Following Your Passion Could Be Making You Miserable

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have spent years grappling with inner turmoil–years–when it comes to what I’m doing with my life.

In fact, I’d say the vast majority of my adult life thus-far has been more or less in the shadow of said turmoil. Maybe that isn’t saying much since I’m just now peeking around the corner at 30, but it feels like a long time. It’s more than a third of my life!

It’s only been within the last year or so that I can feel myself starting to emerge from the “fog” of uncertainty that I found clouding my 20s. As one might expect it feels like a relief, and it’s safe to say I have a lot to figure out even still. I don’t really know what I want to do when I grow up. From what I can see, there are two main distinctions in how I perceive my life now, compared to a few years ago:

  1. I’m okay with not knowing everything about myself, just as I’m okay with fitting into multiple “boxes.”
  2. I no longer define myself through my day job.

I am not what I do for a living. My job is not my identity.

That statement seems straight forward and simplistic, so much so that the first few times I heard someone else say that (or something like it), it barely phased me. In the back of my mind I thought,

“Duh. I know that. Everyone knows that.”

The more I heard that, though, the more I really began to process it and notice contradictions in my own actions and inner voice. I’d be willing to bet you’d have a similar experience if you took some time for some honest introspection on the subject. I’ll use an example.

Have you ever swelled with pride at a promotion that came with a new title?

Even better–have you ever been frustrated because you felt like your title was beneath you?

At the end of the day a title only matters to a point. Whether you’re an Engineering Secretary II or an Executive Admin, it’s still a fancy way of saying you’re an advanced Administrative Assistant. A change in wording doesn’t necessarily come with a pay raise or any other accolades. So why do you care so much?

Because it’s part of your identity.

You’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Okay, so? What’s wrong with being ambitious, or taking pride in my achievements?”

Good question. The answer is nothing! Absolutely nothing. I’m not gonna sit here and act like I don’t enjoy promotions or gold stars as much as the next person. Here’s the real issue–like many things, forming your self-identity (and therefore your worth) by way of your occupation is a double-edged sword.

When things are going well, it’s a great thing for your psyche. But what about when they’re not? Or maybe things aren’t BAD per se, but you’re not doing something you really love?

What if you’re not passionate about your job?

I’ve really come to cringe at the word “passion.”

I realize it’s ridiculous to have a beef against a word (especially one that doesn’t even resemble anything hateful or gross), but that word has been thrown around so much that it has caused serious damage to our self esteem.

How many times have you heard “Do what you love and the money will follow,” or “Follow your passion”? More than you count, I’m sure–unless you live under a rock.

These words are rampant, usually posted on social media accompanied by some lovely photo of an impossibly beautiful, young woman who somehow has money to vacation in Fiji or some other exotic location every other week.

Wait–not somehow. She “followed her passion,” I bet.

I’m rolling my eyes SUPER hard right now. I’m rolling them because we’ve all fallen victim to this trap of gazing longingly at the glamorous lives of other people, suddenly feeling really crappy about our jobs, our lives, ourselves.

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?

“If I get a job as an Accountant or something, I’m not being true to myself, since what I’m the most excited about in the whole world is playing blues harmonica. I’d be a sell out.”


“I don’t like my job as an Account Manager. I mean it’s okay–I just feel like I’m not doing anything useful. I’m not passionate about it!”


“I don’t know what I’m passionate about. I’m just so lost. I’m so envious of those people that have always known.”

And so on.

Before you call me an insensitive jerk, let me just say that I have uttered similar phrases (especially like that first one). I’ve heard these thoughts in my own mind and those phrases from the mouths of people I know and love.

I share them to point out that this is a VERY common problem, and to illustrate why this “follow your passion” business is so destructive.

By promoting “follow your passion,” we’re implying two things:

  1. Doing anything for a living OTHER than one’s Passion (with a capital P!) is “less-than.”
  2. Your passion is this inherent purpose-giver that you have to dig down deep within your soul to find, and if you can’t find it then there is something wrong with you. Or you’re boring.

I suppose that these ideas were partially bred by the slow turn of society toward the idol of “self,” and in large part by the “look at me” social media culture.

So what do we do?

I was actually listening to a podcast the other day that featured Cal Newport (of whom I’m a pretty big fan), and something he said struck me given how much I’ve been contemplating this lately.

It was lengthy, but essentially he said that what actually tends to create passion is getting really good at something. Skills and expertise are currency, and they make us valuable. The benefits there are that a) we can make more money and b) since we’re more valuable, we feel more valued.

We find purpose.

This challenges the idea that passion is just magically inside of you, somewhere. Instead, you have to build it.

Yes, there are people who have just known since they were 4 that they were going to be the next Mariah Carey and that’s great for them.

That is not the majority.

Furthermore, doing something for a living that you can not only be good at but that would earn you a solid income is anything BUT shameful. Maybe you really love to paint but you also have a knack for numbers. Is there anything wrong with earning yourself a comfortable living as a tax accountant (or some other thing that is lucrative and you don’t mind doing), so that you can be free of money stress and pay for all of your fancy paint supplies?

Where did we get this idea that we are so one-dimensional, and have to pick ONE thing?

We have to pay attention to the mixed messages that are sent to us:

  1. Get married! Have a big wedding, buy a nice house and then make babies. It’s the American Dream!
  2. Follow your passion! If you pour your heart and soul into your knitting, then one day you will become rich and everything will be fine.

Insert whatever passion you have in place of “knitting.”

If you’re REALLY fortunate, then you’re passionate about brain surgery and will become a brain surgeon. Or maybe you’re passionate about tennis and you’re going to be the next Serena Williams. Again, there is no one truth.

If you’re like the rest of us, though, the two messages I outlined above are a recipe for a life of misery, and LOTS of work, since you’re probably not going to be able to retire in a timely fashion what with all the debt.

You must look beyond your job to define yourself.

This is not black and white. You are not this or that.

You are a complex person with a variety of skills, interests and feelings.

I’m not saying you should ignore your passions.

It is in the realm of possibility that you could earn the living you need to off of your passion, whatever that may be. I’m merely pointing out the the belief that your passion is the ONLY respectable way to earn income is extremely limiting. Also for the record, if you truly HATE your job, get out. I mean truly hate. If you feel like you hate it just because it’s NOT knitting, then I’d suggest reevaluating. Otherwise, life is too short to hate every day, and I’m definitely not implying that you should settle for anything that comes your way.

The sooner you allow yourself space to look at the big picture that is YOU, the sooner you can begin to design your life in a way that makes the most sense and result in the most happiness overall.

I want to end this by saying I like my job. Did I dream about working in tech as a wee child? No. But, I do like it. I’m good at it and I can afford to buy paint and gardening supplies.

I let go of the idea that I had to either be an artist or I was a failure. I have accomplished many things, and the most important thing to note: I am an artist, regardless of whether it’s my source of income. That’s irrelevant.

And guys, I am happy. FINALLY.

P.s., I turn 30 next month and I couldn’t be more okay with it.

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