One of the most ubiquitous pieces of career advice these days is to follow your passion.
We hear it so often that many of us have just internalized that it’s a good idea to work on what we’re passionate about.
But is that really the case? Should you really work on what you’re passionate about?
Well, it turns out that it’s hotly debated.
And the most common argument against it is that many folks fear that combining work and passion will make you lose your love for your passion.
So this article is going to evaluate the risk of losing your passion if you mix it with work and offer recommendations for how to approach it if you do, if fact, decide to combine work and passion.
Let’s get started.
- 1 Background on the Work on What You’re Passionate About Advice
- 2 Studies on Combining Work and Passion
- 3 Stories on Combining Work and Passion
- 4 Should You Combine Passion with Work?
- 5 How to Minimize Your Risk of Losing Your Passion
- 6 Conclusion
Background on the Work on What You’re Passionate About Advice
I spent quite a bit of time researching the origin of the “work on what you’re passionate about” advice.
From that research, I couldn’t find any attribution to a singe person. It seems that the advice has become popularized by being offered up by a variety of influential people.
One of the most well-known pieces of follow your passion advice is from Steve Jobs. Here is his most commonly cited quote on the topic:
You’ve got to find what you love…[The] only way to do great work is to love you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.
That quote is from his now famous Stanford commencement address, which you can watch in full below:
Another notable person who has offered this advice is Richard Branson, whose perspective is quoted below:
There is no greater thing you can do with your life and your work than follow your passions in a way that serves the work and you.
And lastly, the most famous quote on this topic is below and is one that you’ve likely heard before. The origins are actually debated, but I’ve seen it attributed to Confucius, Mark Twin, and Marc Anthony:
If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life
When that many famous people put forth an idea, people understandably pay attention.
But these are all folks giving that advice from a place of already having achieved great success.
And if you evaluate what they actually did with their careers, you’ll see that they didn’t always follow their own advice.
Steve Jobs for example, wasn’t initially passionate about computers. He started Apple to make a quick buck. And then become passionate about it over time.
So if we can’t necessarily take their advice as ironclad, I decided to look and see if the topic has actually been academically studied.
Studies on Combining Work and Passion
While it was tough to find a study that directly answers the question of if mixing passion and work will make you lose your passion, I did find a couple of good proxy studies that are relevant to the topic.
Each of the studies, and the underlying concepts they on which they’re focused, are summarized below.
The Overjustification Effect
The overjustification effect is the idea that when you are externally incentivized to do something that you intrinsically enjoy, your natural enjoyment of that activity actually decreases.
So, for example, you may love to play tennis. You’d play it just for the sheer joy of it. But if you received money to play tennis, the overjustification effect would decrease your desire to play tennis just for the sake of it.
One of the most well known studies of the overjustification effect was conducted by Edward Deci and his colleagues from the University of Rochester in the 70s.
Basically, the study looked at two groups of people to evaluate their interest in solving puzzles. The control group was not paid to complete a puzzle on any of the three days of the study, and the experimental group was paid on the first two days, but not the third.
What they found was that the control group showed significantly more interest in completing the puzzle on the third day than the group that was paid. That implied that external motivation served to decrease intrinsic drive to complete the task.
If you want to learn more about the topic, Verywell Mind has a great, easy to read summary of the Overjustification Effect.
External Incentives Can Decrease Creativity
In the the 1980s, a group of researchers looked at the impact of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation on creativity.
Prior to writing a poem, the researchers gave one group of writers a set of questions asking about the intrinsic reasons that they loved writing. They gave another group of writers questions about their extrinsic motivations for writing.
Ultimately, the study ultimately found that the group that was asked about extrinsic factors before writing produced significantly less creative poems than those that were asked about intrinsic factors.
The implication of the study was that external incentives can negatively impact creativity versus doing an activity simply for its own sake.
Here is a link to that study if you’d like to dive deeper: Motivation and creativity: Effects of motivational orientation on creative writers.
