How can you follow your passion if you don’t have a passion?

Remember Max, who wrote into MR asking for career advice?  Max’s situation now has been turned into an NPR Planet Money segment, link here.  There is audio at that link (very cleverly done) but here is part of their text:

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.


No passion for nothing?
What a boring life.
Send him to the forest or to a monastery to have more time to think.

Call it a passion for diverse life experiences if that suits you better. I'm sure the kid is passionate about a lot of activities. He just doesn't have one that eclipses the rest.

I still say Max is a douche ... he is smart enough to figure it out for himself, like the rest of us

There is almost nothing that I can do that I should do.

This whole post is some sort of anti-American satire. Shame, shame.

It is not anti-American satire, it is the proud sharing of what makes America great, in the eyes of those doing the sharing.

This effect is somewhat related to Poe's Law - 'Poe's law, named after its author Nathan Poe, is an Internet adage reflecting the idea that without a clear indication of the author's intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.'

Like the Guardian article describing increasing sales in bulletproof backpacks for kids, even as anything resembling effective laws dealing with the mass availability of firearms in America are not enacted. Which is taken by the gun owners as a sign of how America remains a free society, though one under the constant threat that weapons will not be available at any time, in any quantity, to anyone that needs to pull a trigger for reasons the person doing the shooting considers necessary.

>even as anything resembling effective laws dealing with the mass availability of firearms in America are not enacted.

Is this bad? If so, where's the evidence?

'Is this bad? If so, where’s the evidence?'


The majority of the times a firearm involved in a fatality in the U.S, it involves the person pulling the trigger killing themselves.

And regardless of what one thinks about both the necessity of firearm ownership or the right to kill one's self, the fact remains that many avoidable deaths are caused by those in possession a firearm. Of course, some people will be successful in killing themselves regardless of method used, and there are clearly both cultural (Japan comes to mind) and possibly geographic (the Nordic countries have a notably higher rate of suicide) differences.

Interestingly, leaving aside even Australia's example, within the U.S., the effects of laws concerning weapon possession seem to make a notable difference not only in the number of people killing themselves with firearms, but also in the rate of suicide, concrete examples being both NYC and NJ, with what is considered the strictest laws in the U.S. concerning firearm possession.

Why such people, representing the majority of those who die from firearms in the U.S., are considered unimportant is beyond me.

My dad's Great Depression stories were strong enough (at least to my personality type) that my motivation was not to fail, to be ready for hard times. They say that most in my generation were shielded from that, given comforts, which led them to be a bit more spiritual and passionate. Perhaps "passion" advice is wrong for the age?

I think it was a passion for things that someone will pay you for doing them. I have a passion for drinking beer, for instance, but I have had a hard time turning that into a career.

You should follow the example shown in the movie 'Flashdance'.

In that movie, the heroine had a passion for dance. But she had a job as a welder. In the end, we are led to believe her passion paid off but we shouldn't forget that when the dancing comes to an end due to age or injury, she'll still know how to weld.

The moral of the story is, find a job that will pay for your passion. If you passion starts to pay off, take advantage of it while you can.

What does education do again?

Pad Tyler_Cowen's pension.

Give you ideas for doing something other than what your parents did. Great for poor people, I guess, but pretty silly for the middle class.

Depends on the kind of education.

A good portion of it, especially at higher levels in non-STEM fields, is to medicate and reduce freedom of thought. There are advantages to this. One is ring-knocking, another is not rocking the boat, there excellent preparation for cube dwelling and let's not forget, exposing those without the discipline for independent study and reading to a wider world.

It's a tough question. I faced basically the same thing after undergrad, and my conclusion was to persue something general that could lead to a relatively wide variety of employment opportunities down the line.

It's worked out pretty well, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this "generalist" approach. I did Statistics, but other stuff (engineering, physics, applied math, etc.) would offer similar opportunities.

What are you doing now? I've gone into Statistics for essentially the same reason.

