How Do You Turn Passion into a Career? (And Should You?)

Ask Metafilter is one of my favorite sites on the internet; I’ve been an active member there for years. It’s a great place to get advice on many subjects, including money. And careers. Recently a user named Entropic asked a question about “finding your passion”, which received an awesome reply from my pal Grumblebee. Here, with permission (and a tiny bit of editing), is that Ask Metafilter exchange.

How did you find your passion?

How have you figured out what your passion(s) is/are in life, and how have you translated that into a successful career involving your passion(s)? I am intentionally not including details about myself and my situation because I don’t really want specific suggestions about what might be good career directions for myself or what interesting areas I might pursue. I’m looking more for concrete examples of what steps you’ve taken to find out what drives you, and how you were able to make a career out of that.

Is there a difference between “discover your passion” and “discover what you want to do”?

I ask because I hear people talk about their Passion (with a capital P), as if everyone has one whether they know it or not. As if it’s a special glowing ball inside each of us. Yet I see no evidence that this ball necessarily exists.

Defining passion
To me, it’s more likely that we have things we like and things we dislike. A like becomes a passion when it repeats with regularity. For instance, I like peaches, but I don’t constantly crave them. So I wouldn’t call peaches a passion. On the other hand, whenever I see a book, I want to read it. I like reading… I like reading… I like reading… So I’d call reading a passion.

Is there anything like this for you, even if it’s something “stupid” (e.g. watching TV or eating poptarts)? If so, that’s a passion for you. If it repeats with great rapidity (and if the urge is very strong), then it’s an obsession. (I can’t keep my hands off my iPod. I think about it all the time. If I lose it, I panic.)

You don’t get to choose your passions. Since passions are just intense likings, choosing a passion would be like choosing to like eating eggplant. You either like eating eggplant or you don’t. Perhaps, if you don’t like it, you can learn to like it. But right now, you either like it or you don’t.

Finding and feeding passion
I’ve met some people who don’t seem to have any strong passions. Some admit to this. They certainly have likes and dislikes, but nothing specific crops up over and over. In fact, some people dislike anything that repeats too often (you could say such people have a passion for novelty). Other people do have passions (defined as I’ve done so, above), but they don’t think of them as such. For many people, their passion is other people: passion for their kids, passion for their families, passion for helping others in need, etc….

Many people think they’ve discovered a passion when if fact they’ve only found a surface activity that lays atop their real passion. For instance, I love working in the theatre. At the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, I believe my passion is pretty “pure.” In other words, my passion for theatre doesn’t hide a deeper passion. I love theatre because I’m fascinated by the specific mechanics of telling stories on stage. When I’m not rehearsing a play, I will choose to read a book about theatre mechanics just for fun (for another dose of my obsession).

I’ve met others like me, but I meet far more theatre people who seem to be using theatre to feed some deeper passion. (Please note that I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with this or that I’m better than these people. I believe neither of those things. And there are plenty of other activities — just not theatre — that I use as tools to feed deeper passions.)

Such people may be into theatre because they love attention and praise; they may love belonging to an open-minded group (many “misfits” find their way into theatre in high school and stay because they love belonging to such an accepting culture); they may even be operating on autopilot, doing theatre because for whatever reason, they got into it when they were younger and it never occurs to them to quit. (They probably enjoy having mastered something.)

Digging deeper
I think it’s useful to delve into your psychology and ask yourself why you like what you like. Sometimes (as with me and theatre), the answer might be “because I simply love the activity.”

How do you know if this is true? Try mentally removing orbiting aspects of the activity: Would I still want to direct plays if no one saw them? Would I still want to direct plays if I could only work with bad actors? Would I still want to direct plays if I hated the results? Would I still want to direct plays if I always got bad reviews? etc. For me, though I wouldn’t enjoy the activity as much in these cases, I’d still want to do it.

