For many women, talking about money is hard. Women might happily share the detailed inner workings of their uterus with a friend, or divulge a sensitive back-and-forth with their spouse, but few discuss finances with friends or family, and many feel uncomfortable when someone brings up the subject.
This partially explains why, as we embarked on a multi-year project during which we interviewed 43 of our fellow sorority sisters with whom we’d graduated from Northwestern University in the early ’90s about their lives, career decisions, marriage, and parenting, questions about personal finance weren’t top of mind. We were driven to take this project on as the result of events in our own lives, and we initially wrote up our findings for The Atlantic in a December 2016 series, “The Ambition Interviews.” In that series we discussed some of the implications that money had on choosing to opt out of the workforce, but didn’t go much deeper than that.
We’ve since expanded our research into a book, The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life. In the course of re-interviewing our friends and further dissecting our data for the book, we discovered that, oftentimes, a difference of belief on one key question predicted our friends’ career choices: Should a career be a sort of manifestation of one’s passions and deeply held beliefs, or should a job primarily function to pay the bills?
The stories of two friends prompted us to dig into this topic. (Throughout the book we do not use our classmates’ names or other identifying details, out of concern for the protection of their privacy.) Growing up in the Midwest, one friend had watched her mother struggle to support herself financially after her parents divorced. With “the power to support myself” as her primary driver, she opted for a career in dentistry. She doesn’t love the job, but she loves knowing that she can, and does, support herself. Now married with two kids, she keeps her finances separate from her husband’s, even though they earn about the same.
Another friend also had a turbulent financial childhood. Born to hippie parents who were unable to care for her, she grew up being shuttled back and forth among family members in her North Carolina town. She was the star of her high school––known for her resonant singing voice—a reputation that followed her through our college years. Post-graduation, she worked on launching her singing career, but after years of auditioning without much luck, she switched to a job in the financial-services industry. It wasn’t something she cared much about, and after she was married and pregnant with her first child, she quit. She’s been home caring for her three children for the last 15 years.
In considering the divergent trajectories these two friends followed, we thought a lot about the different ways the two women planned their career paths. In part because they held different perspectives when it came to the importance of money and financial independence, they ended up in different places. We wondered about the relationship between following your heart and finding a job that is financially rewarding but possibly not the most ardor-inducing way to spend one’s time. How had our other friends managed to balance the two?
After our interviews were complete, we polled our friends on whether they’d prioritized passion or economic independence in their career choices. More than half our friends told us they’d opted to follow their passion and hoped that the money would work itself out. But hidden in that number was an interesting story. For our friends who didn’t see earning money as a do-or-die prospect (it goes without saying, a very privileged position to be in), when the thing they were passionate about didn’t lead to a lucrative career (or, in some cases, any career at all), they gave up working altogether. “I think if I was doing something that I loved, I would’ve been insistent and said, ‘No, I still need this in my life,’” our singer-turned-stay-at-home-mom friend told us about her decision to quit working when she was pregnant with her first child. “But I was ready to get rid of the job.”
Another friend had similar feelings about her job, even though it was in an area she’d originally loved. She was a journalism major, and before she got married, she’d had a job in PR in downtown Chicago handling big clients, working in a sleek office building and feeling “like I’d made it.” But when her husband took a new job in a smaller southern city, she begrudgingly joined a small, local PR firm with industrial clients. “I went from working with fun spokespeople for Quaker Oats to working with the CEO of a trucking company. It was just not as interesting for me.” And when, a few years later, her first child arrived, it wasn’t that big of a leap to leave a job she wasn’t thrilled with anyway. “I wanted to be with my daughter more than I wanted to be going to that office every day,” she told us.
We heard this sentiment from many of our friends who had left careers. If they’d loved what they were doing, they would have found a way to make it work, but they didn’t love it, so it made sense to give it up and stay home. These were also women who had the economic freedom to stay home. Their spouses earned enough that they could give up their jobs without dramatically changing their lifestyles. And, most significant, they were women who did not equate money with independence. They were comfortable relying on someone other than themselves to pay the bills and contributing to home life in other ways.
