Most students encounter a life-changing decision during their undergraduate years. That is either to choose a high-paying career, yet such that they might not be passionate about or a career they like but is unlikely to be high-paying.

It is not unusual to find career advice popping in various internet circles that fixate on the importance of passion. The general rhetoric is "If you have a "sufficient" passion for X, you are guaranteed a "good" career in X and hence a good life." Now, on some levels, the advice makes sense. Students are usually willing to sacrifice guaranteed-to-pay-well professions in hopes to excel in their own professions fueled by passion. Now my question is, What is the sufficiency precisely in this context?

To be more precise, say I think I feel passionate for mathematics. Maybe because I am good at it. Maybe because I contemplate on it in my free time. Now when it comes to the actual profession, the "apparent" passion fades away and I am left regretting pursuing the field (something that is not unusual to see with Ph.D. students). Or say, I feel I like physics and mathematics but I also get easily swayed away by high paying professions like data science.

How can I come to "know" whether I truly have a passion for mathematics or whether I was merely deluded into thinking that because I was made to feel that I am good at mathematics by the relevant education system?

  • 26
    You are passionate about a field if problems in that field keep you awake at night.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 22:53
  • 44
    I don't think the premise in your first paragraph is correct. Most students have no clue what to do with their lives, will figure it out during the next decades, and change careers and lifestyle multiple times throughout their life. Life is a winding road. Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 6:52
  • 30
    @BobBrown: that's a pretty unhealthy litmus test.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 9:44
  • 9
    @CliffAB: It's a pretty good litmus test, nonetheless.
    – user2768
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 12:06
  • 4
    Don't forget the old saying (there is a Chinese version that is more than 1000 years old) - "anybody can find any subject absolutely fascinating, if they study it in enough detail." The path you take to get to the "I've studied subject X in enough detail to become passionate about it" point isn't important, in the long run.
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 12:09

9 Answers 9


If you were really passionate about something, you'd know because you'd want to do it in exclusion of all else. You think about that thing even if you're bathing, eating, etc.

Having said that I can understand what you're asking because if we define passion this way, precious few people would be passionate about anything that they can actually make a living from. That includes academics - e.g. this question

I just want to get married, and have weekends and evenings off, and chill out and play board games, and have nice conversations with friends, and have time to exercise and eat good food, and partake in hobbies, and read books and play computer games and watch movies and write a novel or two.

And from there it's just a short way to "I just want to get married and have my entire week off ..."

So now what? I suggest:

  1. Can you imagine yourself doing it as a career? You don't have to like it more than board games, conversations with friends, etc, but you should like it enough that you can do it for upwards of 40+ hours a week. On the other hand if it starts getting painful to go to work every day, it's not a good idea to do it.
  2. Are you good at it? If you are, then you can get results even if you aren't passionate (by above definition) about it.

It may not be a popular position, but you can certainly base your career around things that you aren't passionate about (by above definition). For example, my mother became a doctor because that's traditionally what all good students at her high school did. She didn't particularly like it any more than other careers, but she studied it, did well at it, became a trained doctor, became a specialist, and eventually managed her own department. She would often complain about her work at the dinner table, and talk about e.g. how she would rather teach language at a local high school, but by all metrics she still had a successful career.

  • 63
    For what it's worth, this is not an unpopular position in most of the population. My unpopular opinion is that people talk a lot about "passion" in fields that tend to be exploitative to newcomers (academia, start-ups, certain branches of politics). As in, it's often a good excuse to not improve conditions for juniors because if you ask for reasonable work-life balance or compensation you're clearly not "passionate" enough. (you may correctly surmise that I am not a fan of the concept)
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 9:21
  • 12
    Exactly! IMHO, "passion" all too often gets in the way in professional life, because it's perfectly possible to be both passionate about something, and totally incompetent at it. Find something that you're good at, which is reasonably enjoyable, and which will let you make enough money to live comfortably, and save your passion for hobbies.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 14:15
  • Remembering the times when I asked myself the same question, suggestion 1. would already have left me helpless because I had no idea what "having a career", or even regular working hours would feel like. Also, if things start feeling painful, the time of making the decision is long past... you can't decide based on data you don't have ;)
    – Sir Jane
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 14:55
  • 2
    If you were really passionate about something, you'd know because you'd want to do it in exclusion of all else. - Do many people define passion this way? Merriam-Webster doesn't.
    – Kimball
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 15:47
  • 1
    @Kimball 4b and 5a and b come down to pretty much the same thing. I’m not sure why a dictionary definition would be relevant though, since knowing the dictionary definition is different from knowing that that is what you feel and exactly that is what the OP is asking. Clearly, the dictionary definition would raise the question how such feelings would manifest in a person.
    – 11684
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 7:22

