Last updated on January 16th, 2020
“Do what you love or not at all”, the manifesto of the internet’s super-achievers hits me every time I read Inc or Entrepreneur. Follow your passion and be fulfilled. Life is about doing what you love. Well, thanks, Tony Robbins. Here’s why you’re wrong 99% of the time. Yep, I’m calling out T.R.
Doing what you love is having a moment. The notion of finding your passion and then putting all your resources into it, ignoring everything else, and going for gold permeates every blog, website, pamphlet, and self-help corner of my local bookstore. At least 10 times a day I find myself thinking ‘If I only followed my passion I’d be happy’.
Don’t follow your passion!
Click Bait Passion Pushers
Sensationalist blog posts exist to catch our attention. When it comes to happiness, clickbait captivates us. We all make ourselves miserable trying to be happy. We all want it to bad. We’ve got the magic formula – just click here! The magic formula for a happier life is a complex and, as of 2018, undiscovered one.
But the thought of throwing it all in and immersing oneself in a passion is appealing to the rebel and artist in everyone.
Even the office drones get in on the act. They’re probably okay with their jobs but feel suckered into feeling envious of the passion droppers. Passion droppers are people that casually brag about having work that is also their passion and not just a career.
I’ve tried filtering out the blog posts and tweets but I doubt that the quit-your-job self-help opinion pieces will stop coming anytime soon.
The question is, should we all down tools, run out the office door and start working on our passion? What are we trying to make our lives? A life of our own or of other people’s aspirations?
Passion In The Workplace
Let’s go back to the passion pushers.
Imagine a company that makes, say toilet paper. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a valuable business to society. Do you think the company’s employees should be passionate about toilet paper? Maybe the top marketing exec does. What about the toilet cleaner in this toilet paper factory?
The boss is a die-hard optimist if he expected employees to demonstrate a passion for that business.
The truth is that the drive for many business owners is money. And their business is the channel for their Machiavellian goals. Expecting employees to be passionate about a product that is most likely way down their list of priorities in life, is counterproductive.
If business owners give their employees space to champion the products, they might do so. But demanding enthusiasm for a rather non-sexy product creates fake news. The result is a dishonest working environment.
We’re living in a world where the most menial of jobs demand a show of passion from workers. The non-compliant can stay at home and watch daytime tv.
It’s a sad fact that many, many people are starting a working relationship with their employer-based on a lie.
Love Your Job
Looking through the job postings on any major job site I notice the word ‘passion’ or similes in 90% of the descriptions, at least it’s like that in the Tech fields. Do technology businesses really have a 90% passionate workforce?
I’ve worked in many tech firms and when I think about my ex-colleagues, I’d put that 90% closer to 20%.
You’re thinking, “this guy has just had the wrong jobs”. You might be right. That would explain this rant. But I do think there’s a considerable portion of the workforce that is dissatisfied or disillusioned. These individuals are the target market for the passion brigade and their mantras.
How many people that would prefer working late at the office late more than relaxing with their friends or a partner over dinner?
Of course, dinner with friends isn’t the be all and end all. Most of us would get bored, or even depressed, from spending every single waking hour relaxing, eating and drinking. Having goals and a purpose in life is vital for our complex human brains to be happy.
“Passionate about delivering excellent customer service” is an actual headline I read for a job that pays just over the minimum wage. No matter how I look at it I can’t see myself being passionate about receiving calls from complaining customers. I could be content, maybe.
Searching for the word ‘passion’ on Glassdoor.com gave me 1552 results. The word ‘Holidays’ gets only 337. That might be a sign.
The Starving Artist And Limited Resources
Many of us know someone that aspires to be a writer but never actually writes. What they lack is an essential ingredient, time. It’s the same ingredient most of us want more of. So what advice should we give to our aspiring author friend?
- Write and throw caution to the wind. Make it happen!
- Make money first and then write on your own terms!
Postponing your journey into the writing life is inevitable in many cases, but it doesn’t show insincerity on the part of the would-be writer. In his book The Element, Ken Robinson tells a story about an encounter with a musician. Robinson admired the keyboardist’s talent and mentioned to him that he would love to play keyboards. The keyboard player responded with a simple, “no, you wouldn’t”. Robinson’s lack of true passion for keyboard playing is the reason why he will continue to proclaim his desire to play, but never actually do it. One could apply the same thinking to the writer who doesn’t produce anything. If you really want to write, you will write. Nothing will stop you.
Many people want to be, but don’t want to do.
There is talent everywhere, but it lies undiscovered because of the enormous time investment needed to create outlets for talent. Writing, just like other art forms, requires resources, be it time, money, or energy.
Works of art hide in the minds of people that just don’t have the resources to uncover them.