Based upon those studies, there does appear to be evidence that extrinsic motivators like money can negatively impact your natural enjoyment and drive to participate in an activity.
For the purposes of what we’re looking at in this article, mixing passion and work does appear to have some risk of making you lose your natural love whatever it is you’re passionate about.
Stories on Combining Work and Passion
So we looked at the potential impact of mixing work and passion from an academic perspective, but what are real people saying about their experience?
I’d like to share examples of both the positive and negative side of combining work and passion.
Good Experiences Combining Work and Passion
My favorite examples of someone that has successfully combined work and passion is Nate Duncan from the Dunc’d On podcast.
Nate was a lawyer who did not like his job, but had a passion for the NBA.
He would spend his free time watching games and then listening to podcasts about the NBA on his ride into work.
Ultimately, he found that he was getting frustrated with the quality of content on mainstream NBA podcasts. In his view, most of them were too surface level and didn’t provide the level of true basketball analysis that he craved.
So Nate decided that he was going to create the basketball podcast that he wanted on the side.
Between his podcast, and live tweeting NBA games, Nate eventually grew an audience.
And over time, his podcast became one of the most popular NBA podcasts for serious fans.
So much so, that Nate was able to quit his job to focus on the podcast full time.
Outside of this being a great story of building the life you want, I mention it because when you listen to Nate, and his podcast partner Danny Leroux, you can tell that they absolutely love what they do.
There are numerous instances where they say things like “it’s amazing that we get to do this for a living,” or “I can’t believe that we get to live this life.”
Basically, you’ll frequently hear them say some variation of it’s incredible that we actually make money getting to talk about the thing we love — basketball.
They are their own bosses, largely set their own schedule, and earn money doing what they would spend their time on voluntarily.
In my view, that’s the ultimate example of how fantastic it can feel when you correctly combine work and passion.
Bad Experiences Combining Work and Passion
On the flip side, there certainly are stories of folks that fall out of love with their passion when they mix it with work.
This article from Leapers, a website focused on the mental health of the self-employed, offers some interesting stories of people that mixed work and passion.
Some of the stories are extremely positive, but others not so much.
I’d like to highlight a couple quotes from the Leapers article below:
I wouldn’t want my passion to become my full time job. Being a designer per day and print maker by night is perfect. I’m ok getting paid for my graphic design services, but I don’t know how I would feel about people paying for my print and expecting me to follow some deadlines (because they paid…) I fear it would destroy the whole fun of it.
Sophie’s comment highlights an interesting principle. Basically, her fear is that once she is no longer doing printing for herself, on her schedule, and based upon her judgment, she would lose her love for it.
I started my professional career in my passion – chasing racing cars around the planet. But it ruined it for me. Completely fell out of love with the sport I dedicated my education and life to. After about 4 years of completely ignoring it wherever possible, I’m now starting to casually observe it again from a distance, but it doesn’t light a fire in me anymore. I’m not naive enough to say I won’t want to scratch that itch again one day, but for now I’m very happy to have fulfilling work that isn’t a passion, and fulfilling passions that aren’t work.
In Ella’s case, it seems to be a classic example of the overjustification effect, where combining extrinsic rewards with something that she enjoyed intrinsically ruined the love of the passion for her.
Should You Combine Passion with Work?
So after sharing some studies on the topic, as well people’s personal experiences combining passion with work, the question remains…should you combine passion with work?
And my personal view on this is the same as Roman Krzanric’s in the fantastic book How to Find Fulfilling Work, which is that I think that it’s worth the risk to mix work and passion.
Hopefully I’ve presented enough evidence in this article to show that, yes, there is a definite risk that you lose your passion when it is no longer pursued entirely for intrinsic joy.
That said, I think it’s important to call out that, for most people, you have 80,000 work hours in your career. 80,000!
That is a huge portion of your life. And work is something that you spend a ton of your waking hours on…likely much moreso than your passion.
So, to me, if we’re investing that much of our lives into something, I think that we should want to do everything that we possibly can to love it.
