Home » Benjamin Todd: To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion at TEDxYouth@Tallinn (Transcript)

Benjamin Todd: To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion at TEDxYouth@Tallinn (Transcript)

Benjamin Todd

Here is the full transcript of 80,000 Hours’ co-founder Benjamin Todd’s TEDx Talk presentation: To Find Work You Love, Don’t Follow Your Passion at TEDxYouth@Tallinn conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: To find work you love, don’t follow your passion by Benjamin Todd at TEDxYouth@Tallinn


When I graduated from University, I didn’t know what career I wanted to choose. I had a lot of interests, but which interest should I pursue and try and turn into a job?

So, back then, I was really interested in martial arts. Here is me. But I didn’t want to turn that into a career; here’s my face.

I was really interested in — and I was studying philosophy, but one of the philosophers I most enjoyed reading, late at night, in my dorm room, recently said: “Philosophy is a bunch of empty ideas”. And there’s no jobs in philosophy, anyway. So that was out.

Being a slightly weird kid, I was really interested in investing and finance, and I had even taken a portion of the small savings I had and invested them into gold when I was a teenager.

Now, I knew that following the finance root would be a really well-paid career, but I was wondering, like, maybe I wouldn’t make as much difference as I could in that, it wouldn’t help society. So in the end it wouldn’t really be that fulfilling.

So I was left with the question: How could I choose a fulfilling career? And maybe many of you have asked yourself the same question. And I thought about this question, I realized I didn’t even know how to go about choosing a career. And I, you know, read books, I went to careers advisors, I just couldn’t really find information I really needed: what would I be good at in the end? What skills should I learn now? Which areas is there a great social need where I can make a difference?

These unanswered questions led me to, kind of, delay the decision by a few years. Instead of actually settling on a career, I founded an organization dedicated to researching the question of which career to choose. And this organization is called 80,000 Hours. That’s the number of hours you have in your working life, that’s a long time. So, it’s worth really doing some serious research and trying to work out how best to use them.

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We help you do some of this research and we publish all of our findings as part of a free online careers guide, 80000hours.org. Here’s some of the team today, surrounded by laptops and whiteboards, as normal.

So, you might at this point be thinking to yourself: “Well, you hardly look like you’re above the legal age to drink, what could you tell me about choosing a career?” Well, it’s true that one of the main things we’ve discovered is that we have a lot to learn. Choosing a career is a complex problem and not enough serious research has been done into how best to do it.

But we have spent the last three years doing research with academics of University of Oxford and most importantly we’ve coached hundreds of people on how to make real career decisions. All this research and thinking has led us to the conclusion that careers advice today focuses on the wrong thing.

Throughout most of history people basically did what their parents did. Some people in the 1980s thought: “The greed is good” and they focused on making money.

But our generation grew up with some different careers advice and that’s that you should follow your passion. You can see that use of this phrase increased dramatically from the mid-nineties. But today I think we need to move beyond “follow your passion” as the careers advice to focus on, and instead of asking what our own interests and passions are, we should be focusing much more on what we can do for other people and to make the world a better place.

OK, so let’s go back to my decision: How would “follow your passion” apply to me? I think what “follow your passion” tells you to do is three things: The first is to identify your greatest interests; second, find careers that match those interests; thirdly, pursue those careers, no matter what. Finding a fulfilling career is just a matter of having the courage to pursue your passion.

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In my case, I was interested in martial arts and philosophy, remember? So, which career should I pick? Any ideas? I should obviously become a shaolin monk, Buddhism and martial arts, together.

OK, so, what’s the theory behind this advice? You get passion match, then you really enjoy your work, you’re really motivated. So you’re more likely to be successful. And if you are successful doing something you’re passionate about, then you have a fulfilling career. And, spelled out like that, this really does sound like pretty reasonable advice, right? I can get maybe — behind that.

But let’s just think about it in a bit more depth. Turns out if you follow your passion, you’re probably going to fail. Why do I say that? Let’s look at the data.

A survey of 500 Canadian students found that their greatest passions were ice-hockey and dance. 90% of them, they were passionate about sports, arts, music, something like that. But if we look at census data we can see that only 3% of jobs are in art, sport and music. So it just has to be the case that even if only one in 10 people followed their passion, still the majority would fail to be successful. So this first step just doesn’t work.

I think the second step is also not reliable, in that even if you match your passion with your work and you’re successful, you can still quite easily fail to have a fulfilling career, that’s because you might not find the work meaningful. This was a bit like me deciding not to go into finance. I thought, while I was interested in it, maybe I could be successful, but I wouldn’t make a difference. So maybe it would still end up not being fulfilling. So I think the second step doesn’t work either.

Now, at this point you probably — you might be thinking: “OK, sure, passion isn’t the only thing that matters, if I follow my passion, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, but maybe at least makes me more likely to succeed and to have a fulfilling career. As career advice, this is the best we can do.” But I think that is wrong as well.

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