A number of factors have led me to write about today’s topic. It started with watching a wonderful movie that I came across this summer on Netflix called Departures. It’s no longer available to stream in Canada but if you ever get a chance to watch it, I highly recommend it. It’s about a Japanese cello player that takes on an excessive amount of debt to purchase an exquisite cello, only to find out soon afterwards that the orchestra whom he plays for is dismantling. He eventually finds a new career as a nōkanshi—a traditional Japanese ritual mortician- which is seen in Japan as an undesirable and unlucky career. The movie is filled with humour and beauty stemming even from something as bleak as death. But what struck me most about it was the subtle message that turning your passions into employment might not be a very good idea.

This message has stayed with me for some time now, mostly because it appears to be counter-intuitive to what most of us believe about making career decisions. Career counsellors, well-intentioned family members and even famous philosophers tell us that we should choose a career based on our dreams and our passions.

Never chase after money, chase after your dreams, passions and opportunities and the money will come naturally – Unknown 

Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life – Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

The problem is that these quotes and well-meaning experts don’t take into account how human motivation works and how it can be affected by reward systems. In a simple psychological experiment by Lepper et al., 1973 the authors demonstrated the relationship between intrinsic motivation and the effects of reward.

In this study, preschoolers who enjoyed drawing prior to the study were then introduced to one of three conditions. Some children received no reward for their drawings, others received a surprise reward after the fact, and others were told they would receive a reward for drawing once the study was over. In order words, this last group was told that they would get a certificate with a goal seal and ribbon if they drew. Each child was invited into a separate room to draw for a specified amount of time and were then given their reward or not, depending on the condition.

Over the next few days, the children from all the groups were observed through one-way mirrors to determine how much they would continue to draw on their own. The results show that the expected-reward group engaged in much less spontaneous drawing. On average the amount of drawing was reduced by half! In other words, their intrinsic motivation to engage in the behaviour without any incentive or reward, decreased significantly.


What this study and many others are essentially pointing out is that when we are rewarded for behaviour, we are less likely to engage in that same behaviour if the reward is subsequently removed. For example, let’s say you love to snowboard but then you are rewarded for snowboarding (via a pay check or other reward). According to this study, you will be less likely to snowboard unless a reward is attributed to it. Presumably, your intrinsic motivation for the behaviour decreases.

Something to think about…

So if choosing employment should not stem from passion, then how do we proceed? The opposite does not ring true either. That is to say, that one should not choose something they despise to do as employment in order to maintain their passions.

The reality is that in any job or career, there will be ups and downs. Some days are inevitably more difficult than others. The point is to make the best of it. Try to appreciate the fact that the job that you have may not be a passionate one, all the time, but at least it provides the freedom and the financial stability that allows you to engage in those passions you do have. The two go hand in hand. And when the time comes for my children to start considering what career path they will follow in life, I hope they will find something that is manageable, perhaps at times enjoyable, but mostly that allows them to find pleasure in things other than work.