This is useful because if you learn what your true passion is (the underlying one, if there is one), you may be able to change your life for the better. You may be able to say, “Wow! It’s not theatre I like, it’s collaboration! Maybe I instead of continuing in theatre, I should look into all sorts of collaborative activities and get into the one that’s the most collaborative.”

Such psychological delving may also help you deal with a crisis: “Oh no! I’ve lost my voice. I can’t act anymore. Wait a minute: it’s not specifically theatre that I like, it’s storytelling! I could write a novel.”

There’s also nothing wrong (and a lot right) with realizing, “I love attention and praise, so theatre is a great activity for me.” In all of these cases, you’ll have learned something about yourself.

Turning passion into a career
Once you know your passion, you will be tempted to ask — as you did — “How can I turn this into a career?” I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think it’s totally wrong. I just think it’s too specific. Instead, I recommend you ask yourself this: “How can I best arrange my life so that I can spend the most time engaging in my passion in its purest possible form and derive the least amount of pain doing non-passion activities?”

I am a director, but I’m not a working (as in “paid”) director. To pay my rent, I have a “day job.” I could work as a director, but I’d have to direct plays that I don’t want to direct. For some people, that would be fine. For me, it’s not a good trade off. I’ll be more happy with the day job and the ability to direct whatever I want — forgoing pay. It took me a while to come up with that “formula,” and it’s a personal one. Mine won’t necessarily work for you.

(If you realize you’re like me, find the least painful day job you can, getting yourself training if you have to. I actually like my day job. And I continually work to make it better and more interesting. The cliché of waiting tables to support your passion isn’t a necessity. If you commit to the idea of having a day job — I’ll likely have one for the rest of my life — it behooves you to make it a good one. Or at least the least painful one you can find.)

I see a lot of people working really hard to make their passion into a job, and — tragically — when they finally make it happen, they don’t enjoy the passion any more. (E.g. a lot of working actors, who got into the business to play Shakespeare or Chekhov, spend most of their time acting in commercials.) If this happens, it’s really worthwhile to do some soul searching. Would I be happier with a day job? Am I happy doing a compromised version of my passion? If I am happy doing a compromised version of my passion, does that (perhaps) mean that what I thought was my passion wasn’t really my passion? (“Hmm. I thought I wanted to act, but in order to do theatre for a living, I’ve had to become a producer. And — hey — I like it. Maybe acting isn’t my real passion. Maybe my real passion is being a key part of a big project.”)

I am not saying there’s anything wrong with figuring out a way to do your passion for pay. Often, that’s a great way to spend most of your time doing your passion. Just make sure that if you’re doing your passion as a job, it’s really your passion that you’re doing and not a perverted version of it that will fail to make you happy.

Putting it all together
So, go through this thought process:

  1. I’ve identified my passion as X. I am now going to define X as fully as possible. For X to be X, it MUST include A and B. C is optional. It can’t include D.
  2. I’ve realized that I won’t be happy unless I’m doing X for a living.
  3. Are there any jobs that will allow me to do X as I’ve defined it? (Or that will let me gradually work towards a pure version of X?)
  4. If not, then I need to either brainstorm other ways I could be happy (compromised X? doing X as a hobby?) or resign myself to unhappiness.
  5. If so, then I need to make sure that I can live with non-X aspects of the job. (Wow! I can do full time, paid theatre, but I’d have to work with the dreaded Mr. Y!)

Finally: I’ve noticed that people (myself included) have a strong urge to classify themselves. People really want to be able to say, “I’m a director!” “I’m an engineer!” “My passion is gourmet cooking!”

There’s nothing wrong with that drive, but putting yourself in a category is not the same thing as actually being in that category. In fact, categorizing yourself — since it’s so final — is a good way to thwart any attempt to discover your actual passions. Once you say, “I’m a director,” it’s hard to think, “Wait a minute: is it actually directing that I like or some other activity that directing helps me achieve?” Which is why, at the start of this long post, I suggested you de-romanticize the whole thing and, instead, think about what you like and dislike, rather than trying to pin down your Passion.

