t chase passion, passion is fleeting – pursue a life of purpose, and moments of passion will routinely surprise you. Pursue meaning, mutually enhancing relationships, and the sort of work which – even on the tough days – is work you are willing to do.

Do this for yourself, educators. Live it. And be the antidote to faux,”Instagrammable happiness” that has never truly been a measure of success – spread that wisdom to those you mentor.

This is the work you are willing to do. Does your behavior match your goal?