My wife left her chemistry Ph.D program with a masters and switched to an MS in statistics because she realized that she didn't want to spend her life in a lab and that statistics would give her the most additional career paths with the fewest years of additional education.

Why are you sending him to Asia and not North Dakota? (Not like I don't already know the tacit answer).

Because in the long term being a producer of commodity natural resources is inferior to being someone who applies creative energy to those resources and turns them to something useful.

I doubt Max would be out there digging holes in North Dakota shale. He could work in marketing for an exploration company, for example. He could pursue Six Sigma credentials while working hands on in process improvement to boost efficiency.

He could start his own food truck, or chalupa stand, or daycare service, to cater to the legions of workers already there.

Rural America is a fine recommendation for the proles:

but perhaps a little too blue collar for recent college grads.

Nobody sent him anywhere... they only asked if he had thought about working in Asia.

It's a good question -- the answer indicates how willing a person is to leave everything behind and immerse themselves in a foreign culture.

So, "Africa" would have been a better choice, yes?

How is that different from moving to North Dakota?

My passion turned out to be corporate finance. Perhaps I should work in corporate finance rather than writing my dissertation about it.

Feel like I've always been in a similar position than Max, which is why I got an econ degree.

My advice to him would be to go out and get some new unique experiences. Maybe he just doesn't have enough information to work from in terms of determining his interests. Passion can be overrated and leads to too many bad starving writers and artists.

What if your passion is women, whiskey, and cocaine?

Then shoot for (ahem) becoming a drug lord a la Tony Montana although the risks are somewhat high. Rational expectations about the returns to risk would lead one to conclude that a life of hookers and blow can be very very rewarding.

Did you raise that issue with the economists when you had lunch with them? What was their advice?

Hedge fund manager.

Then you're Charlie Sheen

When I faced the question of passion decades ago, I decided to keep the passion (music) as a hobby because I figured that if I had to do it for work I'd lose my passion for it anyway and it wouldn't pay well. I'm still very happy with that decision and I still love music. In fact, I've probably been able to do more with music (including writing, recording, and producing two albums/CDs) because I could afford it because I worked at something that I was less passionate about that made decent money.

What does Asia have to do with anything? Are there better opportunities for Americans there?

This is an absolutely idiotic advice. Sounds like something a sect would come up with.

I have to say, postings like this makes me think about unsubscribing.

Go get your money back , I say.

Most people work for money.

This tells me that economists are pretty useless.

Some more questions I would suggest:
1) what could you do that few others could do well?
2) what could you do that others would find too boring, that doesn't satisfy others' need for passion-fulfillment?
3) what could you do that SEEMS unfulfilling in the abstract to prospective entrants, but might actually be much more interesting in practice?
4) for your answers to the above, which are highly valued and highly compensated, AND which would still leave you with free time to pursue non-remunerative passions (or at least interests)?

The most important of these is #3. Use this as a barrier to entry; jiu-jitsu your lack of passion in any particular career into a competitive advantage over those whose passion locks them into narrow vocational pathways. Things that seem pretty dry in the abstract, or as relayed to you in academia, actually become much more interesting when they are done at a high level and when real interests are at stake. Tax law classes were the most boring classes in law school, but in real life it can be very interesting and hugely important to peoples' lives. Bonus: you get oracle treatment when you understand things that most people can't and don't want to understand.

+1000 You basically have it exactly right.

So basically, you think he should be an actuary.

That would be in the running if he has the math skills. I wonder if that's more interesting than most people think; it would almost have to be. It could be really interesting: puzzle-solving with huge consequences. But I don't know; I would check with a couple actual actuaries & see what they say.

Hey, that's a low blow.

Wasn't intended that way. Actuaries are well-compensated (#4), do work that is generally considered boring (#2), requires technical skills that most folks don't possess (#1) and is (possibly) more interesting than most folks give it credit for (#3). I think it fits Bjartur's description perfectly.

