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Passion vs. Pragmatism: You Can’t Always Do What You Want

Is it time for us to stop encouraging our children to make a living doing only the things that they love to do?
(Photo: August_0802/Shutterstock)

(Photo: August_0802/Shutterstock)

We’ve always encouraged our children to follow their dreams. And we’ve always told our children that they could grow up to be whatever they wanted to be—even president of the United States—if they just worked hard and played by the rules.

But I believe that, given the state of the economy going into 2015, we can no longer responsibly and realistically urge our children to simply follow their career passions—not if we want them to make a solid and sustainable living. Indeed, for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, economic necessity is influencing the burgeoning professional aspirations of many young people.

Additional satisfaction often also comes from the mastery of a body of knowledge or a skill, or from the realization that service to others can bring both personal and professional fulfillment.

That can be frustrating for the would-be movie stars, professional athletes, authors, artists, business tycoons, and U.S. senators of this world—the elite groups where there will always be more people aspiring to hold a seat than there are seats available. At the same time, passion is far less often associated with more seemingly mundane pursuits such as dental hygiene, accounting, project management, masonry, software coding, and the like. But somewhere in between could be certain, important careers in fields such education or medicine.

A St. Olaf’s College professor named Gordon Marino ruminated on this earlier this year in “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love,’” for the New York Times’ opinion pages. In the piece, Marino references Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth, and height. Length, he says, refers to self-love; breadth to the community; and height to the transcendent, something larger than oneself.

Doing something you like, rather than something you don’t, would seem to enhance both career enjoyment and performance. But, of course, it’s not always that simple. You may love something and not be good at it. Or be good at something but hate it. Or love it, and be good at it, but not be able to make enough money at it to support yourself.

The point Marino makes is that, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, when you can’t always get what you want, you still have to get what you need ... and what others may need—including family, community, and society. Additional satisfaction often also comes from the mastery of a body of knowledge or a skill, or from the realization that service to others can bring both personal and professional fulfillment.

The story is told of the masons who were working on a monumental cathedral. When asked what they did each day, one reportedly said, “I’m a stone cutter, working on this building.” The other said, “I am helping to create a cathedral for the greater glory of God.”

This encapsulates one of the fundamental points made by Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In today’s workplace, the bestselling author argues, there are three primary elements for motivating workers (especially millennial workers): autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Passion? Not so much. For many, passion, of necessity, may have to be replaced by that troika of motivators.

This discussion becomes even more relevant when seen through the prism of the PreparedU Project at Bentley University, where I am the chief enrollment officer. Autonomy responds to the well-documented millennial entrepreneurial (or intrapreneurial) instinct, the desire to have both responsibility and authority to achieve desired goals. Mastery references the demand by executives for employees who have both technical skills (mastery of which can often be certified) and the so-called soft or civic skills associated primarily with the liberal arts. And purpose means what it says, but is often in the eye of the beholder.

Take, for example, an enterprise that serves the health care needs of an inner-city population, and includes a registered nurse, and an accountant who makes sure the revenue stream is there. Perhaps passion motivates their skills, one for accounting and the other for patient care. The purpose is clearly evident but it matters only if they want it to; the accountant, for example, might find as much purpose—as the nurse does in working directly with patients—in maximizing profit for a public company.

Balancing passion and pragmatism is one of the hardest things we’re asking young people to do today. It’s tough to tell a 21-year-old to be realistic. And it’s equally difficult to say to a millennial, “If you want to get a job and start a career, you may need to develop skills and gain satisfaction from doing things that you don't directly associate with your dreams.”

But this may be the wisest counsel we can offer in these uncertain times.

The role of higher education cannot be underestimated in helping millennials grapple with these painful issues. The challenge is to help students understand the rewards, both personal and professional, that can be available through any discipline, and to prepare them in ways that help them become valued by employers.