Other friends, when confronted with the choice between a job that was good enough and staying at home, opted for the job, propelled by a desire to support themselves, to not have to ask anyone whether it was okay to buy boots. While some of them struggled to infuse passion into their jobs, others found ways to feel stimulated by, if not passionate about, their work. And still others saw work and passion as two entirely separate realms. Which made us wonder when it was, exactly, that passion became a thing that had anything to do with work. It’s a luxury, no doubt, to feel that the same activity that pays your electric bill should also bring you pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment. So why did so many of our friends get hung up on the idea that if they didn’t love their job, then it wasn’t worth doing?
“There’s little doubt that ‘do what you love’ (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time,” the writer Miya Tokumitsu put it in an essay that traced these ideas back to Steve Jobs. In 2005, Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford in which he told the newly minted graduates that “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” The speech went viral, and gave voice to an idea that had been brewing in the collective consciousness for a while.
The idea that you should be passionate about your work predates Steve Jobs—the 1970 book What Color Is Your Parachute? formally introduced the world to the idea that work should be connected to love, along with steps on how to get there—and it started to gain momentum right around the time we graduated from college. The phrase “follow your passion” began appearing in print with increasing frequency around the time Parachute was published, disappeared for a while, and then, in 1990, while we were in college (and right around the time the baby boomers were hitting 40 and possibly starting to freak out about being middle-aged), the phrase again began to pepper books and articles.
In the past decade, the concept has become pervasive, with magazine articles exhorting young women to “Get That Life” (wherein “that life” involves a super-cool job) and job listings for house cleaners specifying that prospective employees should be passionate while they mop the floors. This idea has spread like a contagion, Tokumitsu argues, because “do what you love” is actually about class, not about love. Being a person who loves their work sends the message that you are approaching Steve Jobs–level success in society. You are not merely an automaton tightening screws in a factory, you are someone with ideas and fire and gusto, a person with control over your career and thus your destiny.
This explains why some of our friends seemed mildly embarrassed that they hadn’t found their true calling, the thing they could fall in love with, as though their lack of all-engulfing passion somehow minimized their achievements. It also explains why so many of our friends felt they needed to be passionate about their work in order to keep doing it. Based on these conversations, we suspect that the idea that one should feel fervently about one’s work disproportionately affects women, who may already feel that their job is a hardship for their family. For women who don’t inherently see their role in the family as “economic provider,” staying in a job that might not pay much and that they’re not crazy about feels frivolous and selfish.
Perhaps it’s worth stating the obvious: Passions often don’t translate into lucrative careers. Our friends’ passions included acting, singing, sports teams, and yoga—all activities those friends tried to monetize at one time or another, for very low pay. While intellectually most women know they won’t earn much chasing a dream, the reality of trying to balance a low-paying job with raising a family and running a household, especially if your spouse way outearns you, is enough to make many women leave the workplace, particularly those women who don’t feel they must be economically independent.
Many of our friends who followed their passion with no economic plan ended up out of the workforce for years. One woman, an aspiring screenwriter who left teaching and film school to stay at home with her children, said she’d never received any guidance beyond following her bliss. “One of the biggest things you need to realize as an artist is you have two lives you need to lead. One that can economically support you, and one where you’re following your passion. My mother was a huge supporter of my passion. She is a true believer in following your dreams. But I needed someone who could say, ‘This is what’s going to be required of you for your art, and this is what’s going to be required of you to live.’”
There’s yet one more wrinkle: Being good at something can create passion for it. One friend, an insurance-company executive, didn’t pick her field because she was wild about insurance. But when we talked to her, she exuded enthusiasm for her career. Over the years, she became good at it, and her expertise sparked passion. And another friend told us that her banking job wasn’t a passion—that hadn’t been her guiding principle, anyway. She was interested in being able to support herself above all else. But we saw that her work was clearly something she cared about very deeply, a job that paid her back for her hard work, for being really good at something, by boosting her confidence and awarding her success.
This article has been adapted from The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life.