Maybe you don’t have a Passion. Maybe you have many likes:

  • You like playing in the sun
  • You like watching movies
  • You like hanging out with friends

If so, you’ll be much happier if you arrange your life to maximize your chances to do these activities than if you expend a ton of energy categorizing yourself.

I am fortunate to have been able to turn my passion — writing — into a career. But even so, some of what Grumblebee warns against is certainly present. As much as I love to write, I have a very different relationship to it now that it’s my job than I did when I simply did it for fun.

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There are 32 comments to "How Do You Turn Passion into a Career? (And Should You?)".

  1. ABCs of Investing says 06 October 2008 at 05:04

    I like the idea of maximizing your time spent on your passion – rather than just blindly trying to make a career out of it which often doesn’t work very well.

  2. Dave says 06 October 2008 at 05:21

    Thanks for directing our attention to this, JD … it was the best article I’ve ever read on the subject of “Passion.”

  3. PB- says 06 October 2008 at 05:28

    Great article, JD. I find that I am really good at lots of things, but never found that one thing that most people would define as a passion.

    I love my job…LOVE it. I work two amazing executives. I’m a top-notch executive assistant, with passion for what I do, but I’ll never get rich (financially) doing this. I’m appreciated, supported, and spoiled by my two charges. I enable them to do what they do best, more efficiently. They tell me I’m worth my weight in gold. Unfortunately, there are limits to what an assistant can be paid.

    So passion is an interesting thing. Yes, I’m passionate about my job. And that passion makes me really good at it. But no, I’ll never get rich working my passion.

  4. Curt says 06 October 2008 at 06:08

    At the end of the day, the world pays for thing that we produce. So, the real question to ask yourself is what do you like to produce?

    Maybe it’s Art or Music or Books or Cars, whatever you like to produce is likely to be your passion. If you don’t like to produce anything, then sorry the world is not likely to support your time on the beach in the sun. The world is full of consumers and it always looking for more producers. So, be a producer of something you enjoy.

  5. EscapeVelocity says 06 October 2008 at 06:23

    I have a day job, and I constantly feel like I’m being judged for not putting more energy into my career. Seems like people are kind of OK with you being a “slacker” in your 20s, but not in your 40s–since I don’t have kids, I should be working 60 hours a week like everybody else. And I feel guilty for not making more use of my talents and contributing to society and all that. My talents and my passions don’t really match up very well, unfortunately.

    • teddy says 07 February 2012 at 10:45

      It’s all about work/life balance. Put more or less time in but make sure it balances. Life is NOT WORK.

  6. Alison Wiley says 06 October 2008 at 06:39

    This column resonates! I’ve been unusually stubborn throughout my life in ONLY doing work that I’ve been passionate about. Sometimes that meant I was dollar-poor and without benefits(when I was a self-employed artist) and sometimes just-adequately paid with benefits (when I was a counselor). Nowadays, I’m earning more than I’ve ever made before as a program manager in sustainable transportation, and ironically, I’m also more fulfilled and challenged in my work than I’ve ever been before. Right livelihood and right-sized consumption are two of my ongoing themes at

  7. Kellie Hill says 06 October 2008 at 06:45

    Best article on the subject I’ve seen in a long time- thank you so much! I am trying to turn my Passion into a career (haven’t gotten there yet) but I really appreciate what was said about arranging your life so that you can spend the most time on what you love the most- it is that sort of prioritizing that we need to remember and go back to when we find ourselves emotionally scaping bottom.

  8. Adam Steer, Momentum Wellness says 06 October 2008 at 07:21

    For me, I use my desire to learn as a gauge to how passionate I am about something. I’ve always been fascinated with the art and science of movement and sports performance. This has evolved and morphed into a career rather “organically” (yes, cliché word…).

    At 18 years old, I started teaching skiing part time. This morphed into a full-time thing, which morphed into a career as a coach in varied sports and then as a manager in the ski industry. All the while I devoured professional development opportunities and strove to become the best in my field.

