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The dangerous myths of “passion”

You’ll never completely love any job, so stop trying.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Love at first sight. Most of us already know that’s a pale blue lie. This romantic myth never worked for dating. And it won’t help your career, either. But we still listen to self-help gurus and high school principals alike when they tell us, or our kids, that we should do something we love. Never take a job just for the money. If only life were that simple.

Here’s a radical idea. You might take a job for the money, and then find the meaning later. The passion comes after the fact. That’s happened to me, and lots of other people.

Lately, we’ve seen a hundred versions of the same bad advice: Quit your day job immediately. Commit to your true passion, 100 percent. It’s the only way you’ll succeed and find true happiness.

No. That’s wrong. Or at least, it’s not right for everyone.

Besides, nobody ever said you can’t do both — work a day job, and pursue your passion on the side. In fact, quitting my day job would be suicide. First, I like my day job. I enjoy teaching, and I’m good at it. But if someone asked me if I was passionate about teaching, I’m not sure what I’d say. Maybe? I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that odd emotion, or even wanted to.

Passion is a strange way to describe work.

A hundred years ago, people considered it a dangerous feeling. They were right. When I hear the word “passion,” I imagine two people ripping each other’s clothes off and making furious love in a skyrise. Giving up everything for each other. Making rash decisions, even self-destructive ones, for a fleeting moment of possessive love.

That’s not healthy. That’s the plot of 50 Shades. Why would you want to feel that way about your job?

You can’t choose your career based on how great it looks in a bikini. How its hair dances in the wind. Or how its skin glistens in the sunset. A career is like a marriage. Sometimes, you’ll tell yourself you can’t stand it.

Even dream jobs involve a ton of compromise and grunt work. Tedium. Dread. Anxiety. Moments of self-doubt. And cold feet. If I made career decisions based on how “passionate” I felt, then I’d probably be broke. Instead, I tempered my feelings with calm decision making. Pulled the brakes on my bigger dreams. Put others on the back burner.

Let’s skip ahead fifty years to my death bed. Part of me doubts my dying words will be about the passions I never pursued. Instead, I’ll be glad to make it 80 years on this planet having loved some people. Raised a kid. Run a successful blog. Published a handful of books. Made a difference in higher education. A small difference. And I managed to do all that without going broke. Only the most deluded assholes would look on that life with disdain.

Your passion won’t make you rich.

Pursue your passion. Quit your job. Become a millionaire. That sounds easy. Some people have done that. But they might’ve started out with rich parents. Connections. Privileges.

You probably didn’t. And neither did I. Sure, I had the privilege of a middle-class upbringing. That doesn’t mean I had the luxury of quitting my job to form a start-up.

My passion has always involved writing. That passion flowed into other career options like teaching and research. Neither will make me rich.

A handful of professors around the world earn six-figure salaries. Everyone else makes somewhere between $50K and $80K. That’s a nice income, but nowhere near the fortunes promised by the experts who try to market passion.

A passion doesn’t need to make you wealthy. Or famous. One person’s passion might bore everyone else. Think about Jiro, the sushi master from Japan. He’s not rich. He doesn’t own a global chain. He runs one restaurant. And yet he’s made a decent living at the thing he likes most.

You can acquire wealth and fame with zero passion. Or you can pursue a craft and a quiet life, without ever making much money. Quitting your day job has nothing to do with either.

You can’t pursue your “passion” 24–7.

The passion mythology implies you need 12 hours a day to hone your craft. Rare geniuses aside, I’ve never met anyone who needs that much time. Especially at the start of their careers.

In my 20s, I would sometimes lock myself away and write for seven or eight hours. Did that whenever I possibly could. I’d hate it when some responsibility interfered with my schedule. Class. Work. Errands. A date.

But I always started my shift on time. Even if I secretly wanted to quit and stay home writing, I went through the motions. Looking back, I’m glad I did. I didn’t need forty hours to write a good short story. I needed two or three a day. Squeezed in whenever.

Look at other successful artists. Do you think they spend all day writing songs and recording? No. Even the insanely wealthy ones start up other projects. Not because they have to. Or they feel a burning desire. Part of me suspects they’ve got to fill their day with something, now that they quit their barista job. It might as well be a something related to their passion.

Even if Viking offered me $50K for a novel deal tomorrow, I’d take the money and keep doing the same thing I am now. I write for a couple of hours every day. The rest of my time goes to my academic research. Lesson planning. Grading. Service projects. Rolling my eyes at stupid emails from coworkers. Those things make me interesting. If I ever quit my day job, I’d probably go insane by the end of the calendar year.

I’m pretty sure you would, too. So don’t quit your day job. I don’t want either of us to ever try on a straight jacket. Do they still use those? Beats me. Let’s not find out.

Keep painting, photographing, making music, and writing. But don’t think you need to do that 12 hours a day in order to succeed. You don’t.

All passion wears off after a while.

Do you think Rod Stewart likes singing “Maggie May” for the ten thousandth time? I bet sometimes he hates it. But he keeps going out there. All artists can grow tired of their passion.

So will you. And so will I.

Passion for your art can wax and wane. We’ll go through droughts. How nice to have a useful skill to fall back on.

Imagine if everyone quit a job the moment they didn’t feel passion. Even the self-help gurus admit that their dream jobs take a lot of hard work. Of course, they gloss over the hard parts a little bit.

For the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and say I’m passionate about teaching. Okay, fine. But I’m not passionate about grading. Sometimes, I hate it. I’d rather do almost anything else. But grading is strangely what I’m best at. I have a system for managing papers. I comment pretty extensively on them. I return drafts within a week.

My course evaluations have lots of positive comments on my grading and feedback. It’s actually my strongest area. But I secretly hate it, and part of me dreams about the last stack of papers I’ll ever grade. Go figure.

Other things I don’t always enjoy doing: writing letters of recommendation, classroom observations, formatting works cited pages, and copy-editing.

But your career doesn’t come a-la-carte. You’ve got to eat the whole thing. And that’s exactly why passion’s a bad way to describe anything.

You need your day job more than you think.

Imagine you hate accounting, but you’re freakishly good at it. You can work nine to five crunching numbers. After clocking out, you can pursue your true passion — standup comedy.

Maybe you’re a good comedian. You tell hilarious stories based on your life as an accountant. After a year or two, you become an overnight success and Netflix gives you a special.

You’re so successful that you quit your job. You vow to never touch a calculator ever again.

Two things here: First, didn’t your success derive from that job you hated? Second, where’s your material going to come from, now that you’ve decided to pursue your true passion — comedy?

All artists have the same problem in common. We have to work jobs we don’t like in order to survive. But that job often gives us the very material we use in our art. The best art comments on the messiness and strife of daily existence. Maybe people get lucky. Their first movie, their debut album, makes so much money they never have to work “a real job” ever again.

The rest of us? We can’t create drama from thin air like the Kardashians. We need material. A job gives plenty of it. Stop looking for passion everywhere. That expectation will almost surely take you down the wrong path to happiness and success. Don’t take your passion out back and shoot it like a rabid dog. But it’s smart to keep your passion on a leash.