Woman walking to work looking back

Dream jobs don't always pay the bills

Why “pursue your passion” is the worst career advice for young adults

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Woman walking to work looking back

When students are in their final year of secondary school, it is not uncommon that they agonise over career decisions and turn to parents, siblings, teachers and career counsellors for advice.

Desperate to do the right thing, trusted advisors will tell students: “Do what you love and you will never work another day in your life.”

As it turns out, there is a growing school of thought that this advice is exactly the wrong message to give young, impressionable people.

Start with your own reality check.

How many of us turned out to be the football legend we thought we would be when our passion for the game emerged in primary school? Who among us became the international fashion designer we promised ourselves to become when we left university? And who actually managed to turn their multiple appearances in school plays into a highly paid-acting career?

A mere handful of us.

For every person who is able to combine passion with a profession, there are another 10 who do not come anywhere close.

Yet we persist in metering out “do what you love” advice along with its cliched cousins “pursue your passion” and “follow your dreams” to the younger generation as if it is the only way to get ahead in the world.

The pressure to choose

As students approach the end of their school days they are faced with difficult career decisions.

With so many job options as well as myriad university degrees and technical and further education (TAFE) pathways to choose from, young adults can easily become overwhelmed.

Telling young adults to choose a job based on their passion can set unrealistic career expectations.

It is the type of career advice that gives false hope to those who find themselves feeling disheartened when they take on a job they might enjoy, or be content with, but do not love.

One of the biggest problems with such advice is that many young adults have not identified their passion.

In fact, most are not able to do so until much later in life after having a broader range of life and career experiences.

It is also the case that just because we are passionate about something does not mean we are good at it.

To makes matter worse, young people often incorrectly interpret the advice to follow their passion.

Passion can develop from doing something well – from gaining expertise. This is often confused with doing something well because we have a passion for it.

If this does not convince you that telling a young person to follow their dreams has inherent flaws, consider the reality that once you shift your life’s passion into a job it becomes just that – a job.

As many adults have discovered, doing something to pay the bills can very quickly take the lustre out of even the most deeply entrenched passions.

In addition, the advice neglects the fact many adults end up having multiple passions.

An enthusiastic young adult might have 15 different things they love. Limiting life pursuits to just one passion could result in a narrow outlook on life.

We should not neglect, too, that even if young people are able to do the impossible and identify their passions early on in life, these will most likely change over time.

Young people misled by the advice offered run the risk of pigeon-holing themselves into interests they may no longer have and cutting themselves off from opportunities that do not match their original passion.

While well-intentioned, our advice has fuelled a generation of young people who are unsettled, suffer from career confusion and move from one job to the next in search of that elusive dream vocation.

There are even some who are so overwhelmed with indecision that they find it difficult to get started at all.

Sound advice

All of this raises an important question: if we do not tell young adults to follow their dreams, what do we tell them?

Perhaps the best advice to any young adult is to encourage them to find a role they are reasonably good at, content to do for around 40 hours a week and consider to be meaningful.

And even though it might be hard for young adults to stomach, add to the advice that it is probably best for them to save their passions for outside of work.

After all, the minute you rely on your passion to pay the bills, that passion will become a chore.