One could argue that we always make time for things we are passionate about. But making time to pursue artistic endeavours and passions is the luxury of a subset of people. Privilege, in many cases, dictates your inclusion in this subset. Consider the following. Where do most of the great innovations come from? The answer is the developed world. Wealthy nations. What societal classes produce most of the art in the world? The middle class and above. Poor people and poor countries don’t have the resources to practise their art. Their first priority is to feed themselves. Working 16 hour days in a sweat factory eats into your time for pursuing passions. This is an extreme example but I want to illustrate my point that there are levels of power and potential. Diverting your time and money into a passion is an option for a small percentage of people in this world.
Multi-Talented Or Unfocused?
I like to think I’m keeping company with Leonardo da Vinci, who not only painted the world’s most famous painting but is also considered the father of architecture. He also invented the helicopter, is a bona fide maths genius, and was active in the fields of literature, geology, astronomy, history, botany, and cartography. Imagine Leo’s career’s advice counsellor offering guidance to this genius. How wrong it would have been to try and force Da Vinci to spend the rest of his life focussed on one thing.
I always imagined Da Vinci’s school report recommending that he apply himself to one subject so that he might accomplish more.
The late Richard Feynman was a fascinating character who experimented with lots of things that intrigued him. He was relatively wealthy and could afford to do so. Feynman immersed himself in whatever he decided to do. But he was never the best in the field. He never became the greatest physicist or musician or painter. But he was one of the best thinkers and the best executors of ideas.
The English jazz musician and composer Neil Ardley released a slew of albums over a 25-year period, but he also wrote over 100 books on topics such as science and music, as well as children’s books. He found his passion, but he found another. And he kept on searching. Nobody remembers him as the best jazz musician or the best writer. But he won’t care. And what’s wrong with that?
For mere mortals like me, there isn’t enough time in the day or energy in my body to pursue all of my interests. And jumping from one thing to another is unproductive and exhausting. Task switching is expensive for people, just as it is for computers.
Man who chases two rabbits, catches neither ~ Confucius
I believe that we should maintain focus on one thing at a time. However, we shouldn’t ignore our wide-ranging, life-enriching interests. I love making music and it would make me unhappy to quit for a year while I focus on another project. 30 minutes a day, as a change from routine, will be beneficial, not harmful. The solution for most people might be to focus temporarily on one thing.
Ignoring your interests to get ahead in life financially is an irrational response to your problem.
The ability to use lessons learned in one field and apply them in another cannot be underestimated. Thinking outside the box sparks creativity. Solving problems without the distraction of following the accepted method lets creativity shine. Novel solutions to problems are often found by people less deeply tied to a field of work or genre.
And the inverse is true. Programmers, for example, often take more interest in the actual code than the product they’re building. The end product is the goal. How you get it is not important. I like to call this ‘procedure-agnostic’. Edward de Bono called this thinking laterally. Coming from a different background, mindset, and training can have a hugely positive effect on one’s ability to solve problems. But employers place little value on this. In my own experience, no employer has ever made a positive comment about my (very) diverse portfolio of work and experience. In dozens (100s possibly) of interviews, the only sentiment I noticed was one of resignment.
There’s a culture in modern work life that champions fine-tuned specialists and experts in narrow fields. But my random dabbling in diverse areas of work has made me adaptable and quick-learning. Like a computer war-games program, I can call on lessons learned from times when I’ve solved problems quickly.
This has to be a good thing, right? The Man begs to differ, it appears.
Specialization Is For Insects
There’s nothing stable about specialised jobs in today’s world. Technologies come and go, and companies fail regularly. In today’s climate, the average lifespan of a company is now around 15 years (down from 67 years in the 1920s).
Your high-paid job with Facebook could be history by 2020.
I would like to say that I don’t believe in putting similar effort into all things, all at the same time.
Do 15-year-olds know what they want to do with their lives? Some do. The lucky ones. At fifteen they are already laying the groundwork for a successful life. Most people will not be that lucky.
At 15 we make decisions that will have a huge impact on our happiness for the following 60 years.
I was a completely different person at 25 than I was at 15. What the books say about your personality being formed at 15 is rubbish. I had very different opinions at 15 to what I have now (in my forties). And I’m glad I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago. I’m happy I’m a different person to the one I was last year. I’m learning and improving. My interests help me grow personally.
The Knowledge Economy
The knowledge economy is a concept worth embracing. But the term ‘Know-how’ economy would better explain the general ideas. The lessons of history can be learned from a book through memorising but applying the principles therein, takes a different kind of mind.
Someone with knowledge can pass an exam. Someone with know-how can deliver value.
In western, privileged culture, failure to identify with and love your job brands you as an unfulfilled human being. “Love what you do or you’re a chump”. This thinking increases anxiety as people struggle to find the job they were “born” to do. Accepting a job to pay the bills, feed your children, and put a roof over your head is noble.
