My Career isn't My Passion, But it Doesn't Have to Be

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I distinctly remember calling my mom up my freshman year of college, mid-panic attack about having to declare a major and filling with dread over the fear of choosing wrong. On the surface it probably appeared somewhat comical to my roommate, and I even played it off as such – but deep down I was worried. What if I ended up in a field I hated for the rest of my life? What if I got stuck in the wrong career, and never got the chance to find my passion? The whole ordeal left me feeling incredibly inadequate.

Even in high school, having to choose a college geared toward my passion in life – because your career should be your passion, right? – was daunting. I always had subjects I excelled in, such as English and history, but I didn't know how to make a career out of either of those subjects. I didn't see myself as a writer, nor a historian, and I dreaded the idea of becoming a professor. Teaching is an admirable profession, but I knew I was not cut out for it. I also knew I wanted to study a field where I could be a full-time contributor, rather than a communicator of its concepts.

I knew all of the things I couldn’t – or didn’t want – to be, but that still left me unsure of what I actually wanted. This led me to consider my extracurricular interests: the music industry and media. I was intrigued by both, but I wasn’t exactly well-versed or equipped for either field at the time, which was discouraging. So I chose a university with a diverse list of majors to select from, for when I did figure myself out, and I expected to begin undergrad undeclared, only to find out I was given a major as a placeholder. I was sent me into panic mode; I felt as if I was running out of time to make up my mind. It was as if everyone else – everyone starting off in the major of their choice – was getting ahead, and I was being left behind. Everyone had passion and purpose, and I was aimless and doomed. And it was only the first semester.  

How did I manage those feelings of inadequacy and finally decide on a career path?

For one thing, I was enrolled in a course meant for students who were undecided, which gave me a place to openly admit that I hadn’t identified my passion. It made me realize I was not alone. I also took comfort in the thought that even my peers were likely also plagued with some kind of uncertainty about their future, and it normalized the feeling for me. 

Ultimately, there was no conclusive answer – even after the aptitude and personality tests. I simply bit the bullet, made a decision, and hoped it was the right one. In hindsight, it was less about the “right” choice and more about my determination to work hard and make something of the major I had chosen, so I channeled my aimlessness into exploring my options through my courses and extracurricular activities, figuring I’d find my passion along the way. 

person using laptop at a desk Photo by Christin Hume from Unsplash

So what came of my journey in search of a passion in the professional world? Well, I’ve still found myself asking similar questions as I hunt for job opportunities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “What do I want to do? Who do I want to be?” Those are hard questions! It’s even harder when I assume that what I do is who I am. This eye opening piece from the Atlantic, titled “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable” helped me realize that I’ve been subscribing to ideals I don’t actually believe in for the past several years.

But how do you break away from the ideals that society has developed? 

It’s dangerous to define ourselves – and by extension where we find joy, motivation and our purpose for living, (also known as the ever elusive “passion” people are told to find) –, by a job, yet it’s seen as saccharine or impractical to admit out loud that I find my drive from human connection – relationships, be they romantic, platonic or familial. For someone else, perhaps it’s creativity or a hobby, which society would write off as frivolous. Or maybe for someone, their passion is found in the form of traveling the world (aren’t we always fantasizing about vacations away from work, anyway?) or something equally less acceptable of a career path. I can much more comfortably label the aforementioned passions as what I would want to use to define my identity and purpose, in comparison to the job I hope to one day land. Don’t get me wrong; work is something that can be enjoyable, and pride and satisfaction can be derived from it, but I can confidently say I don’t live to work.  

But job acceptances and promotions are what my relatives want to hear about over family dinners. And on Instagram, people want to appear like they’re grinding to make their dreams come true, and loving every minute of it because they’re following their passion like a boss. And, of course, there is some truth in this image. You should be in a career you at the very least like, since much of a person’s day-to-day is framed around a job (the pandemic has driven this point home for many). I think it’s hard to communicate my perspective on the relationship, or lack thereof, between a career path and passion when prompted with questions about my plans for my future without seeming like I have a flippant attitude about where I end up. That is definitely not the case. I care quite a bit; it just isn’t the driving force behind my life.

The truth is no one actually asks you to name your passion. Instead, inquiring minds tend to ask you what’s next. I find it’s best to simply give the facts; I tell them what I’ve accomplished thus far, and I tell them what I’ve been pursuing. And I end on a note that can be interpreted as positive rather than indifferent when I say something like, “I’m still figuring it out, but I’m working hard. I’m sure it’ll work itself out.” It's a polite and brief way to answer people’s questions without being evasive, but also without divulging your whole philosophy to life. This can be an uncomfortable conversation to have if you’re like me, and have never felt a distinct calling while the people around you expect you to talk about your career trajectory with unbridled fervor. It gets easier when you realize that it doesn’t really matter. I am a dedicated, loyal, and hard working person, eager to learn more about the field I am pursuing. And that really is enough. 

It gets even easier when you realize you’re not the only person to break away from the status quo.

Celina Timmerman-Cup Celina Timmerman / Her Campus It’s important to challenge and question this popular ideal – the pursuit of passion in a career, which is pervasive in our society. While some may in fact define themselves and their purpose by their jobs, many people do not. Some people opt for the philosophy of simply being good at what they do over an overwhelming passion or vocation. Some people see work as a means to an end – a salary. While others reject the passion ideal because it feeds into toxic productivity of a capitalist society and burnout culture. And then there are those who want to adjust the conversation because they believe that passion is not found, but grown over time once one has entered the workforce. 

These are all alternative perspectives I was never given in high school, or even when I started my undergrad education. It would have been a great comfort for someone like me, who never had that crystal clear, “ah hah!” moment that everyone is expected to find.

But a traumatic moment did trigger a different realization. 

In my senior year of college, my university sent out an emergency message alerting us to an active shooter. In the end, the threat turned out to be an act of terror from a hacker. But it was an extremely real experience, in that my entire campus truly believed there was an active shooter for a number of hours. I remember sitting in a dark room with a few co-workers in silence as I fought every urge to cry, unsure if the threat would walk right through the door and end our lives abruptly as we sat utterly defenseless. I promise you I was not thinking about my GPA, the honors I had earned, my courses, or the professional I would never become. I asked myself if I had loved enough in the time I had been given, and that was my moment. That’s when I knew what defined my passion in life.  

Am I saying no one should love their job? Of course not! Am I saying I won’t love my job? Not necessarily. But I am saying it’s okay if you never feel passion or a distinct calling in your career the way people always said you should. It’s a nuanced issue. There are many other ways of looking at life, and that’s perfectly okay.