Study suggests you might want to be less passionate about your job

In today’s market, wherein pressures to land the right career occupies our psyche early, many rely on a feeling of fulfillment to be their career compass.

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“Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This quote is often erroneously attributed to the Chinese politician and philosopher, known as Confucius, though its true author is not actually known. It first appeared in print in an edition of the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” back in 1982, that cited a professor of Philosophy named Arthur Szathmary. However, Szathmary himself attributed the maxim to a yet to be identified “old-timer.”

The same reason this quote has become so popular in the last four decades or so energizes the doubt that sees many historians hesitant to name Confucius the wordsmith that first employed it. The kind of anxiety that comes with job satisfaction is anachronistic to the labor ecosystem of ancient China. In today’s market, wherein pressures to land the right career occupies our psyche as early as our freshman year of High School, many rely on a feeling of fulfillment to be their career compass.


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Allowing the thing that pays your bills to be synonymous with your “self-worth,”  is a mistake for several reasons; writer, Ellen Rupel Shell, has published many mediations on the wrong-minded philosophy.  Measuring internal happiness via external achievements will see your emotional well-being be at mercy of perpetually shifting goal posts. “Don’t be married to the job, be engrossed in the work,” Shell advised.

A new study also supports the ramifications of not taking this advice to heart. The new report, Understanding Contemporary Forms of Exploitation: Attributions of Passion Serve to Legitimize the Poor Treatment of Workers, is set to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and is helmed by  senior author, Professor Aaron Kay alongside,  Professor Troy Campbell of the University of Oregon, Professor Steven Shepherd of Oklahoma State University, and Fuqua Ph.D student Jay Kim, who is also the study’s lead author.

The team of researchers analyzed eight studies,  comprised of more than 2,400 participants, to posit the same consistent correlation: Employers perceive it as more acceptable to make workers that are passionate about their job do extra, unpaid, and more demeaning work compared to workers that did not express this same passion.  “It’s great to love your work,” Kay wrote, “but there can be costs when we think of the workplace as somewhere workers get to pursue their passions.”

The findings suggest it all comes down to association and assumptions. The eight studies outed two factors that saw passionate workers become the victim of exploitation: The employer figured the extra work was itself a reward, and or the employer assumed the exploited employee was probably going to take on the extra work whether or not it was specifically assigned.

The same thought process, that might give an employer less pause about over-working an employee that seems to enjoy their job, is the same that fathers an association to exploitation and passion. In one study, participants consistently determined that overworked employees simply loved their work, even if they were not informed of said employees’ passion level.

Of course, employee satisfaction is important to productivity, and overall wellness, the authors simply caution young professionals against letting their passion cloud employee expectation.

“There is excellent evidence that passionate workers benefit in many ways. It’s simply a warning that we should not let the current cultural emphasis on finding passion in our work be co-opted by the human tendency to legitimize or ignore exploitation,”  Kim, the lead author explained. 


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.