The privileged members of society, with nothing to lose, can search for passion while at the same time, lying to others about how much they love their jobs. A soul-destroying state of being. But their hope is that one day they will actually find a golden opportunity that allows them to drop the lie.
Zero To One
Many people actively discourage the notion of pursuing multiple lines of career. They consider it a form of hedge-betting. For Peter Thiel, internet legend and author of ‘Zero to One‘, the thought of not focusing on one single thing and imbibing it with 100% of your energy is akin to fooling oneself.
But in real life, we frequently hedge our bets. We could direct the money from expenses like life insurance and health insurance into furthering our careers, right? We’d get to our goals faster and we’d be happier. But we don’t do this. We hedge our bets.
Thiel’s philosophy of aiming high and building monopolies is noble but doomed to failure for most people. Failure is not something that scares me though. I’ve experienced it often enough to know it’s part of learning and life.
Mr Thiel is an idol for many and has done more with his life than I have (talking purely about business success), but the cult of Silicon Valley has made his misguided words golden.
Wanting to change the world is a good thing. The problem with attempting to build businesses that change the world is, again, lack of resources. Non-trivial things like a steady income and sustainability prevent the majority of people from pursuing world-conquering ideas. Paying bills and eating are more pressing issues than creating an online payment business or a social network.
It’s hard to go all-in when the outcomes are 1% success and 99% starvation, homelessness, and possible death.
This article on Quartz argues that entrepreneurs are risk-takers and cleverer than anyone else. I’d argue that people blessed with financial security have less downside to risk-taking.
The 1% That Love What They Do
If you love what you do and can’t stop doing it and you get paid for it, you’re part of the 1%.
There’s a gaping chasm of difference between those that do something because they love it and those that get the job done. We call the first person passionate. The second we call a professional. Congratulations, both are noble.
The founder of the PHP programming language, Rasmus Lerdorf, once said in an interview that coding is boring and tedious and that many programmers love coding for the act of coding itself.
Lerdorf is driven by a desire to make a product whereas many programmers are seduced by the coding language. Rasmus falls into the category of professional. He also falls into the visionary, creator, and genius categories.
The search for your passion is easier now with access to almost infinite resources (internet, libraries, meetups). This access to information and advice also creates a paradox of choice.
Don’t let passion get in the way of your life. As John Lennon quipped, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans’. Relationships should be a priority in life. Status is nothing. Things are nothing. Don’t let your plans for quitting your job and building your stamp collecting empire ruin your personal ties to people. Don’t have regrets, but don’t be a bad person!
Don’t be reckless! Be aware that the desire for happiness is a driving factor the ‘follow your passion’ gurus. Selling “happiness” to miserable people has always been very lucrative. There’s no better click-bait for gloomy cubicle slaves than the photo of some dude laying in a hammock checking his internet business income.
Cultivate your work till it becomes a passion
Think about passion as something to be cultivated, not found. I believe this to be a very important point, one that nobody tells you about. Nobody is born to do anything. Einstein was not born to be a scientist and Donald Trump was not born to be a president.
In life, despite our best efforts to plan everything, we stumble upon opportunities and ideas. In time, we come to love the things we learn and improve on.
Don’t Try To Be, Do!
Let’s suppose you want to be a writer. The first question to ask is if you aspire to have the status of ‘writer’ or if you want to write? There’s a difference.
Being a writer is hard work, probably harder than doing the daily office drone shuffle. Writers on autopilot don’t get paid much (this is true in most cases, but Buzzfeed.com proves me wrong). Wanting to be a writer and wanting to write are two different things.
Naseem Taleb, in his opinionated but fascinating book Antifragile, talks about a writer friend who claims that writers look forward to finishing their writing while painters enjoy the process itself. His advice was to save the world and himself from his writing and quit immediately. Taleb believes that if it feels like work, then it is.
Stop Searching For Your Passion
Cultivate interests in the things you do. You might find that one day the sense of achievement you get from learning something and getting better at it turns into a passion. Let it happen!
In conclusion, I believe that cultivating a passion is the greatest thing that can happen to a human being. Being so consumed by something you enjoy that time and place become irrelevant is to experience nirvana while on earth. However, not everyone finds what they were ‘born to do’.
The key is not in achieving fame and fortune, and being deliriously happy every day. It’s about finding peace with yourself. Remove the distractions, learn to be mindful, love the life that you have before it’s over. Thoreau said that most men live lives of quiet desperation. We are on this earth for a mere moment in time and like me, many people reading this will have no idea what their ‘purpose’ is. Being helpful to others, kind, and enthusiastic about the things you enjoy doing are enough passions for most people. And, I’ll repeat: what’s wrong with that?