In surveys I've seen, it's right up there next to "statistician" at the top of job satisfaction rankings. If you pass enough tests, you can easily get into six digits, and that's even living in places with relatively low costs of living. From what I understand, it's a pretty standard 9-to-5 schedule.... As long as you don't find the work mind-bogglingly boring, it sounds like a great gig. In an alternative reality, I could easily seem myself in that gig and enjoying it. That or engineering of some kind.

As a "seasoned" actuary, as one of my clients recently put it, I can testify that it is not a 9-5 job. I have worked plenty of nights and weekends in my career. Furthermore, it could be boring if you consider tax work boring, but it is filled with intellectual puzzles and challenges, combining finance, economics, demographics and statistics. Over a long consulting career, I have worked to educate and explain complicated concepts to my clients, so they can make decisions without having to be an expert in the field, so add teacher to the range of skills. Incidentally, almost all of my clients have been a pleasure to work with.

I think you really underestimate how much "sexiness" (i.e. the appeal of your job to other people) matters in the world.

Fifu, you could very well be right; it doesn't matter much to me, so I really didn't even think about that. (So maybe there's an upside to a touch of solipsism if you don't feel passionate about any professions? Or maybe they tend to be correlated?) Not caring about the sexiness of the career worked out well for me.

For what it's worth, I thought this video offers a decent high-level process for individuals to address the "passion" issue. He brings up interesting points, including whether there's a market for your passion, and (as Bret mentioned above) if you really want your passion to be your job.

The answer would seem to be to cultivate an Unpopular Passion.

It's interesting that this question essentially asks economics to stand on its head: economics and particularly micro has generally be conceived as a study of what people are doing -- not a coaching science that can help people figure out what to to do within the economic sphere.

Personally I don't see that Max has a serious problem -- being a generalist is a much more flexible and secure approach; I'd even say it's one of the reason's humans have been so successful. Max is likely going to have a long life and has no reason to think he will be retiring in 35 or 40 years -- more likely he will be able to keep working into his 70s physically. He will have the opportunity to have several careers.

The only real problem Max may have is inaction if he's waiting to find that "one thing" to do for his life (but how boring will doing ONE thing be). Take Tyler as an example -- he is an economist and has been since he was quite young as I understand. He does apply economics to a number of interesting areas but I would hope that his interests and knowledge of foods and cuisines, art, culture and history are not merely "economic thought" in content. I don't see that he's that strong an example of a pure specialist.

My experience as a life and leadership development coach informs me that looking far into the future is probably a good way to handle this situation, so I liked the What does 50 year old Max want? question the best. One useful exercise is to imagine yourself at your funeral. Friends and family stand up to say a few words about who you were and the kind of impact you had on them and the world at large. What do you most want them to say?

[If the funeral setting is too morbid or otherwise off-putting, you can make the setting a retirement party or a family reunion far into the future]

The point is to get clear about the values the person holds most dear, to identify they kind of person they want to become and the impact they want to have on others. As that vision gets more clear, they've now got a target to aim for.

Through this approach, many people come to see that they can be who they want to be in hundreds and hundreds of different jobs and that they can start right now (they don't need to wait for job X before their life really gets started). At the same time, this clearer sense of mission or purpose makes it easier to evaluate which types of jobs/lifestyles may very well suit their values as they wish to express them, to evaluate which jobs will offer an environment especially conducive to being the kind of person they want to be.

Over time their future-self vision will likely change as they grow and learn. But threads of it will probably stay intact throughout their lives, though their perspectives on how to live them may change quite a bit.

By the way, I'm speaking from personal anecdotal experience as well as beliefs passed on to me from others. I have zero direct data to back up my point of view! That said, I think it is plausible that some of the happiness studies data tangently supports my view. If meaning, engagement and pleasure are the three primary elements of happiness/fulfillment, then I think the kind of future-self visioning I'm talking about speak directly to the meaning portion, to what really matters to the person in question. It usually also touches upon the engagement quite a bit too.

Okay, end of bloviation.

