“You have to follow your heart and know that you can do whatever you want in life,” Nels, a free-lance graphic designer tells me. “I’m trying to convince my kids that you don’t have to pick a job… You can create a life.”
Nels loves his work, but he is open to change. When I ask him what his professional goals are, he answers, “I don’t know what’s next. I could end up in another completely different industry. Whatever I end up in next, if there’s a next, it’s going to be with the same passion.”
Nels believes that he has power over his career path, freedom in an undetermined future, and clarity in prioritizing work that he loves. These beliefs represent an ideology of work that I’ve coined the passion paradigm.
I study how professionals experience work, including their expectations and beliefs about work which allow them to thrive in, cope with, and/or construct their work lives. In precarious times, defined by high volatility, insecurity, and risk, these questions are particularly salient.
My conversation with Nels is part of my recent study of work ideology with engineers, graphic designers, and nurses. While I expected to describe differences between respondents across occupation, gender, and degrees of precarity, what I found was a broad ideology of work.
Though there is nuance that is important for future research to explore, I found overwhelming belief in the passion paradigm. The majority (77%) believe that passion should be prioritized above talent or high pay. In addition, 92% believe that college educated individuals should be passionate about their work. This belief is supported by another that college graduates can achieve work that they love. It may require introspection, time, risk, or courage, but 87% of respondents believe professionals have the power to do it. Even more staggering, 78% of respondents believe that everyone can do what they love, regardless of education.
I argue that the passion paradigm enables adherents to perceive power over their lives.
The implications of adherence to the passion paradigm are both good and bad. And they have perhaps never been more important: Almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic in which the experience of work has undergone remarkable upheaval, analyzing the passion paradigm is critical for understanding its relationship to sustaining or exploiting a mutable and weary workforce.
The study of work passion
I am not the first to argue that an ideology prioritizing the intrinsic reward of loving one’s work can be bad for workers. In fact, we know that organizations and individuals leverage the concept of passion to help justify or reframe the negative effects of precarity in their industries or roles.
We also know that the individual experience of work passion can have unequal and contradictory effects, but we do not fully understand why. This is because we know surprisingly little about what work passion means to professionals and how the passion paradigm works in practice.
Contemporary professionals are supposed to manage non-linear career paths as a “business of one.” I find that the passion paradigm provides them with a work ethic that is just as flexible and individualistic.
What is work passion?
Work passion is a concept referring to an emotional experience (“I feel passion for my work”) or identity (“I am a passionate worker”). The passion paradigm is an ideology referring to the patterned and coherent beliefs about work passion.
The flexibility of the passion paradigm results in part from the dynamic definition of work passion. The professionals in my study described work passion as attraction, enjoyment, motivation, and perseverance. In practice, these distinct but related characteristics fluctuate like a pulley system to best accommodate the context.
What is the passion paradigm?
The passion paradigm prioritizes the pursuit of work passion as a rational act of self-care. It follows the logic that full-time work takes up a large portion of life and that work absent of enjoyment is an egregious and unnecessary sacrifice.
Adherents believe that work problems are solved by turning inward to understand one’s circumstances, needs, and capabilities—and taking individual action. The passion paradigm elevates self-knowledge as a primary route to happiness, rendering work dissatisfaction as a matter of individual–institution mismatch or individual failure, rather than structural failure.
The key is its insistence that everyone has the power to achieve work passion.
Adherents work hard and work well as a self-imposed practice of self-respect. The passion paradigm, then, is about loyalty to one’s self.
Why does it work?
The passion paradigm works in an uncertain economy because it serves both individuals and institutions.
It serves individuals because it allows them to follow their emotions and imagine work as a malleable activity over which they have some control. It promotes the notion that work passion is subjective, personal, and non-communal—just like love for another person. It enables individuals to feel optimistic about an unpredictable future by normalizing trial and error.
But, like other hegemonic ideologies of work, the passion paradigm also works because it serves institutions of work. Adherence results in a self-regulated workforce that shoulders the risk and emotional labor of job crafting, perspective shifting, and career changing. While adherents narrowly focus on identifying and capitalizing on areas of perceived agency, they avert their gaze from the structures that deprive them of agency.
Hence, a pernicious cunning of the passion paradigm is convincing adherents that that which serves structures of work is of primary service to the self.
Why does it matter?
In an era that is demanding tremendous tenacity from workers, it is important to interrogate the beliefs that workers use to survive. Though the passion paradigm may empower individuals in the short-term, there are two broad ways it undermines the construction of more equitable and sustainable work in the long-term.
First, because the passion paradigm relies on individualism to empower adherents, it renders their perspective myopic. This exacerbates workers’ well-documented inability to critique structures of work, without which its undue burdens and systemic inequalities will endure.
Second, because work passion is multifaceted, the primacy of one characteristic over the others may contribute to its complicated and unequal effects in the labor market. For example, work passion is correlated with both burnout and emotional wellbeing. This contradiction could be explained by the fact that professionals experience work passion in multiple ways—in this case perseverance and enjoyment.
The characteristics of work passion could also splinter along raced, classed, or gendered lines. For example, my data suggest that women tend to primarily define work passion as enjoyment, while men primarily define work passion as motivation. This difference has harmful implications for women both for the valuation of their labor and their positions in the labor market.
Indeed, there are many reasons to believe that adherence to the passion paradigm only reproduces inequalities and stratification in work.
However, in my research I find that belief in the passion paradigm yields both powerlessness and power. Whatever the solutions may be for building better work, they will necessarily emerge from the imaginations of their architects. I therefore encourage scholars, managers, and individuals to continue interrogating how belief in the passion paradigm contributes to both.
Lindsay DePalma. “The Passion Paradigm: Professional Adherence to and Consequences of the Ideology of ‘Do What You Love’” in Sociological Forum 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, please click here.
Image: pexels via Pixabay