For many people, chasing a dream job becomes a nightmare

“Do what you love and the money will follow” often ends up stranding people in career dead-ends

Illustration of a ship hitting a heart-shaped iceberg and sinking

(Illustration by Graham Roumieu)

Following your passion is the career equivalent of single-mindedly seeking “The One” in your romantic life. There are just enough real and embellished examples to sustain the belief that, like your perfect partner, your dream job is out there.

Steve Jobs exhorted untold numbers of millennials into lives of underemployment and poverty with his commencement speech to the Stanford graduating class in 2005. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life,” he admonished, “and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

This may have rung true for Jobs, but most of us are not geniuses, and many of us don’t even have marketable passions. It’s doubtful the thousands of Chinese factory workers who made Jobs’ success possible, for example, were doing what they love. Most people do what they do for reasons lower down on Maslow’s pyramid.

If you’re in mid-career, you probably know a school chum or two who’s fallen for what author and Georgetown University prof Cal Newport calls the “passion trap”—someone who has tried valiantly for years to become a screenwriter or standup comic or chef and ended up in his or her 40s stuck in a low-paid, low-skilled service sector job.

The fact is, most passions don’t pay the bills or, as economists put it, create value. In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams recalled, “When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion…. He’s in business for the wrong reason.” In a series of tweets, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen called following your passion “dangerous and destructive career advice.” We tend to overweight the rare successes in competitive fields, not the thousands who tried and failed. The pursuit of passionate careers, he said, is a sign of the “endemic narcissism in modern culture.”

Besides, it’s counterproductive. Psychologists and philosophers have pointed out that passion, like happiness, is more a byproduct of your life experience than an achievable goal. In fact, seeking their passion tends to burden people with high expectations and render them unable to live in the moment. The things surveys say most often contribute to job satisfaction, such as accomplishing a challenging task or feeling needed and respected, are attainable in any line of work. Andreessen argued that instead of doing what we love, we should “do what contributes—focus on the beneficial value created for other people versus just one’s own ego.”

So if you’re passionate about what you do, congratulations! Chances are you learned to love the job you’re with. If not, try to find something you can be content in, and indulge your passions in your spare time. For perspective, read a few obituaries every now and then. They’re seldom about what people did from nine to five anyway.


Watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech to Stanford grads: