do what you love, but for the love of god don’t follow your passion

confused by the headline? good. that means we’re starting on the same page.

remember when eggs weren’t good for you? no, no, not the last time they were bad for you, the time before that. back before they were good for you again… twice over.

i don’t know whether eggs are supposed to be good for you today. i eat them sometimes. not too often. i figure eating eggs now and again is fine — if not actually healthy — but eating too much of them probably isn’t.

for a lot of my adult life i’ve heard over and again the advice “follow your passion” when it comes to work. find the work that drives you, and all will be good. you’ll constantly be in the magical state of flow, your eyes will light up first thing in the morning at the thought of work (even without coffee!!), and you’ll banish the hateful phrase “work/life balance” from your vocabulary because work is such a joy that you don’t need balance.

recently, i’ve read a spate of articles that decry the idea of following your passion.

haters.

although… i’ve literally never met someone that matches the description above. sure, i know people who like their jobs. some very much. but the kind of perfection that the “follow thy passion” crowd implies just doesn’t seem exist.

think leonardo da vinci followed his passion? yeah, i do too. yet he had to rely on the patronage of chaps like cesare borgia and lorenzo de’ medici at various points in his career. think he always loved that arrangement? (without exaggeration, de’ medici could’ve been called a despot)

the problem with the “follow your passion” advice is that four-letter word in the middle… “your”. it becomes all about you. what can this job do for you? how does this make your life better? what does it do for your future?

like any relationship in life, if you become the pre-copernican universe with you at the center, the relationship just ain’t gonna work out that well.

your work is a relationship like any other.

there’s some simple math in anything you do. the variables in that equation include both the “what” you do and the “how” you do it.

for example, you can buy yourself an ice cream. that’s a nice thing to do. but if you do it while telling yourself that you’re bad, fat and lazy for wanting ice cream in the first place, you’ve taken the positive “what” (ice cream) and multiplied it by a negative “how” (your shitty attitude). at that point you might as well be eating buttered popcorn jelly bellies (i mean seriously, who actually likes that flavor?).

on the other hand, washing the dishes doesn’t come at the top of most people’s “things i enjoy” list. but doing so while absorbed in the process — using dish washing as a sort of meditation — ; enjoying a great audio book while doing it; or having a warm conversation with a family member while doing it… any one of these takes a “what” that falls somewhere between neutral and abjectly unenjoyable for most people, and makes it something you may actually look forward to.

work is no different.

you can go after what you love doing. if you have a choice between picking up dog poop for a living and solving complex problems with convolutional neural networks (if, indeed, you like that latter sort of thing and dislike the former — i’m not here to judge), then by all means do the latter for a living.

but don’t expect it to be a one-way street. you can find the type of work that you’re passionate about, but then you actually need to give something of yourself. jfk indeed had it right: “ask not what your job can do for you, ask what you can do for your job.” well… he said something like that at least.

if you orient yourself at the extremes and forget that this isn’t an either/or, you lose. either you end up bouncing from one job, career, or entrepreneurial jaunt to the next in search of the one that’s going to magically make your life whole, or you swallow your tongue and slog away at something that’s truly unfulfilling.

in other words: you shouldn’t just go after what you’re passionate about. nor should you just mindfully try to find the passion in whatever is in front of you.

it’s both.

now you may want to ask how you know when you’ve found a job that’s good enough or right enough or that you’re passionate enough about. that’s easy: you don’t.

if this were simply 12 x 10 = 120, or h2 + o = water, or jelly beans + buttered popcorn flavor = gross, then there would be no need for me to write this post. you’d already know the answer.

the problem that most people face (this writer included) is not that we haven’t looked hard enough to find the answer. it’s that rather than accept that it’s a difficult, continuous process of finding the right balance of the right work and putting effort and passion into that work, we desperately want to jump at overly simplistic solutions like…

“follow your passion.”