You Don’t Need to Find a Passion to Succeed

As a career counsellor at ETHZ, I often meet students who are persuaded that they need a passion before they start looking for a job. Understandably, as they often hear the mantra “Just follow your passion!”. A graduate once asked me, “I don’t have my thing yet – can you help me find it?” Maybe you have caught yourself thinking the same thing. Or maybe you wonder why everybody around you seems to have found their passion and you haven’t.

by Polykum Redaktion

Career passions are the exception

Well, first, do not be fooled: rare are those who have found a career passion in their twenties. In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, Cal Newport explores the origins of what he calls “the passion hypothesis” and mentions the (erroneous) legends upon which this theory has been built. Take for example Steve Jobs: the media and his

Career passions develop over time

Behind this search for a passion, there lies a deep misconception: the belief that passions preexist, that they live separately somewhere out there and that you just need to find them. And if you haven’t found them, you haven’t been looking hard enough. However, career research shows that career passions develop over time. They develop by experiencing and tasting different things – jobs, functions, industries and organisational cultures. They develop by perseverance and hard work – until you discover something you are good at, that you enjoy doing and that makes you shine. Charlie Chaplin is a good example of this when he once said, “I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it.” The art grew out of it, because of his “sheer perseverance to the point of madness”, his pursuit of perfection. Charlie Chaplin didn’t discover his passion for motion pictures. It discovered him.

Stop seeking – let your career passion find you

Some graduates are so focused on their search for “their thing” that it becomes a hunt for the perfect job. They become obsessed with the question: “What if I take the job and then find out that I don’t like it?” They develop tunnel vision and miss important and attractive alternative career opportunities sitting in front of them. The misconception behind this behaviour is the belief that career decisions can be fundamentally correct or incorrect. However, like many decisions in life, career decisions have no right or wrong answer. The only way to find out if a job really suits you is to try it out. Once in the job, focus on providing value, on becoming good at what you are doing. Learn from it and then eventually move on to discover new things.

Having many career passions is ok, too

Finally, “Just follow your passion!” suggests that we all have one single passion. Nevertheless, some people never find their one career passion because they love to explore many things. Many

graduates seem to think that something is fundamentally wrong with them because they have “too many interests” and are “not focused enough”. In his book “Range – How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”, David Epstein speaks about his discovery that in many fields, generalists (those who have pursued many interests) and not specialists (those with a single focused passion) are primed to excel. Generalists tend to experiment a wide range of things, juggle many interests, and take detours along their career paths. Their detours and sampling serve to build a range of skills that they can deliberately deploy in a wide range of settings.

In conclusion, as Herminia Ibarra – author of “Working Identity” – suggests: stop trying to find your one true self. Reflecting on who we are is less important than probing – through life experiences – whether we really want what we think we want. Try different paths. Take action (apply for jobs; accept that job!), and then use the feedback from your actions to figure out what you think, feel and want. In other words: Just go for it!


by Christine Kaiser

is the deputy head of the ETH Career Center.

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