Passion or Duty at Work? (P.S: the Answer Is Passion)

Written by:Alexander Kjerulf
Published on: 19 June 2020 Reading time: 6 minutes

Recently, I came across a New York Times article written by a professor Firmin DeBrabrander who argues that you should not approach work as your passion but as your duty. According to him, looking for passion at work will make you stressed and is bound to fail anyway.


I must say I absolutely disagree with his view. It seems to me that he relied on a string of terrible arguments and deliberately avoided to do some research in the field.


Here are the top 5 fails from DeBrarander’s article.


1. He blames the long US working hours on people’s passion for their jobs


The United States offers a curious paradox: Though the standard of living has risen, and creature comforts are more readily and easily available — and though technological innovations have made it easier to work efficiently — people work more, not less. Why is this? One theory is that Americans have come to expect work to be a source of meaning in their lives.


In reality, there are no studies showing that people who find work meaningful spend more hours working than those who don’t.


To find out why working hours are still on the rise in the US, I think it makes more sense to look at some of the following factors:

  • Cultural norms at workplace
  • Bad management practices
  • Economic insecurity of the middle class that are one paycheck away from financial disaster
  • Highly expensive college education and the large amount of money young people must invest to graduate – in other words, they must work to avoid personal bankruptcy.


All in all, people with huge financial insecurity simply must go along with the workplace requirements such as working 60, 70 or 80 hours per week, because, otherwise they risk experiencing bankruptcy and living in extremely bad conditions.



2. Being passionate about your work means that you experience constant bliss


Most people are certainly guaranteed to fail in this pursuit [of passion at work]. Even people who love their jobs will report they must do thankless tasks from time to time. Few, if any, experience nonstop bliss, where sheer passion sustains them through long hours on the job.


Pay attention to what DeBrabrander did here. He explains that being passionate about work means experiencing nonstop bliss and sheer sustained passion.


This is known as strawman argument, where you misrepresent, exaggerate or just completely fabricate someone’s position allowing you to attack more easily.


I just want to make something clear: Being passionate about your job does not mean that you experience nonstop bliss. All of us have bad days at work, which is perfectly OK. And, naturally, every job has a mix of tasks that you either enjoy or don’t like – and that’s OK too.


3. Young people burn out because they seek passion at work


There is plenty of evidence that our high-octane work culture has serious consequences. It is at least partly responsible for high levels of burnout among millennials.


This argument shows that people who find meaning at work experience less stress and burnout. I must say I think this is a complete nonsense.


While it is a fact that there is an increase of stress, depression, burnout and mental problems among so many young people, it’s actually irresponsible to claim that these are mainly, or even partly caused by their search for passion and meaning at work.


There are many other pressures young people have to face on a daily basis, including a global climate disaster. For example, no one is doing much about global climate changes and young people are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of this neglect. If you think about it, this can also be the source of their stress, right? But, DeBrabrande points out that their real problem is that they expect their jobs to be meaningful.


4. If you seek passion in your work, you will fail


A recent study of priorities among young people found that achieving one’s career passion ranks highest of all… Finding a fulfilling job is almost three times more important than having a family, teenagers in the study reported. It is daunting to contemplate. Most people are certainly guaranteed to fail in this pursuit.


The bottom line: If you seek passion at work, you are almost guaranteed to fail. Really? How can he know this? Be mindful that he defined passion at work as a search for constant bliss. If that‘s the goal you are aiming to achieve, you will most certainly fail.


To make things worse, the study he links to in support of his claim does not cover the topic of passion at work. According to one research 95% of US teenagers surveyed say that “having a job or career they enjoy” is important to them.


5. Passion means that work is the ONLY source of meaning in your life


We might begin by rejecting the notion that work should consume our lives, define and give meaning to them…


Again, passion is redefined here to mean that work consumes your life and gives meaning to it.


The fact is that passion for your job means that you are passionate about the work you do. It doesn’t mean that work is the only thing you are passionate about.


What’s more, studies show that people who are passionate about their work are happier and more active outside of work as well.


Why you absolutely should seek work you’re passionate about


This point of view is not new. There are many serious business people and leaders out there who believe that happiness at work is stupid, naive, impossible, silly, manipulative and/or bad for you. In the video above we present 20 most used objections to workplace happiness and why they’re wrong.

DeBrabrander’s analysis is wrong in so many ways and poorly argued. We believe that everyone should seek work they’re passionate about. Here are some of the most important reasons why:

  • It will increase your happiness at work
  • It will make you happier in life
  • It will help you become more successful at work
  • It will protect you from doing work that will do you harm. In other words, by failing to find meaning at work you are more likely to end up doing the job you don’t like which can ultimately harm not only you but also the people you work with
  • Since work occupies around two-thirds of your life, it’s completely normal and even desirable to spend time doing something you care about
  • You invest most of your energy, skills and competencies into your work. It makes sense to invest all of that effort into the service or a cause you actually care about


When DeBrabrander talks about approaching work as duty rather than passion. He bases this on an understanding of duty that comes from stoic philosophy. I must say that I don’t agree with many things that originate from stoic philosophy. It is based on the idea that we are all subjects to a predetermined fate and has recently become very fashionable, especially among silicon valley tech bros.


In the article, DrBrabrander emphasises the advice of Seneca, one of the most prominent stoics who defines duty like this:


Seneca’s advice to Serenus is to focus on doing his duty. He must perform the job he is best disposed and able to perform, as determined by his nature, and the needs of those around him. And he must forget about glory or thrill or personal fulfilment — at least in the near term. If he performs his duty, Seneca explains, fulfilment will come as a matter of course.


According to this definition, duty is not all about a “Shut up and do your job” approach.


It’s about doing work that you’re good at and which meets the needs of those that surround you.


But this is exactly what meaningful work is all about!


If DeBrabrander had been curious enough to invest some of his time into the research in this field, he would have discovered that this is how Amy Wrezniewski and others define the “calling” approach to work:


In the “calling” orientation, people are working not for career advancement or for financial gain, but instead for the fulfilment or the meaning that the work itself brings to the individual. People who see their work more as a calling see the work as an end in itself that is deeply fulfilling and regardless of the kind of work they’re doing, they tend to see the work as having a societal benefit.


Ultimately, it’s about working for something bigger than yourself.


The Upshot


All in all, this opinion piece is dishonest, poorly researched and gives bad advice.


To sum up, seeking passion and meaning at work will bring you happiness and career success, and help you prevent burnout and stress. Also, by making sure you are doing meaningful work where all of your professional skill and energy is spent in the service of something you consider valuable, you can help create a better world. Work is not all about obtaining a paycheck or career advancement. It’s about doing something that inspires you and that motivates the others to follow the same path.


So, if you decide to do a job that doesn’t fulfil, inspire and drive you, I honestly feel sorry for you.