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Why “Do What You Love” Hurts Women — and 3 Vital Ways to Rethink Your Passion

“We’re not suggesting that people do what they hate. Rather, many people find ways to integrate passion into their lives, and make work meaningful, in other ways.”

Courtesy of Maciej Nicgorski / EyeEm / Getty Images 

The mantra “Do what you love,” though it may inspire Instagram feels, can be detrimental to your career — especially if you are a woman. When we interviewed 43 friends we graduated from college with for our book, The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life, we heard a number of stories from these women about how attempting to earn a living by following their passions had left them with either low paying work or out of the workforce entirely. As our friend Ariel put it, “I wish someone had told me that if you want to be an artist, you need to find a way to support yourself while also pursuing your art.” Here are three more lessons we learned from our friends’ life trajectories.

Conflating the thing that pays your rent with the thing that brings you bliss places an unfair burden on work — one that disproportionately affects women. Women who see work primarily as a means to pay the bills and support themselves — regardless of how much their spouse earns — are likely to stay in the workforce after they have children because they want to keep on being able to pay bills. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether their jobs also meet all of their emotional needs. Our friend, Heather, the one chief officer of a corporation in our friend group, said, “On the whole I enjoy what I do, but is it a passion I can’t live without? No.” It does, however, offer her great economic freedom. Those who have chosen their careers as a pure passion play find things get muddled when they now have a 2-year-old who screams bloody murder every time they walk out the door, or a spouse who feels that despite the financial hit it would make life a lot easier if their wife just stayed home. They found themselves caught up in weighing how much they loved their jobs versus how much they loved their kids, and the jobs often didn’t win out.

Exclusively pursuing a passion as work can be a way to mommy-track your career, or worse. Most passion-based jobs don’t pay very much. Some are in fact not even jobs. If you have been toiling away at your screenplay for years only to find you can’t sell it, or working as an artist’s assistant and supplementing your income on the side with bartending, these are jobs that won’t look very appealing once a baby comes into the picture and both time and money become more precious. Our friends who pursued passions often discovered that once they became mothers the childcare calculus didn’t work in their favor, especially for those who were married to partners who earned a solid living, and many found themselves unexpectedly home with their children for years or decades. For the friends we interviewed who didn’t see earning money as a do-or-die prospect, when the passion career didn’t yield enough income, they gave up the career. Our friend Brooke, who turned briefly to financial services after her career as an opera singer didn’t flourish, said, “If I was doing something that I loved, I would’ve been insistent and said, I still need this in my life.” Brooke’s been a SAHM now for 15 years — a choice she’s happy with, but not the passion-flaming profession she’d once envisioned.

Encouraging workers to only Do What You Love is classist (and not great for women, either). It argues that work imbued with passion is more valuable — but finding work you love is a luxury millions of people don’t have, according to Miya Tokumitsu’s book Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness. The mantra also devalues labor, including the labor of childrearing, an occupation largely dominated by women, and largely underpaid or not paid at all. Our friends who ended up opting out because couldn’t make a living doing what they love, did have work they loved — motherhood — but that choice often diminished their economic power and potential in the long term.

We’re not suggesting that people Do What They Hate. Rather, many people find ways to integrate passion into their lives, and make work meaningful, in other ways:

1) Remember Hobbies 

Once upon a time, people did things outside of work and social media. Today, no sooner have you knit up a nice sweater than people suggest you start selling sweaters on Etsy. But making something that used to be your hobby your job is a surefire way to lose something you loved as a hobby. Women especially find that time is a premium in their lives. One of our friends told us that as soon as she tried to add something into her already crowded schedule, she found that everything else would fall apart. Once a month she’d get back into running, and then discover there was no food in the house because she hadn’t had time to go to the store. Her husband, it is worth noting, found time to hit the gym every day. Often things that bring bliss do not yield income (music/art/theater, yoga, cooking, chess, marathon-running). Delineate work from play — that separation can be healthy. 

2) Validate Economic Independence

Our friends who didn’t exclusively pursue passion in their careers, for the most part, are still in the workforce and are, or could be, economically independent outside their marriages or partnerships. Economic independence for women is important not just for women, but for society, and it isn’t always born out of passion.

3) Learn to Love the Things You’re Good At

Our friend Heather, the chief marketing officer for the bank, excelled at math. She was also a people person, logical and wanted economic stability. She pursued banking as a career. She likes her job well enough, but gets great satisfaction from being a successful businesswoman, being a strong role model to her two teen daughters, and a mentor to younger women in her field. She also coaches her daughter’s middle school math team — and is contemplating a second career as a math teacher. Heather has done not necessarily what she loved, but what she liked enough, and has found great reward. Not every job or day at work has to be the emotional equivalent of eating freshly baked pie or watching a heart-wrenching Hannah Gadsby special.

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