I Know I'm Supposed To Follow My Passion. But What If I Don't Have A Passion?

May 9, 2013
Originally published on May 9, 2013 8:47 am

A while back, Max Kornblith sent the following email to Tyler Cowen, an economist who blogs at Marginal Revolution:

1) As a fairly recent graduate of an Ivy League institution (with a bachelor's degree), most of my classmates seemed to have some idea that career and life path choice should be driven by a "passion" such that the right choice is self-evident to the chooser. What does this belief mean to you as a social scientist? ...

For question two, then, you may sense where this is going ...

2) Assume I have no such passion. Furthermore, I am a fairly well-qualified young generalist.* What paths should most appeal to me if my goal is to maximize doing "interesting" work? Doing meaningful work? Achieving social status? (Which of these goals should be primary?) Need I try to develop a passion before selecting a life path/career, and if so, how do I do it?

All the best, Max

*Two years out with a BA from an Ivy League school. Top 10 percent of the class but not an academic rock star. A record of primarily reading/writing-intensive courses, as well as basic to intermediate economics, calculus, statistics, a proofs course. Time spent abroad in study and travel, though no foreign language fluency. Two years in the private sector with a decent amount of analytic and management experience, but without a big name behind it.

"Max has me stumped," Tyler Cowen wrote recently on his blog.

The fact that Max and other young college graduates can even entertain this question — "What is my passion?" — is a new conundrum, and still a luxury not everybody enjoys. Yet, Tyler recently told me, it is "a central question of our time."

So what's the best, most rational answer for Max? It seems like economics could help; after all, it's about costs and benefits and modeling complicated decisions.

But, Tyler says, "it was a truly difficult, tough question to make any progress on."

Months passed. Tyler felt guilty. So he invited Max to lunch, and brought along two other economists — Bryan Caplan and Garett Jones — for backup. The economists posed questions to help Max frame the issue:

  • How much are you willing to suffer in the short run to get a better future?
  • Have you ever considered working in Asia?
  • How important will it be to spend X number of hours with your kids? And what is that X?
  • How well do you understand your own defects?
  • What does 50-year-old Max want?
  • Can your community be a cyber community, or do you need to have a face-to-face community?

In the end, the three economists did not advise Max to pursue some particular career path. They didn't even give very specific advice. But they did all agree that Max's lack of a passion could work to his advantage. Pursuing a passion — especially if it's a popular passion — often doesn't pay very well.

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And our next story is about a young man facing a question that almost everyone faces at some point: What am I going to do with myself? This particular young man tried a novel way to answer the question. Here's Chana Joffe-Walt of NPR's Planet Money team.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: There's a classic response to the classic question - follow your passion, a response commencement speakers will be repeating again and again this month, just as they did last year and the year before.

ELLEN DEGENERES: Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else's path...

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: You are free to pursue your dreams.

OPRAH WINFREY: If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everybody has one.

JOFFE-WALT: Ellen DeGeneres, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Oprah Winfrey.

Max Kornblith - like every other young American - has heard this message again and again. And every time he hears it, a voice in his head screams: What if you don't have a passion? Other kids, his friends, peers at college, never seem to have this problem:

MAX KORNBLITH: I knew kids who had their one thing. And had already found it, right?

JOFFE-WALT: Were you one of those kid?

KORNBLITH: I was not one of those kids. I did not have my - I still don't have my thing.

JOFFE-WALT: Max is smart guy, interested in lots of different things. He's well educated. So how to decide what career to pursue? Without passion to organize this choice, Max felt like he needed some other metrics. And he turned to economics. Specifically one economist who writes a blog Max likes, Tyler Cowen of George Mason University.

KORNBLITH: I wrote him, basically, a question that said: Hey, Tyler. Here's the situation I'm in. I don't have a passion. Should I be trying to find a passion. Or if not, what should I be trying to optimize? Need I try to develop a passion before selecting a life path or career? And if so, how do I do that? All the best, Max.

TYLER COWEN: And I thought this is really truly literally a central question of our time.

JOFFE-WALT: Tyler Cowen found this question exciting, because, he says, it's a very new conundrum. The fact that Max and so many other young college graduates can even entertain the question - what is my passion - could choose their careers at all. That's the result of years of industrialization and a country becoming more and more productive.

So now that we live in that reality, what's the best, most rational way to make this very common choice? Economics seems like it could help. It's all about costs and benefits, modeling complicated decisions.

But Tyler sat down to think about it.

COWEN: And I found it was very hard to give him a good answer. It was a truly difficult, tough question to make any progress on. And months passed and I felt guilty.

JOFFE-WALT: Because he had no answer. Tyler invited Max to lunch to meet him in person - he thought that might help.

COWEN: Hello, you must be Max.

KORNBLITH: Hey.

COWEN: Hi there.

JOFFE-WALT: Tyler brought two other economists with him, Bryan Caplan and Garett Jones as, sort of, backup.

So there was Max Kornblith enjoying crispy duck and Thai eggplant, while a panel of economists attacked his question: What do I do with my life? And they all seemed sure they could come up with a rational, smart approach to the question, if they could just get the right data set out of Max.

COWEN: How much are you willing to suffer in the short run to get a better future. Have you ever considered working in Asia? Say Singapore, Tokyo - yes or no?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How important is it to spend X number of hours a week with your kid. And what is that X.

COWEN: How well do you understand you own defects.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What does 50-year-old Max want?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Can your community be a cyber community or do you need to have face to face community?

JOFFE-WALT: Without a passion, the economists needed some way to measure Max's preferences. If what Max wanted was to maximize his earning potential, they told him, he should go into corporate finance. If he wanted to maximize the benefit to the world, maybe he should do the same thing - make a lot of money and then give it all away.

In the end, the three economists did not advise Max to pursue some particular career path. They didn't even give very specific advice. But they did all agree that Max's lack of a passion could actually work to his advantage. Pursuing a passion - especially if it's a popular passion - often doesn't pay well. Max, at the very least they told him, will not have that problem.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DID YOU EVER HAVE TO MAKE UP YOUR MIND")

THE LOVIN' SPOONFUL: (Singing) Did you ever have to make up your mind Pick up on one and leave the other behind? It's not often easy and not often kind. Did you ever have to make up your mind? Did you ever have to finally decide? Say yes to one and let the other one ride. There're so many changes and tears you must hide. Did you ever have to finally decide...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.