Job Passion Isn’t What We’ve All Been Told

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Dec 8, 2015
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

In one of the most famous commencement speeches ever given, Steve Jobs declared, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Passion, whether for the work, the job, or even the company — it’s what recruiters and hiring managers look for. “Follow your passion” is advice every job seeker gets.

It’s all but an article of faith among recruiters that if a candidate lacks a burning for the job, they’re not “A” talent. So pervasive is this belief that 78 percent of Americans agree, “There is a perfect job fit for every individual, and finding the right line of work will determine one’s happiness and success at work.”

But what if they and Jobs and nearly everyone else is wrong? Not entirely wrong; just wrong about believing that passion must be a prerequisite in all instances. If we were all bound by the advice to “follow your passion,” then those of us who can’t or don’t know how to match job to passion would be relegated to an eternal “B” list, doomed to a disappointing and disengaged work life.

Fortunately, researchers at the University of Michigan say passion can be developed, and frequently is. Published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they conclude that vocational well-being can be achieved as equally by finding passion in the work, as from fitting the work to the passion.

“While most Americans believe that passion comes from finding the right fit, our results suggest that this is not the only route to attain passion. Rather, people can achieve similar levels of well-being at work by endorsing either the fit or develop theory,” write the researchers.

Lead by Patricia Chen, a PhD psychology candidate, the researchers surveyed hundreds of workers on their attitudes, choices, and vocational outcomes. In four separate studies examining different aspects, they separated the subjects according to their belief that work must fit their passion (fit theorists) and those believing it can be developed (develop theorists).

They concluded that, “Contrary to popular wisdom, a love-at-first-sight experience is not necessary. The good news is that we can choose to change our beliefs or strategies to cultivate passion over time or seek compatibility from the outset, and be just as effective in the long run.”

Some of their more specific findings and conjecture have even more direct implications for hiring managers and recruiters:

  • “Fit theorists, who consistently expect greater passion in an enjoyable, low-paying line of work than in a less enjoyable, high-paying line of work, gravitate toward the former. In contrast, develop theorists, who expect to feel equally passionate in either vocation, are more likely to choose the higher-paying one. Develop theorists expect their passion to grow over time in any line of work.”
  • Neither age, education, nor income had much effect on whether a person believes more strongly in following their passion or developing a passion.
  • “Fit theorists may construe any dissatisfaction or professional setback as an indication of poor fit with their lines of work, and therefore more easily conclude that they should consider changing careers. However, an incremental theory has its drawbacks too — develop theorists may stay in professions that poorly match their interests and abilities for too long.”
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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