When it comes to the advice to follow your passion, there seem to be a big divide. Just as with the topic of goal-setting vs process, there are two camps.
One says to follow your passion: pursue your dreams, and the money will come. The other says following your passion is bad advice: find something you can do for a long time without being bored, and have other outlets for your burning desires.
Which should you listen to? Should you follow the passion? Or should you be more pragmatic when it comes to making a living?
Yes and yes.
In my mind both the articles saying follow you passion and don’t follow your passion are right.
Yes, you do not want to spend your life doing something you hate and that is making your life miserable. Following your passion makes sense in that perspective.
Yes, you cannot expect to make a living only on accord of chasing a dream. Not following your passion is a good advice because you have to consider what’s in it for the other side.
Especially if you’re in business, but also if you are looking for employment. Having a job is offering your skills in return for employment. If nobody wants to pay for what you offer, then there will be no income.
What does passion even mean?
Both of these stances often fail to define what they mean by passion. What is it? How do you know when you have found it?
Do you actually know what passion feels like? When you have found something that you could keep on doing for many many years?
Is passion feeling a strong emotion, like a rush of excitement? Can you really expect to have a feeling of continuous perpetual excitement over decades?
Many articles seem to treat passion like the romantic fairy tale kind of love: that you will instantly know when you find it, hitting you like a lightning from above, and you will live happily ever after.
In reality, love is something that grows over time. It is cultivated and co-created. You don’t know if there’s a possibility for a long term relationship based on the strength of the first attraction. The initial infatuation can only evolve into something else, something deeper, when given time and opportunity to do so.
Same thing with “passion”.
Passion isn’t a thing you find or discover, like an object laying on the ground you stumble over. That concept puts you in a passive state, where passion somehow happens to you if you just do the right thing(s). But passion is something you develop over time, just like love.
And just like love between humans, the relationship you have with a thing or activity is alive. It waxes and wanes, intensifies or disappears completely.
Your first rush of interest is an indication that there might be something there, but you don’t know until you’ve tried it.
I’d treat anything you do much like a human relationship. Your first attraction can turn into an infatuation, which in turn can become a long term steady relationship. But you don’t know that on first sight, or even after the first couple of dates.
Any choice gets dulled by time
I’ve been fortunate to experience a career in something many consider the epitome of “following your passion”: performing arts. And I can tell you, every choice will go on to become everyday life. When you do it every single day, it loses the shine of newness and speciality.
This too becomes dull and need re-invigoration. This too have had days where I’ve needed to push myself to do it, or I don’t feel like it. Those are superficial and temporary hurdles, and not a definite verdict whether I’m on a right or wrong path.
But I get the impression that those who seek passion somehow wish that they will never have a boring moment in their life. And if they just found and followed their passion, the motivational fire will always be there every single day and all problems will be solved.
That’s not going to happen. That’s not how it works.
Every path has it’s challenges. You will experience different challenges than today, but you can’t escape having them. Every choice has it’s downsides.
For example, I have never experienced the concept of a weekend until these last couple of years when I turned to work full time as a developer.
Weekends have always been workdays for me. When working on weekends you get Mondays off, but it’s just not the same. Any day of the week has been a possible working day for most of my life. Same with public holidays. Holidays means work, because that’s when most people are off and want to go and see a performance.
I like the rhythm of being off for two days every week. It’s pretty sweet. And I heartily enjoy my holidays and other days off. There are definitely some benefits with being employed.
And there are some new challenges of course, that I never had to face until now. No “passion” gives a free ticket to a ride without obstacles.
But the quest to make a living following – or not following – your passion does contain a few common pitfalls.
Don’t put the burden of financial support on your creativity
This one is for all the creatives out there. A frame I got from a writer who was interviewed on the Jess Lively Show that I unfortunately lost the name of.
She said: “Don’t put the burden of supporting you financially on your creativity. It’s too important for that”
I’m of course referring to creative expressions that veer into the territory of art. Working in the field of performing arts, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people bemoan the need to take any gig available in order to keep the lights on.