    On a parallel path, I became more and more fascinated with the related fields of physiology, anatomy, bio-mechanics, nutrition, etc. Part of this stemmed from my own passion for training, and part from my opportunities to take care of the physical conditioning needs of some of my athletes.

    I soaked up everything I could in these fields and eventually this led to a “side-career” as a trainer. And that has become my full-time pursuit over the last few years as a wellness coach.

    In retrospect, I have been extremely lucky to be able to follow such a winding path of evolving passion. As one of the earlier commenters reflected, I won’t get rich doing this in the conventional sense. But there is a deeper richness in being constantly excited about learning, progressing, experimenting and growing through a career that you are passionate about.

    I don’t think that you can “brainstorm” your passion. But if you follow your desire to learn you will probably unearth it naturally.


  9. Anil says 06 October 2008 at 07:31

    I think the key is to make a decision and then give it your all.

    Too many people get hung up in the planning/dreaming stage and their plans never come to fruition.

  10. Franklin Bishop says 06 October 2008 at 08:24

    It is simple to try and turn your passion into a career online anymore. It is called creating a blog about whatever your passion is. So if your passion is about sports then start a sports blog and just blogged about it. If you really have passionate about something then people will absolutely love your blog. They will see it in your writings and everything else you do on sports.

  11. CoolProducts says 06 October 2008 at 09:26

    Being a college student and having my entire life ahead of me, but also being in what is arguably the most crucial decision making period in my life, finding a passion is incredibly important. I’m a finance major, and do I have a passion for finance? No. However, I’ve discovered a strong interest in law that grows every day. I’ve decided to gear myself towards applying for law school and overall this has made me more driven. Finding passion in your career is the best thing one can do, in my opinion.

  12. Andrea >> Become a Consultant says 06 October 2008 at 10:09

    This is a great post. I don’t think you have to be 100% passionate about the actual day-to-day details of your work, but I do think you have to like them and that you have to be 100% motivated by what your work enables. For example, I run a consulting business and there is the occasional project that I find a little hum-drum. But then I think about how I spent most of last Friday playing with my kids, taking them to a birthday party where I hung out with a friend, and then had a early evening meeting with one of my favourite clients (who’s also a very close friend). So, while I might not have been thrilled about a proposal I had to put together on Friday morning, I see the entire day as reflective of passions I could not pursue without my business. It’s the whole package.

    I really think that anyone who wants to identify career or business opportunities should put together a personal inventory. You can do this yourself by taking stock of your interests, life experiences, work experience, personal qualities, unique challenges and so on. I’ve also written two PDF workbooks to help people — one is to help you identify potential consulting businesses you could start and the other one is for moms who are interested in starting businesses of any type. However, I’ve had a few people write in to say that these workbooks helped them uncover other kinds of careers.

    But, again, I’m a big believer that your passions should extend beyond work. It’s the entire package that matters. If your work is 100% satisfying but your family, nutrition, fitness, personal relationships, health and other elements are suffering, you may not have struck the best mix for you.

  13. Suzyn says 06 October 2008 at 10:14

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve spent many years trying to nail down “What I want to do when I grow up,” thinking that I had to identify it, go to school for it, and do nothing but that. And all the while, feeling like a failure because – ack! – I have a good day job that I’m good at and that pays well!!! This post gives me much food for thought about pursuing passions separate from a paycheck.

  14. Virginia says 06 October 2008 at 11:44

    And this is why I don’t make my living acting, writing, or making jewelry.

    I’m actually very thankful that when I was younger I made a go of acting and jewelry. Trying to pay my bills at each of those was such a devastatingly disappointing experience that I gave each of them up (except for my mother’s Christmas earrings, without which I think I might be disowned).

    I learned from those experiences that one of the things I need for my passion is SECURITY. I need to know that the lights will stay on and that I have health insurance in case I get sick. My day job gives me the security I need to write. Sure, I wish I had more time to write, but this is the compromise that works for me. Feeling secure in my day-to-day life makes me a braver writer.

