Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What's so great about following your passion anyway? Reflections on whether you should do what you love.

When I was in my late teens I read a lot of books by American self-help authors like Wayne Dyer and Anthony Robbins. There was one thing those books all seemed to agree on: the most important thing in life is to do what you are passionate about. ‘Do what you love’, Wayne Dyer would write, ‘and the money will follow’. That very quickly become something I believed in with all my heart, and it influenced many of the choices I made as a student. If I devoted myself wholeheartedly to my biggest passions, I reasoned, I was bound to become happy and successful. This led me to devote a huge amount of time to music, creative writing, and studying philosophy. The results, however, surprised me. Instead of becoming blissfully happy and achieving instant success, I also encountered failure, stress, and anxiety. It was certainly the case that following my so-called ‘passions’ also led to many moments of satisfaction and happiness, but not constantly, and that ran counter to my expectations. Also, some of those endeavors didn’t lead to success at all - instead, I crashed and burned in some areas of my life. ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans,’ John Lennon famously said, and that has certainly been true for me.

Our culture, however, has embraced the ideas of thinkers like Dyer and Robbins in a big, big way. The fact that people should follow their passion has become such a mainstream idea that most of us take its truth for granted. People who claim to follow their passion are put on a pedestal, and as a result almost everyone at some point in their life ends up asking the kind of questions I asked as a nineteen-year-old student: what is my passion? What is my ‘thing’?

It’s a hard question to answer, though. And asking it frequently stresses people out - a lot. After all, not everyone has a passion so huge that it’s crystal clear that devoting the rest of your life to it is sensible. And what if you have several passions, like I did as a student? How do you divide your time? How do you decide which passion to give priority?What if you have no passion? Does everyone have a passion? Should you be able to earn money with your passion? What is a passion anyway? Does drinking coffee count as a passion? The list of questions you can ask yourself about this topic goes on and on.

In my case, after many sidetracks and dead ends, my struggle to answer these kinds of questions led to a career as a University teacher, and in that capacity I frequently end up discussing these questions with my students. What should I do, they ask me? Should I go this way or that way? Focus on music or law? Should I do what I love or choose something that I think I will be able to earn more money with? And what do you do if you can’t choose? What if a thousand possible directions to take all look good? What if none look good?

It’s hard for me to help out when students ask these kinds of questions. Everyone is different. What’s sensible for one person is poisonous advice for another. So I don’t have clear-cut answers. I’m not an oracle, and I can’t make the decisions for them. In the end, what I almost always end up doing is this: I recommend stuff for them to read or watch. I end up recommending books, youtube clips, blog articles, newspaper articles, in the hope that it will help them to clarify their thinking. So here, in no particular order, are my favourite reading and viewing recommendations for figuring out that eternal, pesky question: what is my passion?

Youtube clip. Viewing time: 5 minutes.
Question addressed: Should you follow your passion?
Answer: Yes.

Before authors like Dyer and Robbins made a career out of bringing the ‘do what you love’ philosophy to the masses, there was Joseph Campbell – a hugely charismatic, deeply wise academic specializing in myth and religion who taught at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York for most of his life. Campbell shot to fame in the eighties when a series of televised interviews with him unexpectedly drew viewing figures in the millions. This clip comes from that series of interviews (the whole series is worth watching, and is called ‘The Power of myth’). Campbell explains that throughout his career he has advised his students to, in his words, ‘follow their bliss’. While that phrase might sound cheesy, Campbell’s explanation about how he came up with the phrase is anything but. I dare you to watch this clip and not be moved by Campbell’s energy and charisma. Although he doesn't address this in the clip, Campbell himself often acknowledged that following your passions will not lead to permanent bliss, commenting jokingly that a more accurate phrase would have been ‘follow your blisters’. 

Internet article. Reading time: 5 minutes.
Question addressed:Sshould you base what you study at University on your perception of what will lead to a job?
Answer: Probably not.