They wish to have some monetary freedom to only take on projects that are artistically satisfying to them. It was my own motivation too behind exploring other ways to earn income. I would be able to focus on the artistic qualities more than whether the wage was good enough and if I could pay my bills.
A business exist because it serves a need of somebody else, and they are willing to exchange money for having that need served. If it is important to you that you follow your own creative path freely without considering these needs, then don’t put the burden of financial support on that creative outlet.
This is especially true if you’re just starting out exploring an interest that has a potential for becoming passion. The pressure to make money is likely to kill the passion you want to cultivate. You’ll be better off freely exploring based on interest only, without expectations of outcomes.
Later on, when you have established a creative expression habit that is stable and strong, you can explore ways of making money off of it. Sean McCabe uses the image of a sapling tree. It has just started to grow, so it’s too weak to handle any heavy loads. Only when it’s grown to a bigger and stronger tree can it handle a burden like income generation.
Creativity thrives in openness. When you remove expectations completely and are free to follow and explore all rabbit trails of curiosity.
The pressure of being fit for a purpose puts a big damper on the curious mind. Don’t squash it before it has a chance to develop into something strong and healthy.
Handle expectations from outside
Just be aware that also the very successful feel the independency vs adaptation problem. Having a large fan base bring expectations into the mix, where the creator enters a relationship with the receivers. That has an impact on the future path of creations, and sometimes fans react negatively to an artist who explores something new.
So again: if it’s important to you to fully and completely go in the direction of your own artistic expression without compromise or adaptation, you shouldn’t make it into your main source of income.
Or if you do, then work on your mental strength at the same time. Practice keeping your internal compass strong when external forces want you to go in different directions. How much your audience’s opinions affect your own path is a matter of your own capability to be independent.
And I think every human should have a creative outlet that is completely decoupled from external expectations. So if you choose to make money from, say, writing or making music: add another hobby or side thing in your life where creativity and inspiration can reign completely free.
Passion is often known and recognised in hindsight
Sean McCabe said in another podcast episode that passion is required to overcome obstacles that hinder you from getting great results. The problem is that you only know if you had enough passion when you’ve reached the other side.
You try something and hit a roadblock or get to a point where it’s not so much fun any more. Then you either lose interest and switch gears, or persevere through until you overcome that problem.
In his view, it’s passion that will give you the energy to overcome those hurdles. If you haven’t faced any obstacles, then your passion hasn’t been tried yet so you don’t know if your interest is a mere interest or a true passion.
You can only recognise it when looking backwards on your path and realise that you kept going through all of it. You can’t know that you will persevere beforehand.
I think it’s a fair assessment.
When I was in school, I remember someone asked me how long I thought I would be dancing and my answer was: until I don’t enjoy it any more. Suddenly I can look back and it’s been over 15 years since I graduated (soon 20). We are precious few from my class who stayed that long in the business. Three I think.
Every year there is a new group of students graduating from the dance schools. Every autumn the newly minted graduates come to our professional daily training classes with eager shining eyes. They’re starting their professional journey. And by Christmas or even earlier, the group that keep coming to take classes is getting smaller and smaller. People drop out when the only thing to carry them forward is themselves.
Straight from school they all look equally committed, each of them saying that this is what they want. But being in it for the long haul means not throwing in the towel when the jobs aren’t lining up immediately and the phone never rings.
Some of them are still coming back in the winter when it’s dark outside, and still pushing through even though they get rejected at audition after audition. That’s when you see who is passionate for real.
We silver-backs know that it takes a year or three to reveal which of them actually has the drive it takes. They prove themselves by sheer consistency.
What to look for instead of passion
Since passion is so hard to define, meaning different things for different people, I don’t like to say either do or do not follow your passion. It’s a yes-yes proposition, not two opposing options.
What those who are searching for passion often seek is a sense of fulfilment. Perhaps also happiness.
It’s naturally a bigger question, which inevitably leads to deep introspection and soul-searching in order to find the answer.
But going inwards to answer the question “What makes me feel fulfilled?” have a greater chance of success than going outwards asking “Where is my passion?”
The answer is not out there, it’s inside of you.