You work all day and dream-punch your boss all night. You’re underpaid and have daily nervous breakdowns. You don’t just hate your job; you had a gang of TikTok witches put a hex on it. And whenever you look for advice, the same tired cliché comes up: “Just quit and follow your passion, man.”
The answer, according to career coach Rebecca Fraser-Thill, who designed the Purposeful Work program at Bates College in Maine, is an enthusiastic no. “The idea at the core of this advice — that life is too short to be miserable for most of our waking hours — is quite sound,” she says. “But the way this advice takes action on that core idea is problematic.”
For example, the most obvious issue whenever leaving a job is practicality. Nearly all of us work so that we can afford to live, and very few of us can freely choose what that work involves. As the latest job numbers show, people without college degrees are having more and more trouble finding employment altogether, let alone jobs they’re passionate about. And degree or not, there’s no guarantee that our passions will produce a sustainable income.
Likewise, as Fraser-Thill points out, many of us have financial restraints like medical bills, student loans or familial obligations that lock us into certain salary ranges, which means we can’t leave our higher-paying hell jobs for lesser-paying ones we’re more passionate about (that, or we can’t afford the schooling we’d need to warrant a six-figure salary). “Furthermore, we might have geographic limitations due to family,” she adds. Or maybe we can only work certain hours because we have kids to watch.
Beyond professional, financial and personal constraints, Fraser-Thill says passion simply isn’t a reliable emotion to base career choices on, in part because what we’re into changes with time. “I’ve seen plenty of people chase passions only to find that the passion burns out once they’ve actually made the career change,” she says. “Even worse, many of us have too many passions, so which do we choose? An equal portion of us have no real ‘passions’ and therefore feel lost and confused.” Another common occurrence is that a person’s passion spoils under the weight of monetization, endless deadlines and constant assessments — journalism, for instance, is a notoriously high-burnout industry, despite the love for writing that many budding journalists have.
For these reasons, Cal Newport, who’s written several books on careers, argues that our passions are more likely to develop as we chase the skills associated with the jobs we land in, not the other way around.
Nonetheless, there are people who take the leap. Six years ago, Jackie Bryant abandoned an almost decade-long career in finance — without savings — to chase her dream and become a freelance journalist. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy: She no longer has employer-sponsored health insurance, works longer hours and makes less money. Nonetheless, she says she’s “much happier” doing what she wants.
What really helped Bryant make that change was a year she spent writing on the side while still working in finance. Having a side hustle like this is a tactic that Fraser-Thill suggests to anyone who’s thinking about leaving their job for a passion. “Start small, see if you like monetizing what you love, then take it from there,” she says. It’s a good way to test the waters before doing anything overly risky.
Still, people leave their jobs all the time, and many would count Bryant lucky. I asked the folks in r/AntiWork if any of them successfully followed their passion, and the replies were less optimistic. One quit a customer service gig to chase her dream of becoming a writer, but it didn’t go well. “It went terribly, and I ended up being a waitress for two and a half years,” she says. “It was exhausting and cost me a lot physically and mentally.”
Another chased his love of computers and programming, but ended up having those passions stolen away by grueling workplace conditions. “Corporations managed to crush my souls, and I’m now merely a tiny cog in the giant wheel,” he says.
Then there’s a wildcard, who was tired of his job as assistant manager at a pizza parlor, so he quit, bought a backpack and set out to hitchhike around Canada. “After saving for three years, I left with a $20 bill in my pocket,” he says. In the 11 years since then, he’s been busking with a guitar and sleeping under bridges, behind billboards and in the woods to scrape by. “Twenty bucks can last a few days when you don’t have to pay a landlord,” he tells me. It’s a rugged way to live, but he much prefers it to a life that revolves around pepperoni and mozzarella. “I put my feet in two oceans within eight weeks of my first year travelling,” he says.
If anything, stories like these show just how volatile the job market can be. In fact, there’s really no guarantee of anything.
However, Fraser-Thill believes you can at least take a calculated approach if you’d like to change careers. For starters, she suggests starting with what you’re curious (not passionate) about, which should broaden what you’re willing to do. “Curiosity is a much lower bar than passion, and we’re all naturally curious about something,” she says. “The intersection between what you’re curious about and what the world will pay for may be a sweet spot.”
Next, you’ll have to put your curiosities to the test and see if you really like them (and would enjoy monetizing them), much like what Bryant did. Fraser-Thill says free or cheap online classes, informal interviews who work in industries you’re interested in and talking about your plans with another person can all help. “Making our careers more fulfilling and having more passion at work is an iterative, gradual process, not some big leap,” she explains. “Quitting might eventually be a part of the process, but that will be toward a very well considered and clear next step.”
Even still, it’s possible that a career leap simply isn’t the answer to your problems. Work sucks, and a new job may not make you feel any better. This is where Fraser-Thill says actively working to improve your current job (or finding enjoyment outside of it) may come in handy. “We can do that by gradually altering our tasks, changing our relationships with coworkers and/or clients and modifying how we think about our work,” she explains. “Making a huge leap to a different career isn’t necessarily a magic bullet; we need to know how to take a given work situation and make the most of it.”
Alternatively, let’s hope that hex really does something.