I suppose the point of this answer is to reject the notion that having a passion for area X is any sort of prerequisite for working in area X and having a successful career. I should make clear that I'm an assistant professor of mathematics at Oberlin College, a small liberal arts college in northeastern Ohio. My job affords me a balance between teaching and research that I love and wouldn't give up for the world. Whether this counts as success is obviously a matter of opinion.

Throughout college (and grad school) I met math majors that knew they wanted to study math for the rest of their lives from the age of 12 or 13. Myself, I became a math major because my engineering pre-major advisor thought that taking two math classes in the spring of my freshman year was a bit much and thus I registered for five math classes to spite her. I had many interests as an undergraduate (mostly in history, foreign languages and literature), and feel that I probably could have gone on to a successful career in any number of them that I would have ultimately found rewarding.

Now there's no way to get around the fact that to succeed in grad school you're going to have to work very hard. In fact you'll probably work so hard that you'll convince yourself that it's a blessing you're even being paid because you'd gladly do this work for free.

I guess my point is that if you really enjoy a field and have a talent for it then you shouldn't discount going on to grad school for it. Even if your passion for the subject doesn't coincide with the romantic notions of some of your classmates. At the end of the day hard work is likely the stronger predicter of success in any event.

  • 9
    " I registered for five math classes to spite her." Loving it. I have a similar story.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 1:13

Most students encounter a life-changing decision during their undergraduate years. That is either to choose a high-paying career, yet such that they might not be passionate about or a career they like but is unlikely to be high paying.

This is false, on many levels:

  • Students face the choice of what to do after having finished their studies. You don't choose your entire career at once (although certain choices obviously draw you away from certain career paths).
  • Passion is not something binary (have it / don't have it), nor even a spectrum (have zero, little, lots, maximum passion). People have mixed and ambivalent feelings about their pursuits.
  • In a sense, you can usually not really develop passion for something you will do later in life - in your actual career - when it's not what you do during your studies. As a student, you study, you don't practice. (Exception: Some degrees have a practical experience phase.)

Now my question is, What is the sufficiency precisely in this context? ...I think I feel passionate for mathematics.

That's rather general and abstract. It may be enough to consider an M.Sc. (if that's customary in your country; in some countries, those are discouraged as opposed to direct Ph.D. tracks) - you'll spend 2-3 years on getting deeper into one particular subject and experiencing research in math. Actually, that's not a very representative experience of what research is like later, but it should be enough to help you decide if you're really into it.

Alternatively - try to think of something you would like to use math for, or apply math in. If there is something like that - consider looking for relevant work in that field. That might arouse your "passion" either for more applied, industrial work or for more academically-oriented research work.

How can I come to "know" whether I truly have a passion for mathematics or whether I was merely deluded into thinking that because I was made to feel that I am good at mathematics by the relevant education system?

You're assuming these two options are distinct. Have you considered they might overlap, or be one and the same? At any rate, my suggestions above are what I'd do to be able to better know.


I'm going to just guess that if you are asking the question, then you don't have it. Yet. Or at least, not a lot of it. Yet. But there is time to develop it and, at your age, my suggestion is that you don't worry too much about it. Yet. And you look around at the possibilities.

A wasted life is one in which you can't really do what you really want to do. Too many people have that forced on them by circumstances, but if you can manage it, spend some time to see what develops.

And also expect that at different times in your life you will have passion for different things, some quite distinct from the others. If you can manage to follow those passions then you can have a rich and rewarding life. And you don't get a do-over.

You will know it when you experience it. But first, experience a lot of things.

