Passion vs. Real Life

Hands of person holding road mapThere’s nothing more enjoyable about writing than finding out something new about yourself as you’re writing. In this case, I’m starting to question the validity behind the “follow your passion” philosophy of life.

I enjoy reading Wayne Dyer, Cheryl Richardson, Jack Canfield, and a host of other inspirational authors. The general message that I hear is that success comes by setting your goals and (in most cases) working hard to achieve them. There’s a good dose of “you can do anything you set your mind to” in there. Throw God (or whatever you believe in) into the mix as your backup, your support, and the being/energy that will help you through, and you’ll be successful.

I do believe there’s truth in that. Human history is full of people who’ve lived by those principles and achieved greatness.

Then there’s Cal Newport, who believes that the passion argument is flawed and even misleading. Newport argues that you should “start by getting good at something valuable; the passion will follow” and that the belief of following your passion “can also be dangerous, leading to anxiety and chronic job hopping.” His most recent book, according to his website, is called “So Good, They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Work You Love.”

I also believe there’s some truth in that. Human history is also full of people who show pride in their everyday work, at least based on my impression of the last two million years. When I speak to some of those people (obviously those alive – I have no special gifts), I hear their pride constantly as they talk about their jobs. My grandmother, for example, used to work in a luxury hotel in Austria in the 50s, and she frequently told me about her skill at egg-boiling: she had to remember how long each guest wanted their eggs boiled, and I don’t believe she had an egg timer. She was truly proud of that fifty years later.

Some in the passion camp argue that I should look to my childhood for what my true passions are, or at least, were. For me, I loved creating: writing, crafting, drawing, and occasional family-only performances were all on the plate. If I had followed my passion 100% as some of these inspirational speakers say I should, I’d be broke. Why? Because back then I believed in only one road to success in the arts: audition->work for cheap/get rejected->repeat. And I sucked at it. A mix of low self-confidence (“I’m not going to make it, so why try?”) and dealing poorly with rejection (“See? They didn’t like me, anyways.”) guaranteed that I got nowhere professionally really quickly. I needed to find something I believed I was good at.

In those days, my mom was a secretary and my dad ran the family business with my grandfather and uncle. At home, mom taught me how to answer the phone with a smile (no matter how stupid you felt), type with ten fingers, and use a word processor, including advanced functions like macros and merges. Around roughly the same time, I worked summers at the family business filing work orders from the service department. I still talk about my filing system from back then.

In my adult life, I kept getting administrative jobs. For a while, I thought this was some kind of woman thing, based on the lack of male administrative assistants. Am I truly reaching my full potential? Do I not have the ovaries to reach higher? (I’d use the usual expression, but the obvious answer would be no.) All it took to answer those questions was a reflection back on my previous jobs. I frequently stepped in to new systems or very inefficient ones. In order to turn them around, though, I had to communicate with my boss and other team members clearly. Sometimes I had to write a proposal, maybe give a small presentation. I learned to focus less on me and more on the customer (crucial in almost any job). I also eventually learned how to write effective copy. Over time, I grew to believe that I’m damn good at those skills (and have the performance evaluations to prove it).

What I could not foresee as a child was how the role of secretary/administrative assistant would grow to encompass a slew of new responsibilities, including copious amounts of writing. The thing about childhood dreams is that you don’t understand the entire scope of adult life. A “writer” to my younger self was Robert Munsch, or Jean Little, or Carolyn Keene (before I knew she didn’t exist), or even Lois Lane (even though I knew she didn’t exist). It didn’t occur to me that writers can write marketing copy, reports, essays, or grants. In addition, the Internet was nowhere to be seen back then. Basically, if I’d “followed my dream,” I may have actually passed up amazing opportunities along the road that brought me to where I am now.

Maybe the best advice, then, is to follow what you love to do, but leave the how open for discussion.

 

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