In Defense of Passion

gettoworkdemotivatorThe only thing that drives me as nuts as the bland and whimsical “Follow your passion!” articles that fill personal development blogs is the inevitable backlash of “Don’t follow your passion!” rebuttals. I’ve written on the subject here before, and I swear, I’m not going to go over the same stuff in this post.

Aside from the writings of Cal Newport (who I have both agreed  and disagreed with before) one of the most vocal of the “Don’t!” crowd is Mike Rohe. You might know him from the “Dirty Jobs” series, but lately he’s been in great demand as a speaker, an advertising spokesman, and…well, I don’t even know all of the stuff. But I recently saw a rebuttal he wrote to the whole “Follow your passion” idea and, well…as I said, it can drive me a little nuts. Even aside from the idea of an opera singer turned TV star recommending people pursue “realistic” careers, there were some things that simply cannot be passed over.

Don’t Bore Me With Figures

Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities. Do we really need Lady GaGa telling our kids that happiness and success can be theirs if only they follow their passion?

Not sure if Lady Gaga actually said that, but Mike said she did. Apparently the idea of following a dream – or a dreamer, one of those people who, say, starts a small business – is a sure ticket to the poorhouse. Except I’ll match Mike’s vague “millions” with some actual data:

“Small firms accounted for 63 percent of the net new jobs created between 1993 and mid-2013 (or 14.3 million of the 22.9 million net new jobs). Since the end of the recession (from mid-2009 to mid-2013), small firms accounted for 60 percent of the net new jobs. Small firms in the 20-499 employee category led job creation.” – Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council

“Women will create over half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs expected to be created by 2018.” – Forbes

On the other hand, in those wonderful “secure” fields – you know, the “sensible jobs”:

Technology companies have been the largest downsizers so far this year with several long time stalwarts leading the way. Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco Systems announced the most job cuts, not only among tech companies, but also overall…The industry with the second largest planned layoffs so far in 2014 has been retail, with nearly 30,000 job cuts announced through August. – Huff Post Business

And that brings me to the first point of this re-rebuttal: somebody’s got to have a helluva lot of hubris to think they can tell a high school or college graduate what kind of job will actually be “sensible.” I’m sure there were many excited graduates who called their mothers to say “I just got a gig with Enron!” or “Yep, that computer science degree paid off – but don’t worry, I’m not going to build that silly “twitter” app with my buddies. I got a real job with Cisco Systems!

I am a good example of that. I graduated with a decent number of web design skills, along with several others in my cohort. Two of my best buddies got jobs with companies like Sony, whereas I decided to strike out on my own and freelance. Two years later, yes, I was still struggling – but I’d learned to manage on my own skills, my own grit, whereas both of my buddies had set up lifestyles that reflected their generous starting salaries – and then got bitten hard when they suddenly got laid off when the dot bomb hit. Yes, I get that in my Grandfather’s day – or even my Father’s – you could work for the same company for twenty plus years and retire into comfort (not that Dad’s doing that, he works harder than just about anyone I know). But now? According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, for “younger baby boomers” born between 1946 and 1964, “twenty-six percent held 15 jobs or more, while 10 percent held zero to four jobs.”

That’s because jobs are changing faster than ever, as well. It’s ironic that as a middle-schooler I was absolutely entranced by the idea of computer programming – I carried around books on BASIC and remembered arguing with my friend Arsenio about how to best make a line-art animation of a TRON figure. With all due respect to my parents…I was told to stop wasting my time, because what kind of career could you get with a little animated computer figure?

They also discouraged my D&D playing, which set me far behind all my lawyer/doctor/professional buddies who play now. But hey, I’m not bitter. How could they know? My parents – and my guidance counselors, and everybody – didn’t know that my most lucrative career would come from web design and digital media – because that career didn’t exist yet.

So my response to people who say Don’t follow your passion! You’ll never make money at it! my response is first: How would you know? Yeah, they may be right – but at least the person would know what it felt like to follow their passion and fail, as opposed to fail and always wonder what might have happened.

It’s a lot better being an unemployed sax player than being an unemployed pipe fitter! – the Commitments

The Worst Thing

Another reason Mr. Rowe gives for his reasoning is his own experience trying to follow his passion, which for a while was to be a fine tradesman like his grandfather. He had what he relates as a revelatory experience.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox.

Whatever happened to “it’s a poor tradesman who blames the tools”? I read that story and I think “No, what was needed was a different kind of teacher.” People aren’t born knowing how to use tools – that’s pretty much the definition of technology, in fact. Mike has made a career out of learning how to do all kinds of different jobs – you’re telling me he couldn’t have learned to make a sconce if he’d had the right teacher?

He adds,

“Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.