  15. Reverend Tom says 06 October 2008 at 12:40

    I’ve always preferred to think of likes as the goal of life. When I was growing up, people always talked about “what we were born to do” and I never really got that feeling about anything.

    It just seemed silly that in the vast spans of human activity and individual potential that every person would be meant for only one activity for the 40-some years of their working life.

    I’ve always found that likes, “passions,” whatever, rarely pay the rent, so most people seem better off with some kind of day job that doesn’t tax them too much. I’ve got a career, that I went to college for, which brings me what I’m told is a good paycheck, and I absolutely hate it.

    But, once those 8 hours are up, and I finish my hour long ride across the city to get home, I’ve got the rest of the night to devote to my likes, and I’ll never have to live with being a starving artist or a struggling anything.

    All I have to do is kiss ass in my job, which honestly means nothing to me so I don’t mind it, but I’ll never have to kiss ass in the activities that I love.

  16. Kelly says 06 October 2008 at 12:44

    Excellent. Thank you for sharing. I’m keeping this in my feed reader to re-read and take it all in.

  17. RenaissanceTrophyWife says 06 October 2008 at 12:59

    Thanks to you and Grumblebee for such a thoughtful article!

    I agree that some passions lend themselves more easily to a career than others, and people with certain passions may find it difficult to translate that into a job.

    It would’ve been very helpful to me to read this when I was younger, as it’s taken a while for me to sort out my passions vs career path. Case in point: I enjoy interacting with people, helping them solve problems, and helping them improve their quality of life. From elementary school on, I had the notion that being a doctor was the best way to accomplish these goals, and make a career out of it as well.

    Fast-forward to my “quarter-century crisis” where, a year away from finishing medical school, I realized that the art of medicine is completely lost in the horrific US system that we have today. You can do a lot more by going to a 3rd world country and actually treating people every day, rather than fighting HMOs to get patients standard care that has been validated for 20 years.

    Passion? Still there. Career path? I graduated, but chose not to practice medicine. So now my new goal is to run a nonprofit patient advocacy organization… and in the meantime, take a job that allows me to learn the necessary business skills, as well as pay off my student loans.

    Say hello to investment banking– it’s a far different career path than what I planned, but it will enable me to pursue my passion on my terms, not those of HMOs.

  18. shalom says 06 October 2008 at 14:41

    Thanks, J.D. This is an excellent post, the most thoughtful I’ve seen, about passions.

  19. Nathan says 06 October 2008 at 15:06

    What Grumblebee said about delving into your psychology is really the ticket, assuming spending time with your passions is what makes you happy.

    Martin Seligman, a previous president of the American Psychological Association, has done quite a bit of research on happiness and discovered that there are a number of signature strengths (or passions) that individuals have. For example, my strengths are a love of learning, creativity, perspective, learning, humor, etc. Grumble’s example of collaboration could be one also.

    What makes us happy is being able to employ those signature strengths as much as possible. Just as Grumble said, these strengths can be employed in various ways (collaborating on a play vs. another project). Discovering your strengths and finding ways to employ them in your work is the most effective way to enjoy your career and be happy.

    You can visit to take a series of free tests to discover your strengths.

  20. Jane says 06 October 2008 at 15:13

    Excellent post J.D. I’m still trying to find my ‘passion’. Basically what I’ve found is that I have many of them. My love of learning has lead me into all kinds of avenues from finance to art, baking to natural health. Pursuing just one seems impossible and would not be true to who I am.
    Now I have teenagers who are launching themselves into the world and I’m encouraging them to find out what they like and dislike to get an idea of their place in the world and of their future paths.

  21. Marc says 06 October 2008 at 18:38

    one day its fishing
    then raising cattle
    Then making money
    Real estate
    reading about the above
    a glass of wine now and then

    can retiring be a passion?


  22. Chris Dunn says 06 October 2008 at 20:02

    Great article JD…

    It’s when I finally decided to CHASE my passion with everything that I was able to move past fears, and procrastination. Now, I’m able to do whatever I want, when I want!

