Should You “Follow Your Passion”?

If you do it the right way, pursuing your interests can lead to success in your Masters studies and a fulfilling career.

Should You “Follow Your Passion”?

Follow your passion, find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life. Have you heard this advice? It sounds a bit like a fairy tale, with a “happily ever after” ending. As you know, fairy tales are different from real life.

Can you really find an occupation based on your personal interests that will keep you motivated and excited each day? Can “passion” help in deciding what subject to study for your Masters? And how do you know what your “passion” is, anyway?

A new book by performance expert Brad Stulberg and renowned running coach Steve Magness draws on psychological research to answer these questions. Stulberg and Magness conclude that passion can absolutely lead you to a fulfilling career, but it can also cause disappointment and burnout. The authors explain how to use passion to your advantage, and what issues to watch out for.

How do you know what your passion is?

What is your number one passion? This is a difficult question for many people, and it may be for you, too. Brad Stulberg shares in an interview that people can feel lost and confused because they do not have one activity or goal that they feel absolutely dedicated to. But, in fact, knowing your passion is not a requirement for success.

Stulberg draws a parallel between passion and romantic love. In romantic relationships, immediate attraction does not guarantee a successful long-term partnership. Love grows over time, and so does passion for an activity. If you expect to discover passion in an instant, you may be disappointed. The “happily ever after” ending does not arrive immediately – it takes work.

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Think about the activities you love doing – for example, videogames, social media, or a sport. Did you fall in love with them instantly? You need to spend countless hours before you can master a new videogame. Even social media takes practice, as you need to learn to take good photos that catch people’s attention, among many other skills. A sport, too, requires training, patience, and overcoming disappointment. Any activity takes time to grow into a real passion.

This lesson applies when picking a subject for your Masters degree. You do not need to restrict your choices and go something you are already passionate about. Instead, ask yourself what some of the things are that you find interesting and that you could become more deeply engaged with. If you “give things some time and space to unfold—that can lead to passion,” according to Stulberg. A Masters degree gives you the opportunity to do that.

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The two types of passion

After you have found a subject you want to master, further challenges lie ahead. There are in fact two kinds of passion: one that comes from curiosity and a love of learning, and another based on a hunger for recognition. It is important to not get them confused, according to Stulberg.

Usually, a passion develops because you find an activity engaging. For example, you may like cooking simply because you enjoy doing something creative for hours on end. This is genuine passion – you do something even though it is difficult because you love the process. However, as you get better at it, you may start to get external recognition. For example, you may win a competition, or your recipes may get featured in cooking blogs and magazines. Rather than enjoying your time in the kitchen, you may start to get more pleasure out of being rewarded for what you do. At this point, “passion transitions from excitement about a particular activity to excitement for some external result,” Stulberg explains.

The risk of burnout when you follow your passion

This kind of success carries risks. If what you are enjoying the most is not the actual activity but the recognition that comes with it, you may experience burnout, anxiety, and depression, according to Stulberg. That is because you have no control over external results – if you expect positive reinforcement all the time, you will be disappointed. If you find yourself craving validation such as sports medals, prizes, or social media likes, you should take a step back and remember that what you like is the activity itself, Stulberg advises.

A Masters programme is a highly demanding environment where you will often be evaluated. You will be applying for scholarships and internships, and your school will likely also have reward programmes, such as a prize for the best Masters thesis. While these goals are important, putting all your efforts towards them can become obsessive, Stulberg warns. The best approach to developing your passion is to focus on the process, rather than a certain outcome.

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If you are doing a lab experiment as part of your Masters, for example, tap into your curiosity and relish surprise results. Try to appreciate routine lab work with your professors and colleagues, as well. This is a better recipe for long-term success than striving to publish your research in a top journal at all costs. Stulberg advises to control your passion so that it doesn’t control you.

Your career and your passion don’t have to coincide

Overall, the best option in choosing a course of study and a career is to pick something you find interesting, even if you are not (yet) deeply passionate about it. Then, give it the time and attention needed. As you dive into the learning process, you are likely to develop a new passion. Rather than aiming to “do what you love”, simply “do what you do”, the Harvard Business Review suggests. Approaching your studies with diligence and curiosity can bring unexpected fulfilment.

It is also important to remember that your passions do not need to be linked to your work. You can cultivate them in extracurricular activities during your Masters and in hobbies you do outside of your job.  Having side interests can increase your creativity and effectiveness in your day-to-day work. With patience and an open mind, you can develop passions that bring you lasting success and job satisfaction.

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