Pursue your passion? Depends on your culture

September 26, 2021

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Pursue your passion? Depends on your culture

A common adage urges people to follow their passion when choosing a career. However, not everyone is equally receptive to this advice. A new set of studies by a team of researchers suggests that culture shapes people’s beliefs and attitudes toward passion when making career decisions.

Specifically, the researchers examined differences between people from Western and Asian cultures in their endorsement of pursuing a passion as a career. They conducted three experiments involving 1,326 American and Singaporean participants. The findings showed that while people across cultures generally endorse the idea of pursuing a passion as a career, Americans endorse it more even more than Singaporeans. That is, Americans were on average even more likely to “agree” or “strongly agree” with the idea that pursuing a passion would be a smart and wise career move. In addition, Americans were more likely to expect positive outcomes such as greater personal fulfilment and eventual success.

Cultures shape people’s priorities, which in turn can mold their beliefs about passion. In Western cultures (such as the United States), people prioritize “independence;” that is, their separateness from others, unique traits, and accomplishments, and they often consider their personal interests when making important decisions. By contrast, in Asian cultures (such as Singapore), people prioritize independence less, and decisions are often based not on personal interests but on being pragmatic. The researchers note that their findings could apply to many other countries depending on whether or not the cultures tend to prioritize independence.

Americans and Singaporeans tend to hold fundamentally different beliefs about what passions do, which accounts for why they diverge in their endorsement of pursuing a passion as a career. In the studies, participants indicated their beliefs about passion in general—namely, how much passions tend to motivate people and how much they tend to create problems, such as possible conflicts with obligations or being too idealistic. In another task, they evaluated an individual described as either pursuing their passion as a career or pursuing a career that did not reflect their passion. The researchers found that, compared to Singaporeans, Americans believed that passion was a more significant source of motivation, inspiration, and reward, making it highly desirable for careers. By contrast, Singaporeans tended to view passions as potentially problematic, making it a poor yardstick for guiding critical career decisions.

What the researchers say: “Both culturally-based views of passion are valid. Culture informs how we interpret our social world and how to respond to it. A ‘good’ decision is likely one that fits with one’s own culture, and what may be most fruitful is to pursue a career in a way that fits their own notion of passion,” the lead author said.

These findings have clear implications for practice. “Career counsellors may wish to dispense career advice in a culturally consistent manner, taking care to avoid platitudes that may conflict with one’s cultural beliefs,” he added. “For example, if a Singaporean were urged to unflaggingly follow their passion, as is often espoused in American culture, the advice might not be taken well; Singaporeans’ greater concerns about their obligations are important for them and might be at odds with this ‘American’ advice.”

These cultural differences have implications for how pursuing a passion as a career shapes people’s life outcomes, such as their general life satisfaction. In the third study, employed participants were asked to report the degree to which they were pursuing their passion as a career and, separately, to rate their current life satisfaction. The team found that Americans were more likely to have pursued passion as a career in the first place. Moreover, for Americans, life satisfaction depended more strongly on the extent to which they were pursuing their passion as a career. By comparison, passion may not play as key a role in major life outcomes for Singaporeans as it does for Americans. Hence, cultural differences in beliefs about passion reflect people’s actual lived experiences.

These results suggest that Americans might consider what motivates and inspires them more when choosing a career. At the same time, Americans may be more negatively affected than the less-idealistic Singaporeans, should they eventually find that even passion-driven careers can involve mundanity, difficulty, and frustration. Singaporean culture may have a somewhat more realistic perspective, which could help regulate expectations when things do not go as planned.

Going forward, should passion still be a factor in shaping people’s career decisions? Yes, the researchers answer, but within their own cultural contexts. “What may bring people the most fulfilment is to pursue a career in a way that fits their own notion of passion, which is shaped, in part, by their culture. For Americans, this may include pursuing what motivates and inspires them, and for Singaporeans, it may include a more practical evaluation of both their passions and obligations.”

So, what? The first point that I would make is that even people within the same culture can differ in the importance they ascribe to passion—or anything else.

The other, more important point is that people’s passions change over time. Very few of us are passionate about the same thing over the course of our lives. The ideal may be to have many changes of occupation to cater to our changing passions.

And yet employers often tend to look askance on those who have followed multiple careers. They’re not seen as “serious” or reliable. Research published over the last two years shows the very opposite to be the case.

During my XX years of working life (from 15 when I left home and put myself through school and then university to the present) I have been an actor, a teacher, a journalist, a TV producer/director/reporter, a composer, a real estate investor, a fund manager, an entrepreneur, a psychologist, a scientist, a writer and an academic. Some of these paths have been followed at the same time and some I still follow. I have been passionate about all of them. Who knows what I will explore next? Following passion, I have picked up a slew of degrees and done some amazing things.

We all can. The human mind is an amazing, complex and ever-changing thing and the world has so much to teach us that we cannot even begin to explore it if we are stuck in just one lane—whether that’s dictated by passion or pragmatism. I once asked my favorite guru what I should do—I was a teen at the time—what career I should set my sights on. He said: “Only do that which you enjoy the process of doing. The purpose of life is: life. Enjoy it, don’t sweat it.” We are process animals, not goal-directed animals. We’re designed to have fun, to do things for the pleasure, for the satisfaction, of doing them. Modern research supports that.

That sense of having fun and finding satisfaction leads directly to higher achievement and productivity.

That’s the way hunter-gatherers live. That’s human.

For more on career click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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