“Follow your passion” – ha. Ha! Hahahaha! No, but seriously.

Um.

Um.

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.

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10 Comments

  1. I had the good fortune, many years ago, to talk for a few minutes to Ray Bradbury about writing, and his advice was pretty simple: “Write. On a napkin. On an envelope. Just find a time and a chance to write.”

    Well, other than commenting on blogs and Tweeting to beat the band, writing time is hard to come by, if I wanted to write something that would fulfill my passion for it. I have bills to pay; right now as I write this, I’m at work, stealing a few minutes because I can afford to. Most days, however, there’s little or no time. Work has to be done. Children have to be fed. Garbage taken out. At the end of an exhausting day, when the house is quiet, and I could write, I no longer have the energy to summon.

    It’s always lovely to hear how easy your life would be if you simply did what you loved. But the IRS doesn’t accept passion in lieu of currency. The grocery store won’t let me pay my bill with desire. My family needs food and a roof over their head and clothes on their back, and none of things are supplied by my dreams and hopes. At the end of the day, our society works no differently now than two thousand years ago — survival is paramount, and while we may not be menaced by the Black Plague, we have generated our own plagues: poverty, inequality, racism, etc.

    If I can write, I take the time, but I make no pretense to believing that writing will ever be my main mode of providing a living. I merely countenance it as something I can continue to hope for as I struggle to make it through each day. I think that sometimes having a passion to look forward to, even in small measure, is more important than trying to live one. If you have something to hope for, something to aspire to, it will keep you moving forward.

  2. Such a timely article for such a passion driven and inspiring season (Graduation). I think that passion is misused. Many people equate passion with entitlement and value. Just because one is passionate about vintage thrift store art, does not mean that passion is valuable to other people. Many passion-driven people forget about value. Many business driven people always think about the value and do their passion in another form. My favorite perspective on this subject is Francis Ford Coppola on the “Craft” http://theiaoh.com/2013/01/10/weird-relationship-couples-picture-gallery/?nggpage=2

    Great points!

  3. CitizenE

     /  May 12, 2013

    Oh any and everyone can follow their passion all right, but they should not expect to make a living at it. Some are luckier than others; my brother in law, coming of age in the early 60s found his passion in business real estate in Southern California. He was passionate about helping people locate their businesses effectively and worked hard at it. Someone entering the field in a different time and place may not have done so well; others might never be passionate about matching strip mall location to small business person; indeed, they might find such a career as, well, void of course in the meaning department.

    It is important for most for as long as they can to follow Steve Sills eternal advice in if not being with the one one loves, to love the one one is with. I worked for decades in a field where there were a handful of people for whom it was their passion. It was not mine. But I worked at it passionately nonetheless, because it was my life, and while I never ever got the idealism some aver, I had tangible rewards, not so much money–albeit teaching is a better money maker than poetry–but in the exchanges, in being able to improve the lives of others by their lights. But also it is important to learn that over the years grand passion is the incremental building of many, many small passions–forty years of growing tomatoes, the first ripe one in any year is always a delight, and this is so even if grace, the elegance of a composition, the vistas nature can provide, a surprising or novel expression love of a friend, family member, lover or mate, child, or grandchild remains a rare vacation from such vigilant living.

  4. Yeah, well, “follow your passion” sounds so much better than “try to find a job that doesn’t kill you.”

    • anonymous grad

       /  May 12, 2013

      Absolutely. It also sounds like it’s already customized advice that empowers everyone to seek their own paths. Any new grad confronted with advice like “try to figure out how to find a job that pays enough to live on, covers health insurance, and doesn’t have a looming end date” is going to immediately say, “I’d love to, but seriously, how?”

    • Well yes, that it does….

  5. wearyvoter

     /  June 12, 2013

    “Follow your bliss” works much better if someone else in your household has a steady job.

  6. I agree that the peace of mind that comes from being able to afford life’s necessities is life-affirming, but we shouldn’t confuse the message to “follow your passion” with “be passionate about what you do”.

    I think that the latter is a worthwhile message, for if we aren’t passionate about what we do then surely we can deliver more value through doing something else. And if we seek to deliver value then peace of mind may be easier to attain.

  7. jose

     /  October 11, 2013

    I think the main problem is this: people are led to believe
    that their passion will bring them money. So, they leave whatever they have in order to folow it, believing theyll become rich for it, and then, the problemas come.

    I say that if you are not following your passion TODAY, even if you dont get paid for it, or better yet, that you are able to endure hours in a job you dont like so much, so it affords you the chance to write at least one hour a day in your own diary (not a blog), then my friend, im sorry to tell you, but it is not a passion.

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