  • 1
    I think your first paragraph is a bit too simple argumentation. Nevertheless +1 for "If you can manage to follow those passions then you can have a rich and rewarding life."
    – YYY
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 20:21
  • I have to disagree. A wasted life is one where you need to resort to dumpster diving in order to eat. Sleeping in a bed (with clean sheets, even!) is also nice, as are hot showers. There are lots of things that I really want to do, though I can't say that I'm actually "passionate" about any of them. Unfortunately, as the world is presently constituted, I have to pay to do them.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 17:49

It sounds like you might have a passion for maths, but are in the wrong environment to allow it to blossom; you're in the right field, but working on the wrong problems.

Consider another passion of yours, and work toward a field where maths and it intersect. You've found the tool you like, now you need to find a project that resonates with you, where you can apply that tool.

This is also a good formula for job security. It's easy to get surpassed in your field by AI, or someone younger, more passionate, with more time on their hands if the field is homogeneous. By crossing two disciplines, you're likely to get much higher job satisfaction, and better job security.

  • Yes, working in the sub-set of the field that you really like/are actually passionate about is much different than working in a sort-of-similar-but-not-quite sector. At best, you'll still be doing things in your field of study, at worst, you'll see projects you really want to work on being handed to others, since it's not your job title or whatever. Going directly what you're after is almost always the best option, unless it requires time and experience in something else first, which is rare but happens. Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 20:08

How can I come to "know" whether I truly have a passion for mathematics?

If you are considering an academic career, this is the wrong question to ask. Academic careers do not require passion. They require work. If you can put in the required work, you might succeed. If you do not put in the work, you won't. That work might require appearing to have passion for something sometimes, but the actual feeling is irrelevant. There are many passionate students out there who try to get an academic job and fail because they do not have the required achievements.


It seems the question is broad enough to be considered not necessarily related only to academia, therefore I feel I can submit my 2 somewhat anecdotal cents.

This will be somewhat long, but I think the background is relevant to the conclusion.

First, it should be noted that passion for anything is not necessarily a lifelong thing. Even if you consider you have passion for X now, it in no way guarantees you will have passion for X in 20 years time. And, at the same time it might turn into something different.

Point in case. I was fascinated and passionate about most things computer-related since about age of 5 (at a time when mobile phones didn't exist, PCs had just arrived and laptops were the size of a hefty briefcase).

I learned quite a lot about them and made my profession intimately connected with computers from the very start.

Then at around if 35, I understood that I am not really interested in things related to computers anymore. A somewhat disappointing thing at a time when it becomes cumbersome to switch to something entirely new.

Fortunately, after realising it, I found out (in a new job) that what I really enjoyed was not so much computers themselves, but learning things. And applying my learned solutions to problems relevant to other people.

In this case, since I have somewhat extensive IT knowledge, I am still working with computers, but I have rediscovered my passion for them from an entirely different perspective -- I enjoy creating as efficient IT/human solutions to various everyday problems and projects as I can.

That seems to give me a feeling of meaningfulness I find very comforting. In fact, I believe at least some psychologists consider the feeling of having a meaningful life one of the most important things a person should have.

Therefore, based on what I have experienced, I would advise:

1) try to understand what motivates you. It is probably a more general thing than "being passionate about maths". Do you enjoy learning new things? This sounds probably useful for an academic career. If not, what do you enjoy and how does it relate to your options of future jobs?

2) It seems that people enjoy doing things they find meaningful. And one of the most meaningful options is doing something useful for other people.

3) There is a perception that academics are the kind of people who are so deeply interested in some transcendent things in their field of study that they don't care about my previous point. If you do have ardent passion for something you might not care whether anyone gives a fig about it. However, then the question whether you are passionate enough would probably not even occur to you.


As people have answered before, think about what drives your mind.

  • What keeps you awake (except emotional/mental/physical issues)?
  • What fuels your curiosity?
  • What gets you in the zone and makes you forget your surroundings?
  • What gives you a feeling of accomplishment?
  • What gives you "energy"? How do you want to contribute to society and to the progress of mankind?
  • Are you willing to put in the work without muttering?

Most likely you're able to answer these questions with multiple topics and subjects. That's why you have to consider your financial goals:

  • Do you aim for a certain lifestyle?
  • Do you have to provide?
  • Are you in Debt?
  • Shall it just pay the bills?
  • Does my current employment-/financial-status allow me to follow the passion?

Then pick the "passion" that's in accordance with your financial goals and circumstances.You could accuse me of being a "sellout" but let's face it: this is an economic world - nothing won't last if it isn't at least covering expenses. Yes, A.I. could be making many jobs obsolete within the next few decades. So,choose wisely. But I think with mathematics you're on the right path. You could use your expertise for data-analysis, machine-Learning in medicine e.g..

