“Follow your passion!” “No, that’s stupid! Get a skill and follow that! You will learn to be passionate about what you’re good at!” “No, that’s stupid! You have to love something before you can devote the time to get good at it!”
What is going on here?
I was always a firm believer in the school of thought that said you had to actually care about what you do–if not outright enjoy it–in order to have a fulfilling and meaningful life and career. I say this as somebody who followed the typical cultural traps and ended up in a career that I do not care much for. You see, my dream was to be a professional musician in any capacity, not just the typical pie-in-the-sky “I wanna be famous” path that so many musicians follow. I would have been happy as a session musician, an academician, a teacher–in fact, at one point, I was a music education major.
So what happened?
In addition to listening to some horrible advice, I chose the decidedly non-passion option.
But was that necessarily a mistake?
Like I’ve said before, I’m a fan of Scott Adams’s is wonderful book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. In it, he has a chapter that discusses how passions is bullshit. This chapter is called “Passion is Bullshit.”
Adams states that relying on passion to get you where you want to go is, in fact, bullshit. Instead, he argues, we should be focused on hard work, skill, and most of all, energy. He also talks about his numerous failures, and how they each taught him skills that prepared him for his next venture. The moral of the story, and of his whole book, is to not be afraid of failure by to embrace it. It’s only a true failure if you don’t learn from it.
Initially reading this, I was confused. You will become passionate about something you are skilled in? What will give you the impetus to get skilled at this thing in the first place? Are we consigned to lives of only doing things that we hate, counter to everything we hold dear to our souls? Later in the book–indeed, later in the chapter–Adams discusses how a lot of times our interests are indicative of skills, and that passion may–may–also be a marker for risk-tolerance.
Oh, okay! I think I get it! You can save your passion for something that is a hobby. You can be good at something and make a living doing it, but you don’t have to love it. So even if you’re following your interest, or should I say your talent, you’re not really following your passion. Because I would be bullshit, right? And who wants that? Do I have things down?
It’s still doesn’t make tons of sense to me. Is it just a question of degree? Are we separating “passion” from “talent”? If you have a talent in something that you hate, would you still do it? Is it even possible to have a talent in something you hate? If you hate it, why would you be drawn to in the first place? If you are drawn to something, wouldn’t that make it an interest, or dare I say it, a passion? Which would in turn make it bullshit?
I don’t know. It makes my head hurt.
Fast forward a few days. I am on my regularly scheduled car ride from Washington DC to Massachusetts listening to Brett McKay’s excellent The Art of Manliness podcast. I’m a little behind, so I’ve been catching up on all the episodes. One from early April was an interview with a gentleman named Chris Guillebeau. He wrote a book called Born for This, which is not the sequel to that Lady Gaga album where she’s a human motorcycle like that kid in that old 80s cartoon Turbo Teen who could turn into a car (remember that show?).
Anyway, Guillebeau’s point also is that passion is bullshit, although he does not use those exact words.
However, he closes the loop that I was having trouble closing before by saying that you should not follow your passions blindly, but you should at least pursue something you have a skill at.
Ah-ha! Here was the missing piece! I sort of had my own philosophy in my mind, but it is always nice to hear that you were not the only one with a particular thought. Where I differed from Adams and I agree with Guillebeau is that he discusses, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you need to do something you were skilled to succeed, but it should at least be tolerable or enjoyable even. Now, I’m not saying Adams is specifically advising that we only do things that we hate because, in some sort of weird orgy of masochism, painful and miserable equals good. But he didn’t really indicate that the skill you follow and “get good at” be something that you actually enjoy.
This is the I had been missing for so long. Case in point: I wanted to be a professional musician. Music was my interest and my passion. I had a knack for it, you could say. However, I did not pursue it with the vigor that I should’ve, especially after a pretty spectacular failure that I should have viewed as an opportunity to start again. Instead I took it as a sign that passion is bullshit and fully committed myself to something I may have been good at but didn’t particularly enjoy.
Oh woe is me. I know. This is not intended to be a pity party, but a learning experience. I don’t do pity parties.
Fully committed might be a little misleading. You see, I contend to anybody that will listen, and that number seems to be growing as I enter my, ahem, early middle ages and become somewhat of a mentor to the young men and woman in my life, that the biggest mistake I ever made was not dropping out during my first semester of law school when I realized that it wasn’t for me. But I’m no quitter, right?
So even in light to exposure to new ideas, I still do not agree with the contention that passion is bullshit. Maybe it’s dog shit, or some other less offensive type of animal fecal matter (birdshit, maybe?). Scatology aside, I say that your passions, within reason, can guide you towards the skills that will in turn incentivize you to develop them and turn them into your career. By “within reason,” I mean that if your passion is playing video games, as Mr. Guillebeau gives an example of, that might not be the best passion to hang your career on. Unless you are one of those entrepreneurial individuals who writes about games, or live streams you playing them to an audience that is willing to pay money. And there is also such a thing as professional gaming.
Professional gaming! Dammit, I was born too late!
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