I think some people are born with a calling, others have one instilled by some childhood experience, while some have to search well into adulthood all the while wondering if it will ever happen. My advice would be to pick any vocation, monitor how others perceive you and how you feel about your work, and make changes that you think look interesting whenever the opportunities arise. Life is a journey and not everyone is marching through the same packaged tour-- take advantage of and by all means enjoy your freedom to explore. BTW I'm 50 and still searching.

I was and in some ways still am Max. BS in physics and English lit from well regarded liberal arts school, 2 years teaching in Japan, returned to the States and ... what? I described the problem as "some people seem to have Dreams with Uniforms: doctor, police, lawyer (yeah yeah not exactly but you get it). I never had that. My ideal job is definable in abstract characteristics such as "Can influence high value outcomes" and "is given latitude to solve an issue in creative ways - is not micromanaged on how to execute" and "has stable income and benefits with metric A for growth and B for dollar amount"

My advice would be:

1) identify the abstract characteristics you want, but it may be too early yet for that, so get quality experience in a field

2) To get quality experience, find the right organization. Find either a high quality firm in a high growth field or a high quality firm with very broad reach. Get in the door. Don't be too worried about initial roles or even initial compensation within reason. Learn that business. The growth rate or the broad reach of the firm will allow you to find a role you like by snaking through the organization. Big firms have legal, IT, product offerings, marketing, sales, relationship management/accounts, etc etc. There is tremendous diversity inherent in a large well run firm. The growth rate of some sectors creates constant opportunities to similarly define yourself. The key here is that your value comes form the combination of your knowledge of the business and the application of the generalist mindset. Can you direct tech segments to better understand consumers? Vice versa?

It seems kind of insane to me the way that people seem to treat job titles as the most salient feature of what you want to be doing. In the right organization you can carve out your own career. Most people do, really, regardless of what they say to themselves about their dream jobs.

Maybe Max should make Game his passion and read himself some Roissy.

No one should ever do that.

My passion is trolling commenters Don Boudreaux style on mainstream news websites. Nobody will pay me for this, however.

That's all it takes to get lunch with Tyler? If there were a charity auction, I'd bid a grand for lunch with Tyler. More if he threw in Alex too. Caplan and Jones would be zero marginal product lunchers; I wouldn't cough up any extra for them.

The reality is that most people aren't passionate about anything. And if they are, they are passionate about the prestige, outsized paycheck, and other benefits that accompany an endeavor, as opposed to an endeavor itself.

Of the people I've met who are truly passionate about their work, they often have an same array of attributes that aren't so readily mentioned in Oprah-style graduation speeches, such as:
- they are overwhelmingly male.
- they tend to be inattentive or unfaithful spouses.
- they view having children as an annoyance.
- they often live in a bubble.
- they can be enormous a**holes.

That's reality of truly passionate people that isn't as readily discussed. Steve Jobs would be the epitome of this.

That's going to hurt their self-esteem.

To my mind, the principle governing advice about career ought to be something like this: never ask for advice about WHO to marry, never ask for advice about WHAT to do for a career, those are things one absolutely must choose for oneself. If you don't, then both the good and bad will be laid to someone else, and you will probably never discover what you are capable of first-hand, and that, it seems to me, is the material point in both. Pestering anyone about the how is apt.

made me think of Office Space:

Let's assume you discover a satisfactory answer at some point. I'm guessing you probably will. Age will change your perspectives a lot. You should inquire into the stories of those who have made voluntary - or even involuntary - radical career changes or lifestyle shifts. That's what discovering your passion will be like for you. Ask those people what they wished they would have had at their inflection points. Ask them their advice.

In general, at your point, you would want to be ideally, or at least adequately, positioned to pursue your passion. Having more money at that point is also preferential to having less money. People usually answer the question of, "What would you do if you won the lottery?" (or "What are you going to do after retirement?") in the form equivalent to, "I would pursue my passion."

And, besides money, you will want to build up capital of other types. First, general reputational capital - to be seen as someone who is a multi-talented person of good character; reliable and diligent and a good leader. Second, you will want to develop yourself in terms of knowledge, competence, and maturity. Having these "stockpiles" are almost always worth the investment and sacrifice / opportunity costs.

