Follow your passion.
If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.
The only way to do great work is to love what you do.
You’ve heard them all—the stuff of Successories posters, motivational speakers, and commencement addresses. The message is crystal clear: If you want to be like Steve Jobs, who gave a famous exhortation to Stanford students on just this subject, you have to be passionate about your job. Otherwise, you’re just punching a clock.
Erin A. Cech, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and by courtesy in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, thinks that message is a load of hooey.
In her research, she explores what she calls the “passion principle”—“that self-expression and fulfillment should be the guiding principle in career decision-making.”
There’s nothing wrong with the passion principle, says Cech, author of The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality (University of California Press, 2021). But that doesn’t mean making our job the be-all and end-all.
She speaks as someone who knows. Earning a degree in electrical engineering at Montana State University, she realized she had a greater fascination for sociology (partly because her hopes of working on assistive technologies weren’t shared by many others in the engineering field) and decided to make the jump to social science.
“I decided I had to follow my passion,” she says wryly.
Her pursuit led to gainful academic employment—no sure thing in today’s market—and work she genuinely enjoys. But the more she looked into the subject of passion, the more she discovered there were hidden traps.
Cech spoke about the role of passion at work, how different socioeconomic groups are rewarded for passion, and what can be done to create balance in our lives. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Todd Leopold: I was struck by a theme of the book: “Exploitation is a feature of the capitalistic economic structure.” In other words, our employers take advantage of our passion. Is that fair? Is it wrong to be passionate about work?
Erin Cech: Having jobs that we like—there’s nothing wrong with that. [But] there are many ways we can find joy in our work: loving the colleagues we work with, or being behind the mission of the organization we work for, or even being able to contain our work hours to be able to have time and energy for the things outside of work.
There’s an old adage that comes from socialist democracies, and that’s the idea of 8-8-8: 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, and 8 hours for ourselves.
TL: How American is this idea of passion?
EC: In some ways it has its roots in the cultural infrastructure of the United States, in that the United States is particularly individualistic. Also, the glorification of hard work in the United States is particularly strong. Yet many other post-industrial societies are also characterized by these values. You see a growth in the importance of self-expression in many other Anglophone countries, and also this growth of precarity in those locations as well.
The way this book has garnered attention around the world also suggests that this isn’t just an American phenomenon. I’ve done media interviews in Belgium and Israel and Brazil and Canada and New Zealand, and this attention is due in part to journalists seeing these things reflected in their own national context.
As long as there has been the passion principle, there have been skeptics. “Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift,” Bob Dylan sang in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Two generations later, one of Cech’s interviewees described his hoped-for job with an existential shrug: “I at least want something that isn’t too dreadful for the next 50 years.”
TL: Were the students you interviewed wide-eyed with passion or realistic about their prospects?
EC: The tendency is to see college students as kind of naïve and having a lack of understanding of the workforce, but they were quite aware of the constraints on workers to find work that was decently paying and relatively stable and also not 50, 60, 70 hours a week. For them, finding work that they’re passionate about wasn’t this idealistic sense of not working a day in their life, but it was the most tolerable way they could imagine to live up to expectations of the modern professional workforce.
This goes back to a juxtaposition of two historical things happening: the shift in much greater precarity of employment for professionals than [in past] generations, and on top of that is this interesting cultural change in the growth of expectations for self-expression and self-fulfillment. [In addition,] people have fewer spaces in their lives to find a collective sense of identity.
That leaves young adults having fewer options available institutionally for finding a sense of identity and meaning, and work is this clear vector to find that meaning.
In the conclusion of the book, I critique the question we ask kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? The expectation is that the answer is an occupation, and that occupation is a cornerstone of their identity. That’s what is behind the anxiety that so many young people and adults who are in the labor force feel. Not knowing what [one’s passion is] feels like not knowing a part of themselves.
TL: Did you see a difference between how members of different socioeconomic groups faced the dilemma of the passion principle?
EC: What I found is that across career specialties, people who came from wealthier families had access to safety nets and springboards that allowed them to find employment in their passion. It didn’t matter what they majored in or what they were passionate about. Their parents were more likely to have connections or were willing to pay for certifications.
In contrast, people from working-class families or first-generation college students often struggled to follow their passion. Part of that was not having financial safety nets from their parents to do things like take unpaid internships, and part of it was lack of the cultural capital that’s often required to get a professional job—how to interview, how to network. So I see socioeconomic breakdown in being able to parlay what you’re passionate about into gainful employment.
It’s not just students and young workers who buy into the passion principle. Cech notes it comes from mentors as well.
“More than half of the career counselors and coaches I interviewed parroted the passion principle. I expected there to be more of a wholesale skepticism about passion seeking,” she says.
That wasn’t the only eye-opener.
In the book, Cech observes that college-educated passion principle devotees are more likely to believe that the labor force is a level playing field—and judge others who work in jobs far outside of their passion because that was all that was available to them due to gender and race bias, socioeconomics, locale, or a combination of situations. It’s a concept she calls “choicewashing.”
“Choicewashing is when people who adhere to the passion principle are more likely to look at things like occupational and generational segregation and believe that it exists simply because individuals choose to follow their passions. [That belief] can be weaponized to explain away patterns of occupational inequality,” Cech says.
“A couple things stand out,” she adds. “One is the experiment I did, showing not only are potential employers enthusiastic about passionate applicants, but they are [more enthusiastic] because they believe passionate employees will do more work without asking for more compensation.”
Cech believes the passion principle isn’t a dead end, but that it will take effort to find true work-life balance. At the least, don’t give all your passion to your job; limit the time you focus on work, find meaning in other activities, and get paid what you’re worth. She knows that’s easier said than done.
TL: Is there a solution?
EC: Ultimately these require collective solutions. The reason people are looking for work they’re passionate about is because work takes up so much of our lives. So these collective solutions need to reduce the expectation and demand for overwork, reinstate boundaries around work, and fight for better working conditions for those who labor in jobs that provide little opportunity for a sense of fulfillment and passion from them.
TL: Do you have passion for your work?
EC: Yes, I am passionate about sociology. But my relationship with my work has had to change because I can’t have written this book and not think of work differently. I’ve tried to take my own advice, developing non-work hobbies and interests. And that takes work. It takes work to try to break away from the incredible time commands of faculty positions, and I’ve tried to work hard to nurture those interests.
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