November 8, 2022 | Vol. 1, Issue 2
I’m sure you’ve heard this advice a million times. It’s the go-to for influencers, consumer brands, and commencement speakers:
Follow your passion.
The thinking goes something like this: Follow your passion and you’ll accomplish great things, be fulfilled, and never feel like you’re actually working. Because, you know, you’re doing what you love, right? (#blessed)
The advice has achieved mainstream status. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, put out a video on how following his passion got him to the top, advising his audience they should do the same. It’s even seeped into the professional counseling world as a legitimate way to order your life.
There’s only one small issue. It’s pablum.
The popular kid
If following your passion is weak sauce, why is it widely embraced?
To understand its popularity, let’s look at this from two perspectives.
First, why do we like the idea of following our passions?
I think this advice grips our imagination so strongly because it tells us that the secret to fulfillment is to give our heart exactly what it desires. Who doesn’t want to hear that?
Imagine standing at a fork in the road of your career. One path leads through boring, frustrating, and seemingly aimless work. The other path promises to take you right into something you love, and it even sweetens the pot with material success.
Why would you ever choose anything but the latter path?
The idea of following our passions—or what I call the passion-based ethos—is really a promise of escape—escape from constraints, boredom, banality, frustration, and struggle. The passion-based ethos gives you permission to focus on yourself and your desires, and to come out a winner in the process.
The passion-based ethos makes self-centeredness a virtue.
Second, why do our would-be advisors—the influencers, brands, the institutions of higher learning, and politicians—like to promote it?
Well, how do influencers, giant brands, colleges and universities, and politicians become successful? In short, me and you.
Influencers are nothing without our attention. Brands and corporations are nothing without our money. Universities and colleges are nothing without our tuition. Politicians are nothing without our support.
They know that without us they’re done. So, they’ve become really good at telling us exactly what we want to hear, and what’s better than being told you should consummate your desires?
How to be miserable
It’s not enough to slander the passion-based ethos due to why it’s popular. Let’s talk about why following your passion is terrible advice.
The word passion originates in the Late Latin passionem, which meant suffering and enduring. This is why churches do Easter passion plays. These plays depict the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, i.e., the story of Jesus enduring his crucifixion for our greater good.
Passion evolved a bit in Middle English to mean “the state of being affected or acted upon by something external”. This is where we get the related idea of being passive because you’re being acted upon by some outside force.
Passion also came to embody the idea of an ailment, disease, or affliction. And it included emotions, desires, and feelings, especially when these things led to sin.
We don’t really see the word passion resembling something like we use it today, meaning a strong liking, enthusiasm, or object of great admiration or desire, until the mid 1700s.
It took about 800 years for passion to go from the idea of suffering-to-be-endured to meaning desire-to-be-fulfilled, but here we are.
Okay, enough of the history lesson. Let’s dig in to why the passion-based ethos is terrible. There are two fundamental flaws to consider.
First, passions change all the time.
Maybe that’s why the ancients thought of passion as something to be endured—wait long enough and whatever is tormenting you will go away.
Be they evil spirits or your own desires, passions are typically fleeting. What was a passion last year does not necessarily remain a passion into this year or beyond. This transitory quality makes it impossible to build a lasting foundation upon your passion.
I was super into typography about 20 years ago. I loved it so much that I attended typography conferences and I had the habit of carrying The Elements of Typographic Style everywhere I went—even on vacation.
I guess you could say that typography was a passion.
Yet, thank God I didn’t pursue it any further than I did. Sure, I still appreciate good typography but I know I’d be miserable if I had become a type designer. It just doesn’t hold my attention like it used to and I would have missed out on all the amazing work I get to do now.
It’s striking how different type design is from strategy making. God bless typographers, but I can’t think I would have enjoyed such a small world.
That’s just one example. I used to be passionate about fly fishing, bow hunting, playing guitar, book binding, drawing, basketball, wine making, piloting airplanes, and a host of other things. But, passions come and go. Sure, some stay with us, but most only occupy a brief time in our lives.
The second fundamental flaw is that the passion-based ethos is self indulgent. It sets you up as the ultimate source of your own fulfillment.
It promises if you turn inwards to find your passion, and then center your life around that passion, that you’ll be happy.
You are the focus, becoming the greatest thing, which is terrible because you are not enough to satisfy yourself. We all need something greater than ourselves in order to be fulfilled.
At the least, we need other people. This is why men and women marry, why couples have children, why people join teams and clubs. And, on an even deeper level, we need the transcendent to give us meaning and purpose.
When you consider what makes for a healthy society, the idea that I can find everything I need for a happy life by pursuing my passion begins to look foolish.
Look at the statistical data on things like marriage, birth rate, civic involvement, or church membership and you’ll see they are all falling. I won’t argue that there’s a direct correlation, but it’s hard to ignore our shift towards a more self-centered approach to life or our collective discontent.
The truth is, the passion-based ethos cannot deliver the fulfillment it promises. Passions are too fickle and self centered. Ironically, following your passion leads to frustration and disillusionment.
Of chickens and eggs
So, if following your passion is bad advice, how do you build a fulfilling life?
Let me start by stating, I am all for finding work that is good. I’m even big on finding work that suits you, work that you love, work that creates material success and deep fulfillment—work, dare I say, that you’re passionate about.
How do you do that?
First, orient your life around the deeper, transcendent values of goodness. Rather than pursuing your passion, pursue courage, dedication, humility, kindness, self-control, sacrifice, generosity, truth.
Doing this reorients your focus away from introspection and towards the greater things that have sustained history’s greatest societies and its greatest people.
Of course, there are a number of ways to approach this, but one that’s worked for thousands of years is to orient your life around Christ.
Second, become a person of action. Realize that the best way to figure something out is to engage it. Not sure what you’re really good at or what you really like? Test the waters.
If you had asked me at 20 if I thought I would like sales I would have probably told you that I didn’t think so. At that point, all I knew about was going door-to-door for a school fundraiser, which I hated. But, my early career required that I do some B2B sales and I quickly found out that I not only enjoyed the feeling of closing, but that I was good at it. 35 years later and I can tell you that there is nothing quite like landing a deal.
Is selling a passion? Nah, bro. But, I do love it and I would have never known if I didn’t just get in there and do it. The same goes for making YouTube vids and writing.
So, don’t sit on the sidelines. Try stuff. Be a doer. Look for chances to do work you’ve never done before or to take on new challenges. You will be amazed at what you learn and where this will take you.
Third, treat your “passions” for what they most likely are: interests. You into fishing? Cool. Go for it and fish. Enjoy it, learn from it. Maybe someday it will evolve into something unexpected. Maybe it will just remain a nice way to unwind. Or, maybe you get bored with it and move on.
Whatever you do, don’t put too much pressure on your interests to be anything other than something you find enriching. This way you can engage them at face value and let them be what they are meant to be.
Base your life upon what is true and good, rather than your desires. Be a person of action and engagement, rather than one of extreme introspection. And, enjoy your interests without the pressure of making them your all-in-all. Doing this will lead you to amazing discoveries and a life of deeper meaning and fulfillment.
And, in the process, you might just find, that like me, you’re passionate about your work.