Follow your passion.
We've all heard it a million times, right? Follow your bliss. Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. The admonitions to find exciting, deeply fulfilling work--with the implied or else. I don't know where I first heard this, but I do know it was somehow embedded in me from early on. Because of this, I spent most of my teenage and adult years ignoring my casual interests and curiosities, even my natural talents, because I was waiting for the blast of inspiration that would be my passion.
But...it never came. Despite internships, paid jobs, and volunteer experiences, nothing ever grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, shouting, "I am your passion and you will follow me! Behold, you have found your Life Path!" So I just kept moving and wandering, searching and waiting. And waiting...
A couple weeks ago I went for a long walk and listened to a conversation between Krista Tippett and Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) on the podcast On Being. I'd read the book Eat, Pray, Love and found it entertaining, but I'd been deeply moved by her TED talk. In the conversation, Gilbert talks about the danger of this "follow your passion" business:
...[W]hen we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there's a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don't happen to have a passion that's very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you're in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you're not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it's easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.
And I stopped walking and possibly--possibly--started to cry a little, because Gilbert essentially had just named, and I'd realized for the first time, why I've always felt so adrift in the world. I thought that everyone else had their passion figured out except me! I thought I was one of those few lost, lone souls who just wasn't given a passion on the day they were handed out, so I was forced to make do with a series of unconnected jobs and an unfulfilled work life.
But here, for the first time, was hope.
Gilbert goes on to provide some of the most useful and inspiring advice I've heard when she talks about curiosity:
And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you....
And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they're waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so — almost nothing, right? It's a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you're looking up at the mountaintop waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God....
And here's the thing. Sometimes following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won't, and then guess what? That's still totally fine. You've lived a life following your curiosity. You've created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else's. And your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.
I found these ideas so revelatory and inspiring. They let me off the hook of having to find the most perfect and fulfilling work, and allowed me to feel okay in focusing on the small curiosities and joys that are the foundations of this blog.
But then a few weeks later, as I was reading Angela Duckworth's wonderful Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, I started to get a knot in my stomach when I began reading the chapters on passion. The section begins with several quotes from famous people about following your passion, and Duckworth identifies passion as an essential element in the grittiest and most successful people, across occupations and centuries. I started to feel a little lost again, until I read this:
...[M]ost grit paragons I've interviewed told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn't recognizably their life's destiny on first acquaintance....
So, while we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn't assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. Commencement speakers may say about their vocation, "I can't imagine doing anything else," but, in fact, there was a time earlier in life when they could....
Is it "a drag" that passions don't come to us all at once, as epiphanies, without the need to actively develop them? Maybe. But the reality is that our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.
Discovering these thoughts on passion, curiosity, and career has been instrumental for me lately in reframing what I'm doing with my life and what I should do (hint, hint: pay more attention to my casual interests, like lifestyle and design blogs). Going deeper into these works has also helped to spell out the path forward - namely, working hard to develop all of the skills that go into pursuing an interest.
I would LOVE to know your thoughts on passion versus curiosity. Have you found work that you are passionate about? How did you discover that passion? Did you always know what you wanted to do? Did you ever try something that you thought would be your life's work only to realize that it just wasn't right? Please share, I'd love to know. (See also: 'Follow Your Passion' is Crappy Advice)
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Can you tell that I adore the podcast On Being? I also reference it here and here.
Photo by Matt Benson.
Love this post! Passion seems to be one of the most important ingredients in life, and also one of the most elusive. I've never read/heard the idea behind following glimmers until a larger concept/passion/whatevs reveals itself...but it's very helpful in an oversaturated, overstimulated and over-optioned world. xoxo
That whole important-but-elusive aspect of passion is so frustrating, isn't it?
I can relate to this.. I feel like some of the best advice my dad ever gave me was "work to live, don't live to work." While he did something he believed in deeply, he still believed that a job is a means to an end rather than the end itself. For me, work has always been that way: something that I do to support myself and my family. Sure, I work in the nonprofit sector so a big part of me does care that I'm not spending 40 hours a week doing something objectionable, and I could make more money doing something I care for less, but this has always felt like a good happy medium. I suppose the question I do still wonder about is, when you're working as a means to an end, how do you find time to pursue curiosities to see if they lead somewhere? It's lovely advice for a young person, but I do wonder how often people who have to work full-time out of necessity happen to stumble upon the curiosity that leads them somewhere far better. I've never had many hobbies either, however, but maybe I would have if I'd paid closer to attention to those tiny curiosities over the years.