So, how important is option value for you?

Or, perhaps I should say "meta-option value". Option value is the value of preserving one's ability to control an asset, even if one might never execute that control. Meta-option value is the value of preserving the possession of options themselves.

Finally, you should do some reasonable low-risk, low-cost things that are, nevertheless, usually experiences whose full enjoyment / memory-value are restricted to your youth. Not having major regrets about not doing the things you could have when you were able will turn out to be, if not your positive "passion", then perhaps an inoculation against some negative anguish over disappointment.

I am a highly educated person. I'm in a conundrum because people would normally associate someone like me with high status occupations. But I find more meaning in lower paid and lower skilled work. Is it bad to follow passions that would lead me to be, for example, a housekeeper, when I have attended expensive colleges and graduate schools?

Max fits nicely into the 3-factor categorization of humans I have developed: Tyrants, Tools and Turds. Max is a Turd, which means he's not even good enough to be a Tool.

Tant Pis, Max!

It seems to me that this is mostly about the worry that Max has that he will regret his decision on what course of action to take sometime in the future (why didn't I go into finance or study art or whatever).

Daniel Gilbert makes the point in Stumbling on Happiness that humans are not very good at predicting what will make them happy. Also humans are very good at convincing themselves that the situation they are in is actually a good one, the classic example being the double amputee who says that he is very happy and wouldn't change his life. A good summary here;

Of all the pop psychology books in recent years this one is actually the most useful. You can take this nihilistically of course, but there is a more positive message in that you don't need to sweat the choices you are making, either on your career, money or dating/spouse. Just make the choice that seems best at the time and move on. So Max should look at the various options available to him right now, and then chose the one that seems best to him with his present knowledge and set of preferences, without worrying about his future self second guessing him.

Very good link ; thanks.

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Are you listening?


"Passion" is the wrong word. The correct word is "flow." Max needs to find what kind of work he likes doing for hours on end. For some people it's writing code, or building complex spreadsheets. For others it's making friends and persuasion (i.e. sales). Once you discover those things, there are a whole range of industries they can be applied to.

Sbard's comment above is illustrative. His wife dropped chemistry because she doesn't get flow from working in a lab, but she does get it from teasing out statistics. Statistics and lab work are both applicable in a broad range of industries, but if you don't like the work then you will be very unhappy.

This is what I wish I'd known when I was Max's age.

My kids are interesting examples of this.

Son: played ridiculous number of video games in college. Studied printing and related stuff at Cal Poly (one of the best places in the world) and marketing (and history, did a double major). Is a project manager in a video game company. So much for my advice that "playing all those video games will never lead to anything."

Daughter: studied biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz. Helped put herself through college by working in a wine bar. Decided to self-educate and put herself through somelier certicification. Is manager of one of the hottest bars in San Francisco. on-track to be national beverage manager for a small but upmarket chain of restaurant/bars.

So neither of my kids really used their education either directly and only minorly as signalling. They ended up doing what they were actually interested in. Especially in my daughter's case. How do I know? She moved to open a new restaurant with a couple of units left to complete so she doesn't have a degree. But nobody cares. Maybe she'll go back one day, but she is advancing so fast that probably not.

Max is asking the wrong question. My suggestion is to read this book.

Despite my slacker ways, things have worked out reasonably well for me, but I wish I had come across this when I was 20.

Heh. Most of us work to get paid, and do things we like when not at work. Granted, my job isn't a bad one - sometimes I actually enjoy it! That's nice, but in the end, there's a reason people are paid to work.

Some folks have a clear idea of what they want to do for a living at an early age, and that's great. Many of us, however, do not. I found myself a job with a good pain-to-pay ratio, and stuck with it. Some people need to follow "passion" or meaning or whatever. And that's fine. For others, telling them to follow their passion is stupid, counter-productive advice.

Hello! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could locate a
captcha plugin for my comment form? I'm using the same blog platform as yours and I'm having problems finding one?
Thanks a lot!

Comments for this post are closed