Fulfillment at Work and The Passion Principle

IRI Podcast episode on Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality

The disruption of the last several years has led to a Great Reassessment of work, and many employees, finding their needs not being met in their current job, turned in their notices. Many of those needs were centered around practical concerns like money, or safety, or flexibility, but many also cited a desire for finding a job that would provide greater fulfillment, or even allow them to pursue their passion. Today's guest is Erin Cech, an Associate Professor with the Department of Sociology at University of Michigan and author of The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality. Here, she explains:

  • Passion and The Passion Principle;
  • The shift from prioritizing stability in one's career to prioritizing work fulfillment;
  • How prioritizing passion in the workplace can deepen cultural inequalities; and
  • How seeking fulfillment from work can create expectations of sacrifice from both employer and employee.

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Defining Passion

  • Passion is finding the thing that makes someone feel the greatest fulfillment and self-expression when it comes to making decisions about one’s career path.
  • The Passion Principle is the cultural idea of sacrificing job security, pay, or free time to follow your passion, and making that a priority when making a career decision.
  • Historically, people did not prioritize passion when making career decisions.
    • In the mid-20th century, those who were fortunate enough to go to college and find work that was stable and well paying thought of their career passions as an afterthought.
    • In the 1970s and 1980s there was a gradual turn to prioritizing career fulfillment, and this was often in direct contrast to job security or financial compensation.


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The Motivation Behind Career Fulfillment

  • There are several motivations that shifted thinking about passion and career fulfillment.
    • Over the last 40 years, there has been increasing uncertainty regarding long term employment and working conditions. Previously, it was standard to work a traditional 9 to 5, 40 hours a week, but now there are more hours expected, depending on the industry.
    • During this increasing uncertainty and instability in the workforce, there was also a cultural shift with more opportunities for self-fulfillment and expression, and expect to find fulfillment in employment
    • Passion has become a driving force for making career decisions, especially for younger people. People want to find careers that feel authentic and align with their values, and this has become normalized in our society.
  • It’s a Catch-22: some are judged for following their passion, while still others are judged for not following their passion.
  • The movement towards passion-seeking comes when we cannot find that sense of fulfillment in other places. Organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Elks Club, or faith-based organizations have waned, which may explain why so many people are looking for a sense of identity in the workplace today. 
  • Thinking about passion as a career goal, instead of a life goal, limits opportunities, allowing us to only find joy in our vocation. 

Passion and Success

  • We tend to think about passion as a driving force of success because when we are passionate about something, we are more motivated to put time and energy into a project.
    • In Ms. Cech’s research, she found that college students and college educated people also believe in this, and find their work more meaningful and motivating if they are passionate about it. 
    • However, there are other factors that lead to success, and lead us to be better at work. Having strong organizational dynamics, good leadership, and colleagues can be just as effective in making us productive as long hours and effort. 
    • There is also research into social psychology that suggests that the opportunity for rest and relaxation makes us more creative, and therefore more productive when actually working. 

Passion, Privilege, Exploitation & Inequality

  • For people who come from more privileged backgrounds, those whose families can provide financial safety nets and social connections, prioritizing a sense of career fulfillment isn’t necessarily problematic. 
  • Those who come from less privileged backgrounds will lack those safety nets and those connections, and if they choose to pursue passion, they may find themselves in less stable, and underpaid jobs.
    • This financial divide shows that searching for fulfillment at work fosters inequity, and that those who come from more well endowed families are in a greater position to pursue passion in their careers. 
  • Ms. Cech’s research has shown that employers prefer passionate applicants because they believe they will put in more work without demanding more from their employer. 
    • This adds to the idea that searching for fulfillment at work fosters inequity given the idea that candidates could be sacrificing better benefits or compensation at the expense of taking a job they’re passionate about.

Passion and HR

  • There are a variety of reasons people may be passionate about what they are doing, whether it’s the job itself, their coworkers, the organization, the location, or more. There are multiple different kinds of job satisfaction under the pretense of being passionate about it.
  • It is important as HR professionals to make sure employees can have conversations about what they enjoy about their jobs, and encouraging employees to diversify their portfolio to showcase their investment in their passion outside of the workplace (such as volunteering ot hobbies)
    • Having something to anchor employees outside of work is not just good for employees, but also good for the organization to reinvigorate workers so they are as productive on the job as possible.
  • It is important to be honest with employees about not setting an expectation to perform their passion on the jobs, and expecting people to be most passionate at work.
    • By keeping expectations in check, it allows for employees to have opportunities to express themselves outside of working hours, and not make their passions exploitative.
      • Having a platform in place for people to be able to showcase their passions outside of work can be powerful
  • We are often passionate about our social identities such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. Allowing people to follow a career path that is only driven by passion does not leave room for other opportunities to broaden skills.


Erin Cech Background

  • B.S. in Sociology from Montana State University - Bozeman
  • B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Montana State University - Bozeman
  • Ph.D. in Sociology from UC San Diego
  • She currently serves as an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan.


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