Passion and Work

This week, I encountered two articles that were critical of our contemporary culture’s focus on passion and its role in guiding our career pursuits. In one, which I heard via a CBC Interview yesterday, comes from Miya Tokumitsu, a PhD in Art History. In the piece, In the Name of Love Tokumitsu argues that being told to love your work, on the one hand, facilitates being exploited and justifies the rise in the unpaid intern, and more relevant for her case, the adjunct professor; and on the other, is a class-marked position that obscures the fact that most people must work to support themselves and their families. In an other article on LinkedIn, “Do What You Do is Bad Advice,” Jeff Hagen argues that skill and practice ought to drive career and entrepreneurial success, not passion.

Tokumitsu argues that employers demand workers love their work to the extent that they will do it for free. Conversely, today’s creative and knowledge worker expects to exchange her passion for prestigious work, even if it is poorly paid, such as being part of the growing army of adjunct professors or not paid at all, such as fashion magazine interns. Yet, given the growth of low-paid service work, many North Americans labour in jobs that are not desirable, yet necessary both to our economy and to provide livelihoods for many people and their families. As such, Tokumitsu suggests, to even speak of loving your job is a mark of economic and social privilege.

Hagen is less focused on capitalist exploitation and more on tempering the ’emotional’ excesses of passion quests, to a more pragmatic, dare I say, rational, approach. Based on the work of Cal Newport, Georgetown University professor and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Search For Work You Love, Hagen argues that passion should emerge from mastery and practice of a skill, rather than initiate an entrepreneurial initiative. So, you don’t need to have passion for your work, but over time, you should derive passion from your work.

His comments remind me of Malcolm Gladwell’s argument about why practice and not in-born talent is crucial in creating successful outcomes. Though his position was unpopular with many of his LinkedIn commentators, Hagen is not discounting the importance of passion in relationship to one’s work, but disputing that passion comes before the work, and not, importantly, after. For, if over time you build skills and practice and become passionate about the work you’re doing, then, arguably, that passion will fuel more skill development, further practice and potentially more job satisfaction. In the case of an entrepreneurial venture, more skills and practice over time builds more fuel to build the enterprise and find greater success.

How does this square with Tokumitsu’s argument? It is unlikely that all work will create passion. However, people may derive satisfaction from their jobs in the form of fulfilling family obligations, supporting children, building relationships with co-workers, etc. Satisfaction is not the same as passion, however. Moreover, many jobs don’t necessarily involve advancing skill development and mastery; it is these, arguably, that become drudgery instead of passion quests.

Although very different in their scope, both pieces problematize our cultural imperative to be passionate about our work, and how such an imperative is necessary for success. Yet, both Tokumitsu and Hagen both persuade us that our culture’s call to “love your work” and “follow your passion” can lead to unfulfillment. In Tokumitsu’s case, it works as an ideology of exploitation that reproduces class privilege, while in Hagen’s, it leads to entrepreneurial failure.

Yet, whither passion and its importance to fulfillment? I think not. Rather, the important idea of building and mastering skills is very worthy and instructive to those who are seeking any kind of success, whether athletic, artistic, entrepreneurial or career-based. Moreover, for those involved in developing the talents of others, it reinforces the value and purpose of learning.

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