Curiosity > Passion
We keep telling people to follow their passion, and I feel like that can be an intimidating and almost cruel thing to say to people at times.
This sentiment, described by Elizabeth Gilbert on the TED Radio Hour to follow one’s passion, has become popular career advice, and a first glance, it seems reasonable. After all, some research suggests that being intrinsically motivated makes us happier in our jobs, happier even than receiving a large paycheque.
But as Gilbert points out »... if somebody has one central powerful burning passion, they’re probably already following it. Because that’s the definition of passion, that you don’t have a choice. If you don’t, which is a lot of people, have one central burning passion, and somebody tells you to follow your passion, I think you have the right to give them the finger«.
Even if we accept that powerful burning passions are rare, it may also be dangerous to suggest that passion alone is enough to find happiness or success in work. In 2017, 80,000 Hours, the non-profit research team within the Centre for Effective Altruism, reviewed over 60 studies on what makes for a dream job. What they found, in a nutshell, is that we are most likely to be satisfied by work that we are good at, that is in service of others, and promotes supportive conditions. These conditions include engaging work, with supportive colleagues, that is fairly compensated, and that is compatible with our personal lives.
So what piece of fortune cookie reductionism can we offer as an alternative to living a life in pursuit of passion? Gilbert tells people »... if you don’t have an obvious passion, forget about it. Follow your curiosity. Because passion is a tower of flame that is not always accessible, and curiosity is something that anybody can access any day«.
So it might be said that as a source of intrinsic motivation, curiosity is more readily accessible than passion. It may also be more likely to drive us to work in the face of uncertainty, as curiosity, unlike passion, is fuelled by the unknown. It may be that curious people are more flexible and adaptive; that they are more likely to maintain an open mind and be willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Since even a dream job can be tedious at times, being intrinsically motivated by a quality such as curiosity may help us endure setbacks and opposition—because no matter the outcome, if nothing else, we have satisfied our curiosity. On that note Gilbert leaves us with a final point:
Your curiosity may lead you to your passion, or it may not. It may have been for ‘nothing’. In which case, all you’ve done your entire life is spent your existence in pursuit of the thing that makes you feel curious and inspired, and that should be good enough.
William Samuel Johnson, too, reminds us to not follow our passion unless our passion is curiosity with: »curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last«.