Why "Follow Your Passions" Isn't the Best Career Advice

I grew up hearing career advice from my parents that likely sounds very familiar to you (especially if you’re a Millennial like me): “Follow your passions. Follow your dreams. Do whatever makes you happy.”

And it wasn’t just our parents giving us this advice. It seemed like every influential adult was doling out the same wisdom. Oprah told us that, “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” Eighties icon, Jon Bon Jovi, said, “Nothing is as important as passion.”

The advice to follow your passions in order to find work you love is so common, it has become cliché. But here’s the problem: It simply doesn’t work.

More than any generation before us, Millennials have had plenty of opportunity to “do whatever makes us happy” professionally, and yet, we are the least satisfied generation at work! According to Gallup, “Millennials are the least engaged generation in the workplace.”

Clearly, the advice to follow our passions is a losing strategy for finding work we love. 

A study by a Yale researcher helps explain why. 

Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor of organizational behavior who has spent years seeking to understand what leads people to describe their work as a “calling” as opposed to a “job” or “career.” Over the years, she has studied this question across a variety of professions, from doctors, to administrative assistants, to computer programmers. 

Wrzesniewski has discovered that the strongest predictor of someone seeing their work as a calling is not whether or not they were passionate about a particular job before they started it. 

The number one predictor as to whether or not someone will describe their work as a calling is the number of years they have spent practicing their discipline.

In other words, the path to vocational happiness is not found in “following your passions;” it’s found in sticking with something long enough to become masterful at your craft. It turns out that passion is a side-effect of mastery. You get to love what you do by getting really good at it.

This truth should come as no surprise to Christians. After all, we are called to model our lives after the one who “came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Following your passions focuses exclusively on what value a career can offer you. A much more effective and (more importantly) Christ-like strategy is to follow your gifts, focusing on the work you can do most exceptionally well as a means of making others happy first. And this, it turns out, is the most predictable path to finding vocational joy for ourselves.

I think this is one clear application of The Parable of the Talents. If you need a refresher, here are Jesus’s words from Matthew 25:14-23:

Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (emphasis mine)

Typically, when people teach on this passage, they read the final few verses to focus your attention on the Master’s admonition to the third “lazy” servant. 

But here’s what I want you to focus on in this passage today: Jesus is holding out a promise for you and me. When we—like the first two servants—prioritize investing our best in God for his purposes, not our own, we will get to “share the Master’s happiness.” 

The pursuit of happiness in our work is not a bad thing. Here, I believe Jesus is holding it out as an incentive and reward! 

But it is important to note that while the first two servants may have been motivated by their own happiness, Jesus doesn’t tell us that in the parable. The servants’ happiness is not the focal point of this story—the Master’s happiness is. And because the servants were focused first on pleasing others through their work, they were invited to share in the Lord’s infinite happiness forever. 

When we prioritize our own passions and short-term happiness in our work over service to others, we get neither. But, when we focus on doing masterful work primarily for God’s glory and the good of our neighbors, we bring joy to the Lord who graciously invites us to share in that happiness with him.

So please, stop following your passions. Follow your gifts instead. Of course, our passions can give us clues as to which work we might be most gifted at, but passions are a means to an end, namely finding the work you can do most exceptionally well in service of others.

If you expect cosmic level happiness from your work the moment you find a job that matches a pre-existing passion, you will always be disappointed. The deepest, most sustainable satisfaction of vocation comes from serving others first—focusing first on the Master’s happiness and the happiness of others.

Jordan Raynor, author of Master of One: Find and Focus on the Work You Were Created to Do (WaterBrook) leads a growing community of Christians seeking to more deeply connect their faith with their work. In addition to his writing, Jordan serves as the executive chairman of the tech startup Threshold 360, where he previously served as CEO after launching a string of successful ventures. A highly sought-after speaker on the topic of faith and work, Raynor has spoken at Harvard University, SXSW, Q Ideas and many other events around the world. He has twice been selected as a Google fellow and served in the White House under President George W. Bush. He recently launched “The Call to Mastery with Jordan Raynor” podcast and lives in Tampa with his wife and three young daughters. Visit jordanraynor.com for more information.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Tim Gouw

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