Dava, I think you raise an important question--and I have no idea how to answer it. This advice is fitting for young people who are at the beginning of college or their careers, but is much more difficult to follow when you already have a job and/or a family. I still think it's great advice, but I just don't know how one could implement with all the competing demands on existing work and family responsibilities. Especially as parents of young children, how can we find the extra hours every week to explore something else?
Maybe part of the answer is to look closely at the aspects of your current work that you do find rewarding, and figure out if you can grow those, either within the current organization or elsewhere. Now, if there's nothing you find rewarding at your current job, I don't know what to say!
I can so relate to this! I live in Los Angeles where almost everyone seems to have a big dream or high-stakes goal of some kind, making it that much harder to feel relevant without one. People intentionally move here to up their game. I used to hate meeting people at parties and being asked “So what are you into?”. If I say I like wine, they expect that I am a connoisseur. If I say I paint, they assume I am a professional artist. If I say I write, they ask what I’ve published. Yikes! Can’t a girl just dabble anymore? It comes across as though I’ve actually failed at 20 things instead of enjoyed trying 20 things. But ultimately those were just worries about how others see me. In fact, I was and still am really happy with my life. I just had to ditch the need to impress others.
That said, we’re mostly talking about “Why It’s OK Not to Have a Passion” rather than “Why You Shouldn’t Follow Your Passion” which is not quite the same thing. I’ve got my own very personal answer to the latter (It might end your marriage) but I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts- or Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts or any of your readers’ thoughts- about people who DO have a passion and why they should or should not follow it.
Thank you for this insightful comment, Laura. I love the idea that you've enjoyed trying 20 things rather than that you've failed at 20 things - and I think that's what Elizabeth Gilbert is getting at when she says that your life itself becomes a work of art when you follow these curiosities, even if they don't lead to passions.
I also think you're right that the title here is a bit of misnomer, because I write more about not finding your passion than about having a passion and not following it. I should have titled it "'Follow Your Passion' is Crappy Advice", but someone else already wrote that article (which I link to at the bottom of this). =) I have several other posts in mind around this general theme, so I hope we can deepen the discussion on this in the future (though anyone is welcome to continue it here).
Thanks, Jodi, for recommending this article! : http://lifehacker.com/the-myths-and-realities-of-doing-what-you-love-1785409741
Fair advice and observations without being either cynical or idealistic. A good read for anyone seeking a more fulfilling profession.
And BTW, I think your title is great- it just started me thinking in more than one direction which I believe makes it a win for both of us 🙂
I love many pursuits and am now retired so I can explore more. I have wondered my whole life about the question of following one's passion, and have looked for that to manifest in my life. I still haven't found that one passion, and have reached an at least temporary conclusion that I am a seeker, and may not find that one "passion". I have though surprised myself by taking up competitive rowing and unlike other interests I have explored, am still captivated by it, and feel some passion around it.
I recently heard an interview with two guys who wrote a book titled Designing your life : how to build a well-lived, joyful life / (Bill Burnett and Dave Evans). I typically don't trust books which promise a "how-to" for life. But I've included a quote below which caused me to order the book from the library, and to mention it here because it seems to echo your thoughts.
"Designing Your Life makes clear that you don't need to know your passion to design a life you love. Most people are passionate about many different things, and the only way to know what you really want to do is to prototype some potential lives, try them out, and see what you really like."
Thanks for sharing this reflection. Ii'm very curious to know: if you didn't feel a passion, how did you choose what work to pursue in your life? Did you have multiple careers or just one? Did you find fulfillment in those careers? Do you wish you'd been a professional rower? =)
Thanks also for the book recommendation--please tell me how you like it after you've read it. I've heard of this book before, so will try to get a copy here in Sweden.
Shauna | Linden & Lavender
What a thoughtful article. It is all rather confusing and then, hard to let go of the things that we learned as children and teenagers. Did you read Big Magic as well? This must be what the TED talk is also based on.
I'm about 2/3 of the way through Big Magic, and need to pick it up to finish it. I've really enjoyed it so far, but find that I want to savor it, so I don't just casually pick it up. And I'm not exactly at a point in life when I can sit and savor slow things!