And, for many people, like Nate and Danny above, the best way to love your work is to work on what you’re passionate about.
So is the risk of losing your passion real? Yes.
But is the upside of loving your work worth the risk of losing that passion? In my view, yes.
How to Minimize Your Risk of Losing Your Passion
Fortunately, I think there are ways that you minimize the risk of losing your passion when you mix it with work.
Here are three effective ways that I think you can mix passion and work without being at too much risk of losing your passion:
Work for Yourself and On Your Own Terms
If you look at Sophie’s quote above, her big fear in working on her passion was doing it on someone else’s terms.
She’s afraid that having to meet deadlines set by somebody else in order to be paid by them would create stress and take away the joy of the work.
And I think that’s totally untestable.
I think that a large part of the reason people lose their passion is that they’re no longer doing it for themselves and on their terms, but they start doing it for somebody else for extrinsic benefits.
People mix their passion with other people’s deadlines. Or financial targets. Or standards of quality.
And, understandably, when the work is no longer your own, you’re at risk of losing your love for it.
So, in my view, the single best way to combine work with passion is to do it on your own terms.
Start doing the work for yourself on the side and see to what extent you can monetize it.
If you love crafting, create a course on it. If you love basketball, start a podcast about it.
There’s more opportunity than ever to do work on your terms and monetize your interests.
That’s the lowest risk way to mix passion and work, in my view.
And that’s exactly the way that Nate Duncan successfully approached mixing his passion with his work.
Reduce Your Stress and Pressure
Whether you’re working for yourself or someone else, whenever there is high stress associated with an activity, your enjoyment of that activity is likely going to decrease.
So, for example, if you need to generate a substantial amount of income very quickly, it’s likely that you’re going to feel stress and not enjoy the activity as much, even if you’re working on what you’re passionate about.
If you’re working for someone else in a high pressure environment, the environment is likely going to sap your joy of whatever it is you’re doing. Again, even if it’s something that you love.
So the more that you can work on your passion in a lower stress, lower pressure environment, the less likely that you’re going to lose your passion by mixing it with work.
As an example, if you’re looking to follow the first piece of advice and monetize your passion on your own terms, a good way to reduce the stress of the activity is to start is as a side hustle.
Do it when the stakes are low and see what you can build it to.
When you have a stable income as your base, the stress and pressure of needing to monetize as soon as possible is decreased, and you’re better able to enjoy the activity for itself.
Work with a Skill That You Love, Rather Than on a Topic
The most common stories you hear about people losing their passion are those that work on a topic that they’re passionate about.
It’s the person that loves sports marketing that then worked in the field and lost their love for it.
Or it’s Ella above, who loved race cars but then, once she made it her work, lost her love for it.
Where you hear those types of stories less is from people that use skills that they’re passionate about.
Now I couldn’t find any academic studies to back this up, it’s more based upon conversations and anecdotal evidence, but I do believe that you are less likely to lose your passion for a skill than you are for a topic.
When you’re using a skill that you love, say writing, coding, or woodworking, there is a tendency to get lost in a flow state.
A flow state is a state of being where you’re so immersed in an activity that you lose track of time. You’re enjoying it so much, that time seems to simply melt away.
Flow states, in my experience, can happen regardless of the context in which you’re using the skill. It’s the usage of the actual skill itself that immerses you in that state.
Folks tend to run into trouble when they’re using skills they don’t like around a topic that they do. And especially when they’re using those skills on somebody else’s terms.
So, in my view, a likely path to loving your work is to use a skill that you’re passionate about, rather than just focusing on the topic.
Whether or not you should mix work and passion is a hotly debated issue.
And there is definitely evidence that when you overlay extrinsic rewards with activities that you do for intrinsic joy, you risk losing your joy of that activity.
That said, there are also powerful stories of people that found work that they absolutely love because they worked on what they’re passionate about.
In my view, that makes it worth the risk to mix work and passion.
And there are ways that you can approach that to minimize the risk of losing your passion when mixing it with work.