I was discussing passions with someone the other day. It was the typical conversation where we were exploring career options. They made the statement “my passion is helping others”. This got me thinking a little bit about passions, specifically the things that interest us and drive us. The things that we wish to know more about. I wondered, What causes passions?
I guess I could go deeply into psychological theory but I think the correct answer is a non-answer. Nobody really knows where are our passions come from. It could be a biological tendency, a sort of hard wired response in our personality if you will. The right combination of stimulus from something creates a strong biochemical response. Somebody who is hardwired to respond to a child’s call could believe that children are their passion. It could of course be environmental. We could have had an experience that was so positive, that years and decades later we still ‘go there’ to get that same blast of endorphins. This could be anything. It could the first time we told a story or heard an audience clap for our performance. For a musician that audience appreciation generated a response so strong that music becomes a passion. It’s most likely a mix of these things. My guess is that it’s a biochemical tendency mixed with the experiential that creates the passion. The point is that many people experience what they consider to be a passion, that thing they would like to do beyond anything else they have experienced in life.
Should you follow your passions?
We are told to follow our passions with regularity in our culture. Why does this strange, nearly universal advice even exist? In all honesty we live in a world of unprecedented wealth, at least measured by any historical perspective. This wealth allows for all manner of creative jobs to exist en masse. This is important because creativity is really the bulk of passion in my experience. Yes, there are those who are passionate about child rearing. There are those who are passionate about climbing the corporate ladder, but I don’t think that’s the bulk of what people would answer if you asked everyone you met about their passions. I think you would get passion about some connection to humanity or passion about creativity in some form. It’s creativity which is the bulk of what I hear people discuss when they talk about where their passions lay. So why are so many people passionate about creativity? The answer is both surprising and practical if you think about it.
The artist or professional creative doesn’t exist because of the largess of a single wealthy leader in the community as it has in centuries past. It exists because productivity has allowed enough wealth for everyone to have music on demand, to see productions, both pre-recorded and live and to interact with others in person and through virtual worlds more than any time in human history. The exposure to these more creative endeavors and the infrastructure that supports them seem to offer endless opportunities to earn a living. The key word is ‘seems’. The thing to keep in mind is that even though we all hear the stories of the fabulously wealthy artist they are truly few and far between. What is the ratio of starving actors, to actors who have earned a meager living to wealthy actors I wonder? The same can be said of the ratio of musical artists on soundcloud vs. the number gainfully employed in the industry in a way that meets their needs of fulfilling their creative passions. According to the bureau of labor statistics on music:
“Despite expected growth, there should be strong competition for jobs because of the large number of workers who are interested in becoming musicians and singers. In particular, there will likely be considerable competition for full-time positions… …Musicians and singers with exceptional musical talent should have the best opportunities.”
Translated, this means that we may have many more people in the creative fields than there are positions available and only the best of the best get the good jobs. The reality is there is a ton more who have a ‘passion’ for music than there is actual jobs that will allow them to earn a living at their passion. So why are these masses of people trying to make a living at music when it’s so obviously challenging? Why are they trying to follow their passions? By default if there is high competition there is low wages and low quality of life.. Hence the term ‘starving artist’. I believe the fallacy of following your passion was sold to us in school. The schools had creatives that were trying to create jobs, so they didn’t follow their passions exactly but they did figure out a way to earn money in a peripheral sense. They taught. There was demand from those who had a ‘passion’ in the subject area and there was big supply in the form guaranteed student loans. The ease of access to credit for education is a biggie. If you didn’t have guaranteed student loans it’s hard to see how there would be enough full-time students at Full Sail University who could pay the $22,707 in annual fees and tuition needed to keep the doors open. That doesn’t include room and board, transportation, healthcare, and all the other necessities of life. Is 100K in student loans worth it to be a broadcast technician or studio engineer where the starting salary is about 20K a year? I’m not so sure about that. So much for the phrase ‘follow your passions and the money will come’, which is a phrase I have heard uttered many many times in my life. 20K a year at Full Sail is still a ton better than the 68K a year it’ll cost you to go to Julliard School of the Arts to train for that highly lucrative dance career.
