Instead of following your passion, find a career that changes people’s lives

Happiness derived from helping others lasts longer.
Happiness derived from helping others lasts longer.
Image: AP Photo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

How do you choose a career that’s worthwhile and fulfilling?

For most of us, this is one of the most important questions we’ll face over the course of our lives. The average person spends 80,000 hours of their life working—a satisfying life without a satisfying career is almost impossible.

Making sure that people are working jobs they’re well-suited to and motivated by is also a vital part of a well-functioning economy. And yet the quality of advice out there for young graduates choosing their career path leaves much to be desired. When I graduated a few years ago, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I received two main types of advice: that I should apply for corporate jobs that would at least pay well, or that I should figure out what I was “passionate about” and go do that.

The first piece of advice wasn’t going to do it for me: none of the corporate jobs I heard about excited me, and I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my happiness for a paycheck. But the second piece of advice, that I should “follow my passion,” bothered me even more. Ben Todd, co-founder of the ethical careers advice service 80,000 Hours, sums up the problem with “follow your passion” better than I could in a recent TEDx talk:

Most people don’t have clear passions; I just didn’t know what I was passionate about. I knew what I wasn’t passionate about—it wasn’t business, or finance, or really any particular artistic or sporting pursuits. Spending more time thinking about it, trying to figure out my passion, wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Even if you do have a clear passion, following that passion may not guarantee you a job, let alone a job you can excel at and enjoy. There are more young graduates passionate about sport and art than the job market can possibly provide for. Above all else, interests change. Psychology research finds that we’re generally not very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future (pdf), so choosing a career based on your current passions may be a recipe for future dissatisfaction.

The real problem with “do what you’re passionate about” is that we talk about “passions” as if they were things existing deep within us just waiting to be found. But this just doesn’t seem to be the case: when you look at people who are really, truly passionate about what they do, many of them say they didn’t start out passionate about that thing. When he was in college, Steve Jobs was passionate about zen buddhism. Most 10-year-olds don’t have passions nor do most 21-year-olds. Passion isn’t something lying dormant deep inside you that enough introspection can figure out. Rather, passion develops as the result of contributing to something meaningful.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Wharton professor Adam Grant argues that there is one key thing all “meaningless” jobs have in common: they don’t make an important difference to the lives of others. Even with all the other factors research suggests are important for satisfying work: autonomy, variety, challenge, feedback—without believing you’re contributing something, most people struggle to find meaning in their work.

The importance of a sense of contribution is supported by thorough research on the predictors of job satisfaction (pdf), which finds that people who feel their work contributes to something larger than themselves are much more likely to find their jobs fulfilling. There’s also a wide body of psychology research suggesting that helping others makes us happy: Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of positive psychology argues that the happiness we get from helping others lasts longer than the happiness we get from doing something for ourselves.

Doing something valuable doesn’t necessarily mean working for a charity. It means identifying a pressing problem (whether that’s poverty, human rights, climate change or something else entirely) and doing something to contribute to that problem (whether that’s by doing research, raising money, spreading awareness, or something else entirely). And importantly, doing something valuable with your career doesn’t always mean making a huge impact immediately. It might be much better to spend the first years of your career learning about what problems you can contribute to, and on developing useful, flexible skills to put you in the best position to contribute to those problems in a few years’ time.

Not everyone can do what they’re passionate about—we don’t all have clear passions that translate easily into jobs. But almost everyone can do something valuable, something that helps others.

Instead of advising young graduates to “follow your passion” or “follow the money,” I think we should be telling them to “follow what’s valuable.” I suspect we’d have a much happier, more motivated society—not to mention a better functioning economy—as a result.