It’s graduation season, and as in every graduation season, one hears a lot of successful people telling halls of not-yet-successful-people to “follow their passion.” Following one’s passion is, we are given to understand, the only real way to live a fulfilling life, a life in which work is more than mere chore, a life in which one meets one’s end with a smile on one’s face.
Coupla problems with that. Number 1 being that the people doing the talking are successful.
I know that successful role models (in graduation exercises, as in magazine editorials and TV commercials) are meant to serve as inspiration, but they wind being perceived of as the norm: If you do X (where X generally equals “work hard, believe in yourself, and most of all, follow your passion”) you can be like me.
And the thing is: No.
Most people who follow their passion, even most talented people who follow their passion, will not ever be as successful as the people invited to address graduating classes. Most really good ball players will never make it to the majors; most really good interior designers will not get their own furniture lines; most really good musicians will not go to the Grammys; most really good scientists will not land a position on the next Mars Rover team (and, it bears noting, most really good writers will not wind up at The Atlantic. Not that I’m bitter).
We don’t like to think about it, but this is what sports teams, and the Grammys, and any and all hiring practices represent: A winnowing down of the vast field of competition, ultimately to that small number who will wind up making it big.
Talent and dedication are crucial pieces of the puzzle, but much of this process is subjective, or biased, or blatantly unfair, and a lot of it comes right back to the simple and deeply troubling facts of economic disparities. It’s easier to achieve your dream if you can afford to work for free for a couple-few years; it’s easier still if you’ve spent your entire life around people who have already made it. There’s a point at which talent (or belief in oneself) has absolutely nothing to do with it.
“But Emily!” you say. “I don’t want to win a Grammy or even get my own furniture line! I just want to be able to pay middle-class bills with my passion!”
And here’s the other thing: Sometimes even that’s impossible. It’s been fairly impossible since the dawn of time, in fact.
The whole notion of following one’s passion is so steeped historic, economic, and social privilege that it fairly reeks. For the vast majority of human existence you were grateful if you and yours ate today and could know with some certainty that you would also eat tomorrow and next week. In fact, without access to actual data, I feel safe in saying that this remains true for the majority of humans alive today. Those of us who can even entertain the notion of following our passion are already living with some degree of good fortune, however uninspiring we may find it (“I get to eat tomorrow? That’s it?”).
Aside from that, though, certain fields have simply never been money-makers. I’m a writer, and I can assure you: Most writers do not pay most of their bills with their words, or at least: Not with the ones it gave them joy to write.
I think also of our beloved ex-babysitter, a talented lacrosse player who followed his passion to college and is finishing up what is more than likely going to be his last season of play even as I type. Here he is in his early 20s, a few months from graduation, and his passion is closing its doors. Can he play in an amateur league and/or coach, and would these things give him joy? Yes, and I would hope so. But pay his bills for the rest of his life? Probably not. (PS I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. You should see him talk about his sport. I wish I could pay him to play, myself).
But of perhaps greatest relevance to today’s graduating seniors is the economy that awaits them. As comic artist Matt Bors notes in his book Life Begins At Incorporation (and let’s not forget that a comic artist is more than a little likely to know about the topsy-turvy world of passion-following):
“Barely scraping by and taking what you can get is the new normal. Having 500 people show up to apply for jobs at Walmart, who pursues a strategy of paying people such low wages that they qualify for government assistance, that’s the new normal.”
So when we tell people to follow their passion, and hold fabulously successful role models up to them, we’re not only misleading them, we’re actually being kind of mean — unless we don’t stop there.
Follow your passion — for as long you possibly can, even if it doesn’t pay enough, even if it tires you out, even if it doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere, because at the end of your life, you’ll be grateful that you tried. Follow your passion — but understand that it may cost you in time and money, and that it may never be easy, even as it gives you that jolt supplied only by doing a thing you love. Follow your passion — but work hard at everything you do, try your best at everything, let others help, help them when they need it, be kind and accept kindness. Follow your passion — but know when to let go. Know that peace of mind and being able to afford to fix your car are also good, life-affirming things.
I’m following my passion. Some of the money I make comes from the words I loved writing, but most of it doesn’t, and if I had to actually support my children, I would have to stop. My passion-following is entirely dependent on my well-employed co-head-of-household, as is the passion-following of many people around the world. This is one of the ways in which we accept kindnesses.
I would never tell someone to not follow their passion — but I would tell them that it may come at a price, that it may never be easy, and that at the end of the day, sometimes letting go is a brave and life-affirming act. Try — try your best, try your hardest, try with all your heart — but don’t be cruel to yourself if it doesn’t work out.
At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we all of us will have to look back and weigh what we did. You’re not likely to be Bill Gates, Adele, or RA Dickey, but you can make choices that are honest and satisfying. The trick, I think, lies less in following your passion, and more in making sure you listen more to yourself than to anyone else.
Which I suspect means that you should feel free to ignore every word of the above. Which is ok, too.