Glaser makes a point I believe in with all my heart: It’s very wise for students to use their bachelor degree to experiment. Take courses in a wide variety of fields, and don’t worry about the economics too much. A liberal arts degree, in this regard, is a perfect way to spend the first three years of your academic life. And if you’re passionate about the humanities - which have a bad rep in terms of job prospects - then go head and take that humanities major anyway (and after that, why not do a master in the same field, if you still love it?). In all likelihood your understanding of those poor job prospects are false anyway. The transferrable skills students learn in the humanities are tremendously valuable assets in a wealth of different jobs, as Glaser argues in this short article.

Blog article. Reading time: seven minutes.
Question addressed: Should you follow your passion?
Answer: Probably. But be aware of the caveats.
Question addressed: What is my passion?
Answer: You already know.

Manson is a superstar blogger and author of the recent best-seller The subtle art of not giving a f*ck (which I also heartily recommend). Of the many excellent points he makes in this blog post, two stand out for me:
1. What you’re passionate about is often so obvious that it’s staring you right in the face. We overcomplicate this issue frequently, as if we’re waiting for some kind of mystical ‘eureka’ revelation that lets us know that this is our thing, this is what we should devote the rest of our life to. But reality isn’t like that. Most of us don’t get messages from the Gods about what direction to go in. So we need to try stuff out. Following your passion often entails not just going with your gut-feeling, but a messy series of trial and error.
2. If you do what you’re passionate about, you’re not going to be 100% happy all the time. Accept that, and expect it to happen.

Blog article. Reading time: nine minutes.
Question Addressed: Should you invest all your time into following a single passion?
Answer: No.

Another article by Manson, this one a riff on a concept by famous productivity author / polyglot / speed-learner / angel investor / cookery writer / podcast host  Tim Ferriss (yes, Ferriss is really all those things!). Ferriss – whose blog I recommend – coined the term ‘identity diversification’, a concept which he explains as follows:

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

Ferriss himself hasn’t elaborated much on the concept other than mention it in passing in interview, so I therefore recommend this blog post by Manson, which digs deeper and gives more food for thought. For me, the idea that you should diversify your identity is very, very wise advice. The reason that the whole ‘follow your passion’ idea leads to so much stress is that we start identifying with our passions. We put all our eggs in one basket. We invest huge amounts of time into making one area of our life a success – our so-called ‘passion’ – and as a result we feel under huge pressure. It is wise, therefore, to diversify our identity. This means we don’t necessarily have to follow just one passion - we can follow several. If I look back on my own career, this is something that I’ve always done, and I always felt slightly guilty about that. In hindsight, I see that it was actually a very sensible strategy.

[edit:I've written a blog post with some further reflections on the 'diversify your identity' concept - you can read it here]

Newspaper article. Reading time: 15 minutes.
Question addressed: Is failure bad?
Answer: No.

This article from the British newspaper the Guardian introduces the main ideas covered in Oliver Burkeman's book The Antidote, which is one of my favorite books of all time. It's a deeply wise book about the psychology of happiness which has had a huge amount of influence on my own thinking. I wish I’d read it twenty years earlier – it would have saved me much heartbreak and frustration. The most important take-away from the book for me? Make your peace with failure. Instead of seeing at as something to be avoided at all costs, see it as something natural, which is often-times beyond your control. I strongly recommend the entire book, but this short article does an excellent job covering the book's main ideas and can be read in under 15 minutes. I love the part where Burkeman describes his visit to the famous museum of failure - a huge collection of products that were on the market for only a few weeks because no one bought them. Failure, in other words, happens to the best of us. If you are going to follow your passions, then do so – but don’t stress yourself out by thinking that you must succeed at all costs. Convincing yourself that something beyond your control must happen is a surefire way to depression and anxiety. Failure is natural, and not something to be afraid of. If you combine that idea with Ferriss's 'diversify your identity' strategy you will have an approach to following your passions that is far, far healthier than most people's, and one I'd known about twenty years ago. 

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