Last week I wrote two posts discussing the desire to find fulfillment in your work1. As I thought about it over the weekend, I noted that many people call the quest for fulfillment “following your passion.” If you live in the culture I live in, that phrase is all-too-familiar. We experience such inspirational advice in every venue from education to advertising. It feels really good. I love indulging in the mental exercise of dropping the seemingly “unnecessary” elements of my life and focusing on the few things that I’m most passionate about.
One of my favorite perspectives on this subject comes from Mike Rowe of the popular TV show Dirty Jobs:
When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfathers footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.
One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.
That’s why I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”2
It’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining a certain type of life—a pursuit of a certain passion—to be a whimsical adventure, but that mindset often leads to putting the cart before the horse. We think that we will find and know ourselves by following our passion, when the opposite is true. First knowing ourselves well frees us to pursue the passions we know are actually rooted, not just ideas we’ve fallen in love with.
1. You can read the first article, The Challenge of Not Having a Challenge, here. You can read the second article, From the Comments: Is It Wrong or Selfish of People to Crave Fulfillment?, here.2. You can read Mike Rowe's complete thoughts on following your passion in this response to a fan.