Is “Follow Your Bliss” B.S.?

Ross WadeRoss Wade, assistant director, Duke University Career Center
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I don’t have a “passion” or “bliss” to follow. I just don’t. I really enjoy a lot of things—photography, writing, listening to music, design, real estate, and documentary—but do I love them enough to sacrifice everything to pursue one of them professionally? Nope. Maybe my passion is routine, security, and a little artsy fartsy on the side? Jeez…that sounds lame.

As a career adviser who doesn’t necessarily believe in bliss or passion, I feel like a traitor to my vocation—like I need to keep my views on this topic “in the closet.” Does anyone else feel this way? I think some of you do. I know some of my students do. I’ve had countless students, literally whisper to me in sessions, “Ross…I don’t think I have a passion. Is that okay? What do I do if I don’t have a passion? How can I find one? How can I choose a major or career if I don’t have a passion?!”

It appears to me the “passionless” are really stressed out…and I totally get it! Most of what we hear about on the news, television, music, and literature is the only way to be happy and successful is to follow your passion. But I’ve got to ask…is this a healthy and realistic philosophy? Does it cause more harm than good?

I became a victim to this one size fits all philosophy, and for years it caused me a lot a grief. I was trying to find my passion, but was trying to fit it in to what I thought it was supposed to be—based on what others (e.g., media, peers, family) told me it should be. It was pretty miserable. I think some of our students are feeling the same way. Now, in my 30s, I’m finally feeling comfortable with my own career philosophy. It took me a long time to piece it together, and seems rather simple. Hunter S. Thompson said it best: pick the kind of life you want and build everything else around it.

What do I do when a student “comes out” to me that s/he has no burning passion to pursue? I reply, “I don’t have a passion either. In fact, most of the students I meet with don’t, but they feel like they are supposed to. Being passionless is ok.”

Students seem shocked and relieved to hear me say this. Next, I normally say “Let’s forget about passion and career, and talk about the kind of life you want. Tell me about that.” This tends to get them talking…it is more nuts and bolts, and basic values, but it gives us a starting point. I know this doesn’t seem like an innovative or energizing type of session, but I think it is really important. Students need to be able to be released from this passion myth, so they can start thinking about a real life, rather than trying to live up to some (nearly impossible) cultural standard. They need to know, and be taught by us, that they can create their own career philosophy—that’s what I wish someone had taught me.

Don’t get me wrong, some folks really do have a passion, and they by all means should pursue it—but that standard or philosophy shouldn’t be universal. Let’s empower our passionless!

12 thoughts on “Is “Follow Your Bliss” B.S.?

  1. What a great post! And as a Duke Parent, I’m also happy that my son (who’s says his love of watches is an ‘enthusiasm’ and not a passion) will get this kind of advise from the career center!

  2. I agree with you that the word passion is intimidating, and overused. I have often found success with undecided students from a starting point of identifying what they don’t like, and then by process of elimination, generating a list of potential interest areas for them to explore.

  3. Yes! In fact I submitted a NACE ’15 proposal titled “The P Word: why pushing passion may be harming your students.”

    Funny that you and I don’t live in the same city any longer, but we are still thinking alike!

  4. Ross you raise some very interesting points, but I have to say i think you miss the point! Talking about what you want out of life and building a career from that IS, actually, your passion. I think where most people get unstuck with the word ‘passion’ is that they expect too much from it, and themselves. Good old Wikipedia says that passion is ‘a term applied to a very strong feeling about a person or thing. Passion is an intense emotion, compelling enthusiasm or desire for anything.’

    Passion does not limit you to one thing, you can share your passion between many different careers, people, things, or whatever. Like you, I have many interests – some wane and others come to the fore at different stages of my life. But underneath everything i do is a need to make a positive difference, to aim for excellence and better serve others. I didn’t know I could write, let alone had it as an interest, until I did my Arts degree as a mature aged student. I didn’t know I had a passion for career development until after I left my job as a government employee after 20 years, in which I had assisted people from all walks of life. What is exciting though, is when that spark of passion ignites and you can’t ignore it – I hope that everyone can have this opportunity at least once in their life.

    Passion is simply the wrong term for some people to use, as they feel it adds a level of responsibility, or that they should have a vocational attitude towards the work they are doing. Certainly this is neither healthy nor helpful. If you have to think that much about it, I would argue that it is more ego-driven than a deep inner connection. For most of us, developing a strong career ‘passion’ takes many years, if not a lifetime. It is the journey that is important, not the destination. I would further add that it is not unusual for young people to not be passionate about anything in particular, as they simply haven’t had enough life experiences to develop deep interests or passions. That is very OK and healthy, and as a career practitioner I would never make a student feel like having a passion is so important. What is important is knowing they how, what and why of their decision-making, and whether they are being guided by their own instincts and beliefs, or relegating their life choices to others.

    All this said, I suspect we are actually agreeing, and i wonder if this is more a debate around the semantics of the word passion than anything else. Feel free to ask your students to use words that mean something to them, and don’t let them get hung up on any particular terminology.

    All the best, and keep up the good work! You are obviously quite passionate about helping your students creating a great life for themselves.

    • Thanks so much, Julie. I agree that we actually do agree on this topic – ha! I especially liked “It is the journey that is important, not the destination.” – I’ve found that it is hard for students to understand this at such a young age. Thanks again.

  5. Thank you SO much, Ross, for saying what I have been feeling for so long! You are 100% on the money! I, like you, enjoy a LOT of things – but don’t really have a “passion” for any one in particular. I’m glad to hear there are others in our profession who are in the same boat!

  6. Great post! Passion does not have to come from vocation. But most of us are passionate about the lives we lead! I am also not a fan of the ‘do what you love’ philosophy. It just isn’t practical for everyone. But we can all do what we love, even if it is not the focal point of our careers. Many times careers and incomes are necessary to facilitate doing what we love and being where we want to be. I really enjoyed this post.

  7. The phrase “follow your bliss” was first popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Later in his career Campbell became concerned (and annoyed) that students were using the phrase to justify hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure.)

    Campbell is reported to have grumbled, “I should have said, ‘Follow your blisters.'”

  8. Ross, I wish I had seen this article earlier. I am at a faith-based school which I love but there is a lot of idealistic verbage that gets tossed around here that purports the myth that everyone is wired to have a particular kind of vocational experience. We’re just not all wired the same way though. I constantly find myself in this kind of conversation but you’ve given me some good material.

    What I typically talk about with students in this regard is using their areas of strength as a beginning point and we talk about what those are. Usually, I bring up that while some people are wired to be identified with a specific profession,others, like myself, are wired for the flexibility of the non-linear road.

    I’ve also found that job shadowing and corporate or organization visits are great for this group to see if they can imagine themselves within the culture of any given profession or organization. Thanks for the good thoughts Ross.

    Last but not least, the world needs some ditch-diggers. Do they need to be passionate about digging ditches?

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