    My best,

    Chris Dunn

  23. Joshua says 07 October 2008 at 00:52

    It is a very useful article. I guess. Once you’ve figured out Grumblebee’s X.

    But how does one figure that out? Between jobs, college and (lack of) sleep, all the spare time I have is in the middle of the night.

    How do I find my passion? I haven’t got the money nor the time to invest in all kinds of ‘try-out hobbies’.

  24. me from eu says 07 October 2008 at 02:02

    Fortunately following passions doesn’t have to equate with being a starving artist. I’ve done things for money alone and I was unhappy and unefficient, now that I’m doing what I like my life is better and my skills are finally acknowledged by others.

    I’ve also seen examples around me, passionate and persistent people who overcame many obstacles and were successful, if not very successful in different fields: programming, film critic, pioneering e-commerce… Yep, it has to be true passion.

  25. vilkri says 07 October 2008 at 03:09

    There is a pretty good book out that contains some worksheet to help you find your passion in your professional life: What Color is Your Parachute? Many friends of mine and I have enjoyed reading it and working through the assignments.

  26. plonkee says 07 October 2008 at 09:47

    I guess I’m of the school of thought that you can have multiple passions.

    I’m committed to my day job, it’s enjoyable and satisfies my need to make a difference, be respected, and use my maths and data skills. It’s something that I believe in. It also pays the bills.

    I’m passionate about discussing sensible personal finance. I think it’s important and valuable. I love blogging. I blog to a small audience and I need their feedback. I couldn’t do it for a living, because I’d miss my day job which I couldn’t turn in to a hobby.

    I’m passionate about making music. I don’t have the drive or the temperament to do it professionally (nor currently the skill). It’s easy to have as a hobby.

    My day job remains my day job because it’s the only way I can get involved in that subject and be taken seriously. Everything else translates well to a hobby. But they are all my passions.

  27. Messy Christian says 10 October 2008 at 09:46

    I guess I’m one of those lucky folks that managed to find a job that feeds their passion and help pay the bills at the same time.

    From an early age (around 12) I realised that my passion were stories – reading, writing and discovering them. Far too practical to be a struggling novelist (especially in my country, Malaysia, which is especially thankless) I went into journalism.

    Over the years, I discovered that the job suited me to a T. And I discovered another passion of mine – the pursuit of knowledge. I just loved discovering and experiencing new things and my job gave me that option.

    However, at times, I do wish for a less hectic existance (working till 4am is NOT unusual) and long for a life of an inspired novelist, hacking away at it in a cabin somewhere … but knowing me, I’d probably be bored stiff not discovering new things to experience. 😉

  28. Michael says 11 October 2008 at 14:56

    This is great. I’ve read it several times since it was originally published and I like it more and more each time. What would I have to do to obtain your permission to print it out and use it as an article for reading and discussion purposes in my classroom? Thanks for any help you can give.

  29. says 03 November 2008 at 16:02

    If you read up on people who have really succeeded well at making their fortunes, you’ll find that a lot of them talk about ‘doing what you love’… There’s so much talk about finding your passion these days and I believe this is occurring because so many people are waking up to the idea of ‘doing what you love.’ I do believe finding your passion and working with it ties into your purpose in life (from a spiritual standpoint).

    It takes some effort to find the balance between both (loving the work you do and it making you financially successful). If you can marry the two, it’s an amazing experience!

    Wonderful work JD – highly thought-provoking.

  30. Vijay says 13 January 2014 at 03:44

    Great post! I found the secret recipe in converting passion into a sustainable career. The secret is in Gladwell’s book – The Tipping Point. You got to practice 10,000 hours.

  31. Carl Evangelista says 26 March 2015 at 05:37

    I don’t believe there is a difference between “discovering my passion” and “discover what I want to do”. I do what I am passionate about but it always wasn’t that way. I had to work my ass of doing things I didn’t want to do to ensure I would never have to do what I don’t want to do again…. But that makes my current passion even more exiting. 😉

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