The world is obsessed with the well-intentioned career and life advice: find your passion! Do you what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life! Those who are successful are those who are hungry. If you’re not passionate about what you do, why are you doing it? The world is obsessed with the fire and fury of a life passionately lived — especially when it comes to work.
What is passion, anyway?
Passion: “Intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction.” Sometimes the definition will include a note to identify passion as separate from reason. In the context of a career or a life path, “passion” usually resists definition as something nebulous and distant. Those who are passionate about their careers, I assume, are mostly excited about Mondays and mornings. I assume they sometimes work on the weekends because they are interested in their projects, not because they have been asked to. I assume they feel a sense of fulfillment and general purpose throughout their days and especially at the end of their days. I assume that feeling passionate about your career means that you aren’t in it for the money.
The problems with these assumptions (aside from the problems inherent in any assumption ever), is that each of these markers of passion in a career can also be markers of the overworked, under-appreciated and over-leveraged employee: A good employee will work on the weekend if the team requires it. A good employee will show up eagerly and on time, which can look a lot like a passionate employee. And there’s nothing wrong with a good employee — only with the fact that such a cultural insistence on being passionate in your career makes a good employee vulnerable to the pressures to truly behave like a passionate employee. Cue the positive feedback loop that perpetuates never-ending workdays and vacation anxiety.
Passion is a privilege
What the dictionary definition of passion leaves out through is that cultivating a life of passion is also tinged with privilege. Those who are freest to indulge in their passionate pursuits are those who have the resources (time, money, support, knowledge) to devote to something that does not offer immediate payoff — or who can forego every other responsibility to devote themselves to passionate work. I know there exist numerous counterexamples of people who were not privileged yet managed to insist on becoming successful through a passion project– you’re probably thinking of one right now.
But what about the single mom who works as the bakery manager at your local grocery store? What about the immigrant son who works nearly 24 hours a day between his several jobs so that he has money to live here while sending some back home to his family? What about the former felons and addicts who are just doing what they can to stay healthy and to be of service to their community?
These people are important. Their work is important. The way these people relate to their work is important. And telling them that a career marked by passion, enthusiasm, remarkably long hours and hustle is somehow a superior path diminishes their contributions to their family and to their communities. Try to tell any of them in a moment of frustration or struggle that they should simply find a new path — that they should give up the stability of a steady job in favor of a more passionate endeavor. Try to tell any of them that passion will pay off… someday. Waiting for someday is a privilege that not everyone can afford. These people can’t wait for someday, and their honor lies in the sacrifices they make to do what they have to do today.
Passionless careers are the backbone of our society
And while we’re on the subject — if you’re lucky enough to be in a career you are passionate about, you no doubt owe a debt of gratitude to the many others who have instead followed the stable path of practicality over passion. The world needs garbage collectors and grocery store clerks and parking attendants and cooks who aren’t quite chefs and housekeepers and mechanics and street sweepers and people to run laundromats and car washes and the CVS down the street. This type of practical work runs the machinery of modern life. Modern society is not, at its core, driven by “passion.” It’s driven by people willing to do the basic work of life.
Passion has lead me astray
Passion does not have a strong track record in my life. When I look back on the times that I followed “my passion,” I see diversions, let-downs and disappointments, and lots and lots of confusion. Even more than this though, when I look back at the times that I followed my passion, what I was actually doing was looking for it. I didn’t (I still don’t) know what career choices would lead me to a life that was set my soul on fire.
I’ve never actually made a decision based on the kind of intensity and conviction that adds up to passion. I have caught glimpses of a passion-filled life, or the possibility for passion to spring up in the future if only I stay on course, but that singular “overmastering feeling” has always eluded me.
So maybe sometimes we aren’t lead by passion at all — rather we are lead by the pursuit of passion.
What if passion eludes you?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a “passionate person” in most areas of my life. I prefer calm, steadiness and quiet to the chaos and energy that I associate with passion. Some would say that’s wrong or sad; I disagree. Passion is not my driving force. Passion occasionally adorns otherwise measured and methodical choices I make. For a while, I thought that a passionate life was simply eluding me — that I would round a corner one day and a life of unbridled passion would be there waiting for me. If only I searched diligently enough.
Now, I look at things a bit differently. Perhaps a wildly passionate life can be equated to the overly dramatic and overly romantic love stories of 90s romantic comedies. Sure — that’s how some stories work out, but it’s certainly not emblematic of a true ideal. A passionate life is befitting for some people, but there are lots of other pathways to a fulfilled, happy and deeply satisfying life.
Shifting away from passion
So what if instead of mandating passion as the marker of the right path, we can begin to all look at it as a nice option — and as a nice option for some people. When I think of alternatives to the pursuit of a passionate life, I think of calm, of duty, of service, of sacrifice. I think of purpose. A purposeful life is not lived entirely for passion — and the flame of a passionate life, when devoid of purpose, eventually burns out.
Purpose means going to work that you aren’t passionate about because it feeds your family. It means taking work that may be mundane or boring because it allows you to focus on your quality of life outside of work. Living a life of purpose, and choosing a purposeful job or career means that what you do is in service of something greater than each individual act. A purposeful life is guided so that even in the drudgery of your darkest moments, you can move forward with clarity.
I’ve spent so much time in pursuit of passion — It’s time I decided rather to be guided, gently, by purpose.