I believe this is where my head exploded. Because behavioral science has shown that it is exactly the combination of determination and practice (as opposed to some “talent” for, say, woodworking) that most often results in success. But perhaps we should look further back:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. – Calvin Coolidge

No, I’m not saying that following your passion is the secret to success either. I am saying that it is more fun than not following it. Or to quote a sports scientist, “…the only certainty is that whoever says that success is due to one or two things is wrong.”

Too Little, Too Late

The sad part is that I have had people point out that Mike doesn’t completely abandon passion. At the end of his speech, he does give you this:

Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.

Which I happen to completely agree with. But to put that at the end of a long piece with gems like “Thinking of [Follow your passion] still makes me throw up in my mouth,” seems a bit disingenuous.

So follow your passion. Or don’t. The fact is, you’ll figure out how to put food on your table and a roof over your head somehow. And you’ll either integrate your passion into your life in some way that nourishes it – or you’ll bury it because someone told you it was a dumb idea. But allow me to point out another bit of data: the number one regret of those on their deathbed:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Passion”

  1. I’m afraid I agree with Mike. Less than 30% of college graduates work in the field in which they earned their degree. Most of these people were passionate about earning that degree. They had dreams of making a difference or maybe just making $$$. Either way, a high percentage of them are laden with student loans, barely making ends meet and working in josb that bear no resemblance to their training.

    Even at the rate of big companies downsizing (while still employing 1000s) while small companies are growing (1-50 employees) , the bigger companies make more of an impact on our economy. Also they talk of small businesses being created but leave out the statistic of how many of them managed to be successful: therein lies the most important number and exactly what Mike was alluding to. Many small businesses are created each year, but 8 out of 10 will fail. (The number of small-business exits exceeded the number of start-ups for the first time this year. While 400,000 new businesses are being created annually, 470,000 are closing, leaving a deficit of 70,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2014).

    So am I advocating that no one follow their passion? No. I’m advocating following your passion in a sensible way; sort of what Mike was suggesting. A friend of mine is struggling to pay his student loans, while working IT, yet he has a two degrees he’s not using. My own daughter after getting her bachelor degree in her field of choice realized it would never pay her what she needed to have the life she wanted, so after research she went back to college and got the degree they said would benefit her the most, though she had no passion for it. She’s climbing up the ladder now. My partner has a degree in Illustration from his Art College, but when I met him, he was working three part time jobs, barely making rent and lamenting his inability to work in art. I recommend that he get a regular “job” with full time hours and benefits and work on his art on the side. He did. Several things happened since then: a major health issue for which he was grateful for health insurance and time off with pay, he is not only able to pay rent but has extra money to enjoy life, travel a bit and buy art supplies, AND he is still able to produce art. Sometimes it’s for free. Sometimes he gets pay. In the meantime he’s refining his talent, learning what works and doesn’t work, learning better work habits and finding out, without risking it all, what is more likely to be a success if he ever decides to follow that passion full time. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    Yes, there are successful people who did follow their passion. Took risks that paid off. And there are many, many more who did the same and it didn’t. Much like would be actors and actresses in Hollywood. Don’t drown your passion. Don’t follow it completely without a viable plan in place either.

    “Patience and time do more than strength or passion.
    Jean de La Fontaine”

  2. Petrona,

    Thanks for your comment. I have (certainly) many ideas and responses, including the apples/oranges quibble that you talk about businesses whereas I talk about jobs, so we can’t really compare those numbers.

    I also disagree that most people go to college for something they are passionate about; most people are discouraged actively at that (as I was) by their mentors. I also believe that the fact that few people are working in the field that they went to school for has nothing to do with passion or not – it has to do with the changing job market.

    Aside from that, I believe we would have to agree to disagree; it turns into a war of anecdotes; for every person such as your daughter and your friend I can pull out another (such as my daughter and another of your friends, namely me). I also do not believe that the skills, discipline, and depth of knowledge and ability to learn required to get two degrees would ever be wasted; it may not be used directly, but it is certainly useful. I never stand at attention for hours at a time or belly-crawl under barbed wire, but having learned those skills I am the better for it.

    In the end, I believe it comes down to fear; there is a fear that if people follow their passion they will end up cold and homeless and a burden on society. That is not what I’ve seen from people who follow their passion. Rather, I see people who either do succeed (and usually end up creating businesses that are later on used as examples of “not” following passion) or I see people follow their passion and temper it with what is necessary for them to integrate it into their life. Both I would consider “success” stories. My objection to Mike’s rebuttal is that while he gives a slight nod to the idea that passion is important, he spends most of the time trying to pretend there is an easily identifiable “sensible” path.

    To me, the only sensible path is the one that, at the end of my life, I will not regret.

    I don’t know if you listened to the podcast, but I invite you to have a discussion with me about this subject if you like – your points are much more interesting than Mike’s since you seem to back it with data rather than opinion. Let me know!

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