So one reason why we have a desire to follow our passions is that it’s seductive. The reality of how difficult it is is a far cry than the perception of success that exists around us. The second challenge is that it’s easy to follow the path. We have educators and parents telling us to follow our passions, and we have educational systems that make it so simple to pursue whatever interest we wish. This doesn’t really come close to answer the question of should you follow your passions, unless of course you desire a path of least resistance. If you want something enjoyable and easy, are are willing to accept a high probability of minimal financial success with following your passion then this is sort of an answer. You should follow your passion, at least the creative ones, if you want something easy and fun and don’t care about the longer term negative consequences.
What Following your Passions really means: The unfulfilling job
I discussed artists, but it’s not just art. What if your passion is politics? What about Sports? How many full time jobs are there in those sectors after you get training in the respective disciplines? There are more jobs in politics to be sure because of its relationship to ever growing government institutions, but how many of those government jobs allow you to engage your passions? If you are a devout right winger, or left winger, how many full time jobs are associated with furthering political views? I’d wager that there are many less job openings for promoting a political ideology than there are people who are passionate about those views and wish to promote them full time.
What if your passion is ‘helping people’? This generally translates into a job with one of the non profit social services. It won’t take long before the bright eyed and optimistic graduate from a social services program realizes the majority of the job is more about rules and bureaucracy than helping people. Even if they get past the paperwork and rules, they quickly learn another little secret of ‘helping people’. The secret is that it’s mostly impossible. Not all, but most people who are in need of these services are either damaged beyond repair or at a point in life where they can’t be helped until they want to help themselves. Welcome to futility. FYI, this is one of the big reasons why the bureaucracy exists. It’s to prove work was done even though positive outcomes are the exception rather than the rule.
Your passion may be art, or music, or writing, and you may get a job in those more creative areas. The challenge is that the vast majority of those jobs exist for enhancing productivity as opposed to creative expression. A job that demands a dozen different ways to draw a bottle of soda may not scratch the passion itch of the budding artist, but that’s what pays the bills. A hundred outfits designed in 3D for the latest online shoot em up will lead to the same thing. I’ve heard a story about how mind numbing it is for a creative writer to write plot lines in interactive media. The writer complained about how mind numbing it was to think of different ways to write something like “This one’s going to be tough” or “he’s throwing a grenade!”.
I’m not against art, nor am I against following your passions. I just believe the great many opportunities related to people’s passions are like driving down a road and getting stuck behind a city bus. You wanted to get somewhere fun and interesting, but somewhere on the path it becomes just stop and go while everyone passes you by.
In addition to the unfulfilling job, a lateral challenge comes with the conflict when your passion is in a career that should be a good stable job but the reality of work doesn’t match the promise. What do I mean by that? As an example, It may be fun to be a teacher and it’s definitely something that’s a good job that someone can be passionate about. Unfortunately it’s challenging when most of the students don’t really get it. I had one student who was motivated about doing some additional research for some needed extra credit. I worked hard at coming up with an assignment that gave him the opportunity to think outside the box in a research project that was completely aligned to his life goals. Did It work? Did he turn in something tremendously interesting or insightful? Nope. It was a crappy by the numbers paper. That type of experience can really seem unfulfilling and in my experience it’s the result in the majority of the cases. Yes, there is always the student who grabs what you teach them and takes it to the next level on their own, but that is very very rare. I’ve heard people say that that once in a blue moon student is why they do what they do, and it what keeps their passion fires burning. I’ve always had a hard time believing it. I think they say that because it’s all there is, so they have learned to believe in that. To me it’s like saying I am passionate about the lottery because once a year I hit a few hundred bucks. There are other industries that fall into this trap. What about the medical practitioner who spends more time dealing with patients who won’t stop the bad habits that will eventually lead to a life threatening health issue? Add in more time with paperwork than sick people and you wonder how anyone in medicine can be passionate about anything.
Conflict: When Life works against your passion!
I have told the story many times. I had lost my job near when my first child was born. My identity and my passion at the time was intertwined in being a businessman; In climbing the corporate ladder. Yet there I was being a stay-at-home parent, the antithesis of everything that was important to me. Unfortunately my wife, whose greatest aspiration and dream was to be a stay-at-home mom was forced to remain in the workforce. We were in the unique situation where life had forced both of us into roles that were completely the opposite of where our passions lay. To say there was great conflict in our household during that time is a true understatement.
