You Don’t Have to Find Your Passion to Have a Fulfilling Career

Image courtesy of Jordan Grace Owens


“If I’m good at _____ and passionate about _____ what career should I have, how does it pay and where do I apply?” 

I typed a version of this into my browser, grateful that no one could see me. I was awake in the dark hours when birds start chirping on the wrong side of the morning. My heart was anxiously beating faster than the cursor blinking in the search bar. Job inventories, career searches, and personality profiles had my head spinning. If the interwebs didn’t offer any ideas about what I could do next, I wouldn’t find the job I was looking for, and I would waste my one wild and precious life.

Sounds dramatic. It was dramatic. A full-time job means that we spend roughly 25% of our week away from home and hobbies. I wanted that ¼ of the pie to be satisfying. So what does it take to find a meaningful career? Do we need to find (and monetize) our passion so that work doesn’t ruin our lives?

Words on Passion and Work

For the purpose of this conversation, I’m speaking of “work” in a “job” or “career” in the context where jobs are available—sometimes even enjoyable–but their main purpose is to pay the bills. This is a first-world perspective. Employment is a privilege. “Passion” here signifies the things that feed our souls and make us come alive. “Leisure” is used to describe time where we can choose to engage in worthy and enjoyable pursuits.

Make no mistake: when passion and professional life intersect, sparks fly. The worker, the work, and the world are changed when someone cares about their craft. However,  you can achieve inspiration and purpose even when you don’t apply your deepest convictions to your 9-5. 

Work is not play and that’s ok

We don’t usually bring up Aristotle when we’re talking about the daily grind, but he has some words about this. He says that both work and leisure are good, but makes the distinction that leisure is intrinsically good – “to be loved for its own sake.” Work has extrinsic value and is good because of what it can do for us.

Aristotle is here to help us relax in our quest for supremely satisfying day jobs that fit so well that “you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” As Dear Old Dad says, “some days, work is just work.” Work isn’t meant to be play, and even the greatest job will be frustrating at times. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.


It helps to know why we’re working. If you want to use your skills to benefit a field or a cause, find that community and ask questions about how it looks in real life. If it’s really your greatest goal to keep up with the Joneses (who are inevitably filtering reality out of their Instagram photos, but have hard days at work just like you), then name your price, note the sacrifices, and work accordingly. Recognize what motivates you, and be patient with the process: favorable work conditions don’t happen right away.

I stayed up entirely too late another night (this time feeling inspiration instead of anxiety) swept up in this story. The Dream Manager is a “business parable” about a custodial company that engaged employees by asking them to think about the personal dreams their work was funding. Employees didn’t show up because they loved cleaning toilets. Instead, they wanted to send the first generation of their family to college, own a home, or take a vacation they never imagined they could afford.

Make something grow in that fertilizer

Not to sound like Psychotherapist Pollyanna, but when work is the worst, we have a chance to practice cognitive reframing. (Don’t stay in a horrible work situation. I’m talking about using this mental tool in those tiresome moments that are a part of any life.) Reframe your thoughts about a negative situation and identify a redeemable aspect or quality. This kind of awareness helps us to understand our skills and priorities, showcase our ability to do a job without grumbling, and celebrate hard work and appropriate boundaries. #PollyannaOut

Example: “I was thrown this last-minute deadline because somebody else made a mistake. That doesn’t make me a victim. If I re-work my schedule and finish the task, I can give honest feedback later. The right person needs to know that taking on this matter will keep me from finishing another important task on time.”

Cramming our passions where they might not fit

We can identify our passions and make time for them without feeling the pressure to fit them into a profession. Bertrand Russell wrote about the ways that we “are cut off from many of the best things” when we limit leisure and cram too much into the “cult of efficiency.”

As often as we have heard the call to “follow your bliss,” there are plenty of opinions to the contrary:

Why You Shouldn’t Follow Your Passion

The Many, Many Problems With “Follow Your Passion”

Do Like Steve Jobs Did: Don’t Follow Your Passion

The Secrets to Career Contentment: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Sometimes, your deeply rooted preoccupations don’t come with enough of a paycheck. We may do what we love for the sake of something else and realize it’s no longer lovable. Maybe the work that you love doesn’t capitalize on your greatest skills, or it goes beyond one single activity or job.

“The issue here is, once again, expectations. If you think you’re supposed to be working 70-hour work weeks and sleeping in your office like Steve Jobs and loving every second of it, you’ve been watching too many shitty movies. If you think you’re supposed to wake up every single day dancing out of your pajamas because you get to go to work, then you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid. Life doesn’t work like that. It’s just unrealistic. There’s a thing most of us need called balance.” – Mark Manson

Pay attention

Take the moments where you can be mindfully aware of where you are, how you feel, and what you need. Use that information to live a well-examined life. You can pursue what you need: the inspiration to go after that risky dream job, perseverance to pay the bills, or feedback about how you are contributing.

wd_contributor_headshots3Tala Ciatti, M.Ed, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor with a natural fascination in people and professional experience in the treatment of children and families, maternal wellness, mindfulness, trauma, human development, grief and loss, and cognitive behavioral therapies. She currently lives in the Minneapolis metro area with her husband and infant son, who patiently serve as her primary audience for musings on mental health in the modern world.