Edit: I just realized that with certain internet-technologies (e.g. social media, youtube, e-course-platforms, diy-onlineshops, blogs...) you could monetize your passion that has no "formal" carreer. In my field, CS and Software, you could sell a self-written software that solves a particular problem.

  • I'd recommend improving the writing of this answer, otherwise it'll be downvoted over quality, perhaps eventually deleted.
    – Scientist
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 14:24

I think most of the good answers explain what it is to have passion, and how you "already know" if you do have one. I'll give you a bad answer, in the sense that does not directly answer the question.

I think most people have passions. But, they are called different names, depending on what they are, and why we have them. If you have a passion for math, or for electronics, than your passion can be harnessed by the society and people will respect you for that. If you're passionate about alcohol, not so much, but even then, you could become a wine taster if you go the right way about exploiting your "strength".

It is true, your passions might keep up all night, but it's so common that passions get hijacked by the very people paid to nurture them. For example, I love to create and invent stuff, I love to solve problems that seem unapproachable, I love to calculate, and I enjoy even writing the stuff down to explain to posterity what the hell I was doing. Yet, the people I work for, need me only to write long and tedious technical reports no one ever reads, about mundane research that everyone does, they need me to organize meetings and participate in committees, things that tire and disgust me, to the point I'm questioning my passion and career choices (as if I ever had those). Yet, during my vacations, I end up working on my creative stuff that might never get published, because that's the only thing I ever cared about.

Sometimes it's hard to know if you have a passion, or not. I personally don't believe people can ever be passionate about math, physics, history, robotics or whatever. Those fields are artificial, and I doubt someone was ever born with a passion for those. But, as you get exposed to these fields during your education, or self-education, you might find in the structure of one of those fields something appealing to you, some place where you get the freedom to unleash your true self. That is where your passion lie. But, it matters a lot in what way were you exposed to that field. If you are exposed to a field the way a student is, through tests and long, boring, tedious, soul crushing lectures, or the way a researcher is (or should be), through real life problems that are worth tackling.

I honestly can't say I had a passion for my field. I think I was good at it as a student because I was an overachiever, and I was interested in overachieving. When I actually started research in graduate school, it was a shock. I had to discover stuff. I had to do, not to "know" things. My stellar course work, my straight A's, meant nothing compared to the difficulty of doing actual science. It was hard and seemed not worth it at all. I almost gave up. About three years in, things seemed to connect. I started to understand what I was doing, my first paper got published, and it felt like I was good at something once more.

Two postdocs later, I realized I was doing the same type of work over and over, and didn't feel I was going anywhere, so I started thinking about quitting again. So I quit. Then I came back on a permanent position, in an awful place, true, but with a much clear idea of who I was and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

In a nutshell, I realized I would only care about something I created. No matter how many small problems invented by other people I solved, I always came back to my own. This is why I hated my postdoc jobs. I was doing other people's research, while my own ideas were put off indefinitely. In the name of a career and status among my peers, I was living a miserable life.

I'm not saying your passion should be research, banking, music, or your children. All I'm saying, it has to be something that truly represents you. And you will know when you will prefer to do the thing you are passionate about, in spite of the availability of cheap distractions like TV or movies, in spite of what your friends and family tell you, and despite losing your social status, or having a smaller salary.

In my opinion, the main problem with finding a passion is that the passion is hidden within yourself. Most people search for it outside. They go to art classes, they volunteer, they study in universities, go to seminars and get internships. If they are lucky, their true calling will surface during any of those activities. In most cases it never does, or goes unnoticed in the daily humdrum.

Sometimes, you can get "inspired" and you think you have found your passion because someone else who is passionate has told you about their own passion. I think it is the most common way people become passionate about things. I also think that even if you don't find your own passion that way, the "inspiration" would move you closer to it. Just listen to inspirational talks given by people who truly achieved things in their lives (I recommend the one by Arnold Schwarzenegger on youtube, because it's so hilarious). Or read the writings of Nicola Tesla. To a normal guy, they sound like madmen. In a way they are, because passion is madness. The more passionate you are, the bigger sacrifices you will be willing to make.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .