Following Your Passion and a Fulfilling Career – Realistic Advice on Having Both

Are you currently working in your childhood dream job? Most of us are not; only 25% of all Americans have followed their bliss from when they were young (LinkedIn survey). However for those who didn’t pursue a career as an astronaut, veterinarian or race car driver, take heart; you can still have a rewarding and valuable career. Following your passion is wonderful if you can do it, but there are some significant upsides to developing a career in a field that wasn’t your top choice in elementary school.

The idea of following your passion, as a means to find happiness, has become an obsession with Americans. As a culture, we accepted the old adage “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” accredited to Confucius. Steve Jobs expanded and reinvigorated that sentiment with his most popular quote,

 “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” (Oct 4, 2016).

The advice seemed like simple common sense.

Mike Rowe famously turned everything upside down when he urged collage graduates to NOT follow their passion in a widely publicized commencement speech. Rowe, who has made a successful career of following tradesmen with so-called “dirty jobs” (septic cleaners, alligator hunters, coal muckers, etc.) says that following your passion is, “Probably the worst advice I ever got.” He urged the recent grads instead to take the jobs that are in demand in order to find the true opportunity.  Instantly the debate was sparked and it has been, of course, passionate – with fervent supporters on each side.

Is true professional happiness achieved by simply following your passion?  Could it be that easy? My professional opinion is a firm no. Recent studies of job satisfaction concur that following childhood dreams is not a direct line to happiness; while only one in four US professionals have followed their childhood bliss, over 50% say they are satisfied with their job, according to the Pew Research Center. Conclusion: happiness on the job can be achieved, even if you didn’t pin it down at the ripe age of 7.

After counseling and interviewing hundreds of professionals, I know that following your passion is not paramount to job satisfaction; being true to your values is most important. What matters is what you get out of work, not the work itself. So many professionals, doing work they love, are happy because their work aligns with their values. Time and time again, my clients express that they want to have an impact, and even a small contribution to society can feel very meaningful.

There are a myriad of things that contribute to job satisfaction and surprisingly, following a passion is usually not on the top of the list. Here are a few that consistently rank high with my clients:

  1. Value: Does the work you do reflect or support your beliefs, morals and standards?
  2. Attitude: Are you present, focused and productive?
  3. Coworker relationships: Is there mutual respect, opportunity for constructive feedback and achievement?
  4. Pay: Are you fairly compensated for your work?
  5. Enthusiasm: Are you inspired by and connected to the work you do?

In our current I-Want-It-All culture, many people seek a career that satisfies their passion and pays the bills. Some people can pull it off, but in my experience, only very few succeed. Choosing a career different from your passion is the more realistic option for the majority of professionals and I have seen it work really well because their decision was based on practical insights.

Many people make a conscious choice to keep the passion as a hobby; playing their electric guitar only on weekends or doing stand up comedy once a month. It recharges their batteries and keeps the great feeling of expressing themselves sacred from their day job. Doing their passion is a great self care routine; it prevents burning the candle at both ends.

Other professionals understand their job as a means to an end. It pays the bills. It has flexible hours. It’s close to home.  These are all good reasons for choosing a job and an excellent way to spend more time, money and effort on your passion when you are not at work.

Some professionals will try to compromise by getting into a field they love, even if it’s not exactly the dream job they desire. The aspiring basketball star who doesn’t make the cut ends up working in the team recruitment department – is that truly the best of both worlds or is it too watered down to feel fulfilling? Would they have been better off in an entirely different career that used their talents in a different way? These are tough questions that will need to be answered along the way.

Even those professionals who are doing what they loved from childhood may find their career is not all sunshine and roses. Burnout is a concern, especially when dealing with high-risk groups, although it can easily happen in any profession. There are always going to be more animals to save, more people to counsel, more songs to write and so on. The Academy of Management found that the key is to be realistic about your own abilities and aspirations to avoid burnout. Know that you won’t be able to save every animal, for example, but appreciate that you are a helping hand in making the world better and making yourself a better person.

In my coaching practice, I counsel clients on how to fit their passion into their lives while doing work that has great value and brings home a paycheck to support their desired lifestyle. It’s never a straightforward or easy solution but once they get all the pieces in place, they are noticeably happier and feel more satisfied with all aspects of their lives.


Julia is a Career Strategist and Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach based in the Bay Area. She helps career-focused professionals showcase their unique abilities and talents in order to amplify their presence in their chosen fields and when re-entering the job market. Julia uses her extensive leadership experience in executive management, business development, team building and recruiting to help her clients have the career they always wanted. Learn more about Julia at (@JuliaHolian) and

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