Fix Your Résumé by Cutting the Part About How Passionate You Are

A young woman I know did everything right in high school, got into a good private college, and landed a position in corporate marketing for a major retail chain after she graduated. While it was a good, stable job—the kind that makes parents happy—she found it stultifying and unsatisfying.

With a solid academic pedigree and good experience, she hit the job market to look for a more fulfilling career. Several months into her search, she was floundering despite a solid job market in Boston. She wasn’t sure why.

This situation is typical of those faced by millennials I talk to. This woman’s job quest mirrors a unique phenomenon of this generation: an obsession with passion and a misunderstanding of its currency in the job market.

“I may not have a lot of experience, but I’m a fast learner. I have so much passion to bring to a company,” this woman told me. I believed her but wasn’t surprised she couldn’t find a job.

I’ve worked with, taught, interviewed, and hired hundreds of millennials in the last five years. Stereotypes notwithstanding, I have found them no more—or less—lazy, self-absorbed, and feeling entitled than any other generation. Our struggling job-seeker in Boston has formidable passion and commitment, but she described her passion as a skill when she talked to potential employers. She and many of her peers have it backwards: Getting to do work you are passionate about is a job benefit employers give you, not a skill you bring to them.

The economists around me at MIT would likely point out that the fields most often aligned with people’s stated passions usually have the lowest median salaries. University teaching, nonprofits, media, and sports management all have many more qualified candidates clamoring for jobs than they have positions. Cal Newport’s excellent book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, has a term for this that I find myself using all the time: the “passion trap.”

The students who are most successful in the job market describe passion in different terms. Take one professional I know, a social media marketer (not one of the cool ones). The core of his job involves testing combinations of pictures and advertising copy to see what people will click on. When his client was selling men’s ties, he spent full workdays uploading photos of necktie-wearing cats to Facebook.

He always talks about his work in terms of the impact it has on other people, rather than on himself. He’ll brag that “we discovered an ad combination that increased our client’s conversation rate 47 percent.” He talks about skills he has developed to make himself more effective, such as a way to analyze click-through rates on ads.

I don’t think this person is wired differently than other millennials. He wants to do fulfilling work he’s passionate about, build a solid career, and make a positive impact on the world. For him, that impact is to help companies tap into the power of new advertising mediums to help build their businesses. He uses skills he has honed with big corporations to work as often as he can with entrepreneurs. I have rarely seen him happier than when the knowledge he gained from all those cat photo tests help  entrepreneurs discover that their businesses can really work.

The candidates that consistently get hired quickly, advance the fastest, and enjoy their jobs are the ones that articulate their “passions” in terms of what they can do for others—and the skills they want to build.

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