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Moving Beyond Passion: Why “Do What You Love” Advice for College Students Needs Reexamination

Supporting the Profession Assessment, Evaluation, and Research
August 23, 2019 Michael J. Stebleton University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

THE FOLLOWING BLOG POST IS AN EXCERPT FROM “Moving Beyond Passion: Why ‘Do What You Love’ Advice for College Students Needs Reexamination” ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE JOURNAL OF COLLEGE AND CHARACTER, VOLUME 20, ISSUE 2

Abstract

College students receive countless messages about “following passion” and “doing what you love” (DWYL). What happens when these repeated messages ultimately do a disservice to some students? Although pursuing one’s interests is strongly encouraged, the author explores the limitations of the DWYL advice at all costs, including the privilege that is often tied to Western-oriented career development concepts. Rather than focus solely on passion, career-related discusions with students should include authentic conversations about purpose, meaning, and the shifting future of work—and how students might best prepare for these changes. Several examples of institutional programs are highlighted. Suggestions and implications are provided for higher education professionals and student affairs practitioners.


“Find your passion!” “Do what you love—and the money will follow!” We all hear this sage-like advice from parents, teachers, and graduation speakers. Interestingly, these mantras fill the heads of our college students before they even set foot on campus. Yet, I frequently wonder if these well- intended pieces of advice ultimately do a disservice to many students. In this essay, I question whether the Do What You Love (DWYL) advice, albeit well-intended, really meets the complexities of today’s college students and the new realities of work. More importantly, I make the argument that discussions around thriving in the future workplace, with an emphasis on purpose and ongoing skill development, deserve greater attention over benign platitudes about passion (i.e., do what you love). To be clear, college students should pursue major and career options based on their interests and even their callings; however, there are other factors that merit similar attention. As higher education professionals, we need to reexamine how we interact with college students regarding messages about career and work-related decision-making. What happens when the popular notion of finding one’s true passion (i.e., love, or a focus of deep desire) is not viable or simply just poor advice for some students?

Career as Privilege

Students receive countless messages grounded in the DWYL language. Pundits encourage students to “follow their dreams” and “search for passion” until they find it without relenting. Steve Jobs, in his famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address, challenged students to find work they love to do and to never give up on those aspirations (Jobs, 2005; Richardson & Arthur, 2013). Although I agree with Jobs and the DWYL mantra up to a point, I question the underlying assumptions that all students, irrespective of contextual factors (e.g., socioeconomic background, high school experiences, immigrant status), just need to identify passion and work harder to become successful. Offering of career advice for students is not a new phenomenon. Much has been written over the years about career development and career decision-making, and the literature is replete with pieces discussing overlapping ideas of passion, purpose, and meaningful.

For purposes of this essay, I distinguish between passion and purpose. The two terms are related and one of semantics. While the meanings of purpose and passion are not restricted to concrete definitions or understandings, I will refer to passion as it is often voiced by the DWYL proponents. Passion—as used by Jobs and the DWYL advocates—suggests following what you love at all costs, sometimes from an individualistic and privileged orientation; yet, passion can involve committed altruism. Purpose involves pursuing work that provides personal or collective meaning; it also can involve making a difference in the lives of other people. Possessing a strong purpose when engaging in work-related decisions can lead to more satisfying and meaningful lives for college students. From this perspective, purpose and meaning are inter-connected, and I use the terms interchangeably in my conversations with undergraduates. Other scholars continue to explore the nuances and limitations of the messages we receive about career and work.

Art historian Miya Tokumitsu shares some of my concerns about the passion at all costs epistle. In her article, “In the Name of Love,” she wrote that for some people, doing what they love can be self- serving to the point of narcissism. Tokumitsu (2014) argued that the DWYL actually undermines some workers, including the less privileged and workers who may be already marginalized:

One consequence of this isolation is the division that DWYL creates among workers, largely along class lines. Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable-work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce. (Tokumitsu, 2014)

This binary message unfairly perpetuates two choices—you love your work or you do not. Let’s be honest: Even intellectually stimulating work contains repetitive elements. For example, many faculty members (including me) love teaching, yet despise the drudgery of grading papers.

Tokumitsu (2014) skillfully articulates flaws in the DWYL concept and questions its unexamined use as worthy career advice, mainly that the pursuit of a career is a privilege that we often take for granted. Tokumitsu is not alone in this stance. David Blustein, career development scholar, extended this argument in his work on The Psychology of Working (2006). In this oft-cited book, he claimed that the concept of choosing and pursuing a career is actually a privilege; to possess a degree of volition about work is in many ways a luxury that does not avail itself to everyone. Career or career development from a Western perspective adheres to a career path or trajectory, always moving forward and upward. Another assumption is that individuals possess multiple career options and assume control over their career direction. For millions of people around the world, work is a job that is not commonly viewed from this career perspective. In these scenarios, many individuals do not equitably possess the opportunities, resources, and education to willingly follow passion as suggested by Jobs and others who preach the DWYL message.

The Shortcomings of Passion

When passion language is overused or trivialized, it loses its intended value and influence. When this language is used in this manner, the DWYL messages become diluted to the point of being trite and saccharine. In other words, teaching that satisfying one’s passion is the sole outcome often does a disservice to some students. Not all students are able to blissfully heed Jobs’s advice without considering the implications of their decisions for family, community members, and significant others. For example, Jobs’s message of “just keep searching for your passion until you find it” sounds inspirational and lofty for Stanford graduates who are mostly privileged traditional-age students, yet it does little to support students who might not have those same opportunities due to limited time, financial resources, student debt, taking care of siblings, and parenting responsibilities, among others. In these cases, the decision-making process becomes much more complex and dynamic in terms of the varied factors involved. Ideally, student affairs educators and other higher education professionals are mindful of these systemic factors when supporting all students from a holistic student development stance (Kuh, 2018).

Another limitation and assumption of the DWYL message is that all work should be a passion, or evolve into one. Higher education professionals, including student affairs professionals, should definitely encourage students to pursue major and career areas that interest them. We want students to opt in to disciplines that intrigue them. However, not all work-related choices necessarily need to be a true passion. There are varied messages and circumstances influencing students’ decision-making processes that should be factored into ongoing discussions about work; these variables are complex and extend far beyond finding passion. Academic institutions need to do a better job of offering more of these career exploration activities to students, especially during the first and second years (Stebleton & Diamond, 2018). Most students enter college with limited reflection and self-assessment around factors involved in career decision-making process, such as interests, values, skills, occupational knowledge, and the future of work. For many, an understanding of the range of career choices might be limited by what students know from immediate family members. Students may inaccurately assume they have only one option to make the best choice, instead of realizing that they will likely have multiple work opportunities and careers over a lifetime (Lent, 2018). Rather than rely on messages of DWYL, we can do a better job of supporting students to fully engage in the decision-making process by exploring other messages and factors, including an examination of purpose.

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