When & How to Follow Your Passion
I was invited to create a chapter of the Hasselblad Masters Book in 2008, an art book recognizing leading artistic photographers. The book’s theme was “Passion” and required all the contributing artists to answer the question “What does passion mean to you?”. Others wrote paragraphs, I submitted one sentence:
“Passion is the fire that drives you to pound against a brick wall until you break through.”
I still believe this. Passion has to be tested by adversity to prove itself. It has to fuel you to overcome hardship to be worthy of the title. Passion without sacrifice and adversity is merely a fleeting pleasure cruise. Sooner or later you will see if it’s truly a passion within you. It rarely is. And yet true passion will empower you to do superhuman things.
I also believe the standard career advice “follow your passion” is terrible advice. That’s advice successful people give after they’re already accomplished and focusing on their passions — out of touch with the realities of building against the wind with few resources and nothing to fall back on. I know this because I followed my passion and got my teeth kicked in, just as everyone does on that path. Those of us who were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the other side are covered with the scars to show for it. It’s such a brutally hard path to break through that brick wall.
Which is where the two conflicting thoughts intersect. At the brick wall.
The paths that our passions lead us down are super hard. The hardest. Because we’re not the only ones led in these directions. They’re bright shiny beacons with heroic stories of people who have successfully pursued these directions, written with deeply embedded survival bias
The passion-paths are filled with people who will do it for free. People doing it for fun, doing it to get a foot in the door. They’re filled with clients ready to exploit that massive pool of people eager to live their dreams.
Dream jobs pay far less. Part of your pay is living the dream, a large part. Hollywood studios exploit this. Any creative outlet exploits this. Dream freelance paths are flooded with competition.
But without passion in your work, in your pursuit of your goals, you’ll never get very far. Passion is the most potent fuel to move forward, to advance and reach the next plateau.
So what to do? I see two viable paths:
(1) Probably the best path, the one with the highest probability of success, is to learn to find passion in unconventional places rather than professionally follow the obvious passion you’ve been harboring. Find meaningful functions within unglamorous contexts rather than pursue the sexy environments. I find designing elegant systems is a rewarding art form that can be applied to any context or ongoing responsibility. And the successful implementation of well designed processes is massively emotionally rewarding, aside from paying practical dividends.
You can watch your creation (the system on the satisfying task you’ve chosen) deliver results beyond anyone’s expectation, it gives you powers and makes you a star performer. It becomes an extension of you and being good at something feels amazing. Initial success will foster more passion for it, compelling you to take it further, yielding more positive results and more excitement and more commitment to pour back in. Feedback loops
again, for our long-term readers. Passion will be the result, where you never expected to find it — this emerging passion will drive escalating success, and in turn further amplify your passion.
(2) If you can envision yourself being happy doing #1, do yourself a favor and go that way. Because #2 is war. But sometimes we don’t have a choice. Sometimes we have a voice inside our heads that will not let us go. Sometimes we simply must pursue a particular calling as a part of our being. The burning need must be this intense to go down this path.
You will properly be advised by sensible people to take a more sensible path, and you need to be adamant about the passion-path if you choose to go this way. Then you unload everything you have upon it. You have decided to go through the brick wall. But you don’t have to go through head first, or claw at it with your bare hands. Again, build systems to leverage your power, to multiply your force. Compound impact against the wall more and more over time. The systems you build to perform and deliver on this path will determine the force you deliver against the wall. And brick walls require immense force.
Either way, you need to cultivate and harness passion to progress and achieve any compelling definition of success. No way around it. Without passion you will wallow in the mundane, counting the minutes. Stuck.
If the passion is already burning and obvious and you cannot resist it, commit to it with all you have.
If you feel stagnant and absent of any fire, look for the satisfaction in the simple activities of your life and work — find it, cultivate it. When you see a glimmer, protect that little flame and add kindling. Shelter it from the wind until it gains strength. Then add more fuel and let it grow. Follow where it takes you.