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JOLIE: We can find passion, fulfillment in life outside of careers

Column: C'est Tout

A singular focus on corporate grind obscures our other interests where we can find meaning.  – Photo by Jason Goodman / Unsplash

"If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life." The cliche nature of this quote makes it hard to accredit it to a single person. Motivational speakers, high school counselors and celebrities alike have all said it one way or another.

The adage is presented as an antidote to the stinging poison of capitalism, a resolution to the rage that arises upon recognizing that we will have to work for the next several decades.

The logical reasoning of this statement is flawed, resting on the assumption that everyone loves something. The idea that everyone will blossom into individuals with passion is unfounded.

Julia Wuench expressed how people are, "in constant flux, and that means our passions are likely to be too." At one moment, we can take a liking to something — at another, we can feel indifferent about it. 

In her book, "The Trouble With Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality," sociologist Erin Cech challenges the "passion principle": the idea that you should pursue passion in your career before fair compensation or job security. 

History books do not tell us of an early America that attracted migrants with love-your-job rhetoric, but rather with a promise of stability. Jobs were seen as a medium for economic provision, not as identity markers that aligned with personal passions.

Even in the fight against women’s exclusion from the workforce, their argument was not that they were being blocked from pursuing their passion. Instead, this tenet of the Women’s Rights Movement was a pursuit of financial independence.

Whether it was providing for families or severing financial tethers to unwanted husbands, the benefits of compensation were the fulfilling aspects of employment.

The latter decades of the 20th century gave way to self-expression being the primary motivator for employment. The idea that careers could reflect our personalities became more alluring by the turn of the 21st century.

In his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle."

Ironically, the majority of global workers consist of those who are not entirely fulfilled by their respective jobs. Still, these people do great work by simply completing the tasks they were assigned. Effective work is not exclusively performed by passionate individuals.

Jobs’ choice to say this to an audience of college graduates showcases the privilege students have to opt for an area of study they can possibly enjoy. Even then, Jobs neglected the probable realities of some graduates that listened to his speech.

First-generation and low-income students, for instance, are likely more concerned about drawing a decent salary from their degrees. Higher education, for these students, is an opportunity that can alleviate economic hardship. In their case, passion is less important than payment.

America’s cultural zeitgeist is dominated by success stories that suggest sure-fire success follows the pursuit of passion. The fact that some do not have the social or economic stamina to invest in a passion — if they even have one — is conveniently forgotten.

Because work often consumes our lives, we are advised to make it worth our while by pursuing what interests us. Cech rejects this and tells readers that it is possible to live a happy, fulfilling life beyond their jobs. She says to "diversify your meaning-making portfolio."

It would do us well to re-adopt the "a job is a job" mentality as it provides room to perceive occupations as conduits to self-fulfillment. NPR's Ruth Tam says it like this: "Instead of drawing all your passion from one place, ask yourself: What are the things that excite me outside of paid employment?"

Tam’s question is incredibly useful for those who do not have a categorical passion. While some individuals do not feel strongly about a singular subject, they may have an easier time naming what excites them.

Maybe you are a person who wants to travel every year. Maybe you are a person who wants children in the future. Maybe you want to take care of your parents' health expenses. Maybe you want to frequently attend your favorite sports team's games. All of these are reasons, unrelated to passion, that can help you decide what career path is best for you.

This mindset makes individuals less susceptible to exploitation by their employers, too. Cech’s research found that many employers prefer to hire people who are passionate because they are more likely to "put in more work without demanding an increase in pay."

Though this cliche continues to land on the pages of self-help books and spoken into microphones at graduation ceremonies, it is better to prioritize what we want to accomplish by means of our work.

The workplace does not need to be the epicenter of our happiness. Choosing a career becomes easier when we recognize that self-fulfillment is not exclusive to our day jobs. C’est tout.

Faith Jolie is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in journalism and media studies and women's and gender studies. Her column, "C'est Tout," runs on alternate Mondays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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