That is my story, and it’s very descriptive, but of course it is not the only story that represents this type of conflict. In truth those who have accelerated engagement in their passion via school or some other training may feel especially impacted at not being able to exercise their passions. How many significant others in the world would be okay with their spouse spending every free moment not at their nine-to-five job engaging in their passion acting at a local community theater? Typically what happens in this situation is the greater need of spouse and family overruled the intense call of the passion. This creates a fundamental unhappiness that is hard to describe. Many of us who have had to come to terms with the fact that there are things in life that are more important that our passions have felt this tremendous conflict. It’s a silent longing that never really goes away. There are some tricks to deal with it.
Weather nurture or nature passions are definitely a fundamental part of who we are. One thing I’m sure of is that nearly everyone will have something they consider themselves to be passionate about. If you are passionate about something there will be more than a passing interest in engaging in that. There are some tricks we can use to help us meet the needs that our passions drive us to meet.
Trick One: Work First, Passion Second. Your job should be targeted at making money. It’s nice to say follow your passions and look for a job in music or in photography, but generally speaking those don’t pay the bills. What does pay the bills is building things that are needed for existence or providing billable services that are needed to enhance the productivity of the economy. The boring stuff. Those things absolutely should come first. Every student whoever enters into the office of a college advisor or career development counselor should only be given information on industries that have strong workforce needs and are projected to grow for the long term. Does this mean you give up on your passion entirely? No, of course not. It’s just saying that prioritization of focus with keeping the lights on and food on the table is way more important than feeling fulfilled, at least in the initial stages of one’s career. Only after you are situated in something that fulfills a societal need and is compensated well should you consider integrating a passion into that. The first major tip is to integrate your passion as a part of what your doing for a living versus the current model of following your passion and trying to figure out how to make a living afterwards. Not only will your passion allow you to be more of a purple squirrel for the organization, it may actually get you noticed once you’ve developed a body of work. It’s easier to have a more comfortable life if part of your day job is your passion versus having a day job to support your passion on nights and the weekends. Depending upon the reality of your world you may eventually wind up doing the passion thing full-time if you are adding enough value with it.
Trick number two is to continue to do your passion as a hobby. That’s sort of what I do with my blogging and podcasting. It’s hard for me to fit this type of work into my full-time job, and I have given up on the expectation of making any money with it at least in the short-term. But I feel strongly that I should continue with my passion, both to increase my knowledge in this area and to increase my skills. I am also very much aware of that hobbies can turn into business. I have had some offers based upon this media creation work outside of my regular work. The most important part of the hobby is to keep it a hobby mentally, never expect it to be a full-time gig. If it does become that, congratulations! You did it! If not, the worst that happens is you had a little bit of fun.
The third trick is be aware of the pros and cons of the community of your passion. We tend to engage in a community of our passions. It helps us learn more and be around similar minded individuals who appreciate what we appreciate. This can go too far. One of the challenges of the modern world is that it’s so easy to find yourself in an echo chamber. Everyone around you will think like you think and prioritize what you prioritize. You see this most prevalently in politics and political thought. Turn on the cable television channel or turn on the local radio station and every announcer is going to be aligned to a certain political thought. It’s the same thing with news outlets. If you take this away from politics and you look at the artistic communities, rarely will you find a community that says hey it’s just art, it’s not important like food or transportation or medical. Art is really more of a nice to have after necessities versus a must-have for life. The people at the artists communes, or local community theatre companies may believe that the arts are necessary for existence but most of the world does not believe this. If they did a majority of artists would all be able to make a great living. Always maintain perspective on the value of your passion.
In the end everything about passion represents a very a difficult balance. No matter what the passion is, there is someone who is making a great living at it. Yet for most passions, very few people can do it full time and earn enough to live let alone be affluent. Your passion may be attached to a good job, but there will be a tremendous amount of dispiriting non-passion work that is apart of that job. Your passion will have value to a great many people, but not to everyone, so it can both connect you and build a barrier to others. You have to keep this in mind when you engage the greater world around you. You need to have enough discipline to continue to engage your passion on some level and not let it be a pipe dream, yet not give up everything else in life for it. Unless, of course, for you it’s ‘damn the torpedoes’ and that is all you want to do no matter what the outcome is.
Too much passion for the average person usually means a harder life, too little passion and you usually have an empty life. Finding a balance that works for you is very important. In fact it’s so important that I can honestly say that it is one of the things that I truly wish everyone eventually becomes passionate about.
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