On Following Passion

One of the weirdest pieces of advice anyone can dispense is that old chestnut, “follow your passion.” Its proponents have included billionaires Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, which gives a good sense of its social origins. Both Branson and Jobs were in positions to follow any passion, whether multinational business or recreational basket-weaving. Whatever value was assigned to these passions was secondary in light of overwhelming wealth.

But “follow your passion” has a certain allure, doesn’t it? What’s more, it has many sugarcoated variants, including “Do what you love,” which Miya Tokumitsu dissected for Slate:

“‘Do what you love’” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is a privilege, a sign of socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and co-sign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can bestow DWYL as career advice upon those covetous of her success.”

Put it that way and being told to follow your passion is akin to being told to just sleep when suffering grievous physical injuries. Or perhaps it’s like being told to believe in God, basically, or to pray your way out of a situation. That is, whatever the benefits, they don’t materialize out of the ether and instead require plenty of legwork and some degree of fortune. There may be a goal in sight (a great job, being healed), but getting there is not a linear matter of just praying the prayer or setting the heart on a passion.

What’s more, the emphasis on passion (a word, by the way, which originally meant “suffering”), like almost any religious rhetoric about “god,” is a way to dehumanize the issue at hand. Finding fulfilling employment suddenly becomes a matter of pinpointing an immaterial “passion” rather than interacting with other humans and dealing with their strengths and caprices. Worse, fixating on “passion” devalues important work that could hardly be construed as anyone’s passion – caregiving, washing clothes, changing diapers – but is essential to the functioning of society. I mean, imagine if all garbage men went on strike – society would grind to a halt because individuals weren’t not following their passion for picking up refuse.

The passion/love rhetoric basically reinforces the class stratification that brought such terminology to the fore in the first place. It demonstrates the degree to which privileged classes dictate terms to everyone else, instructing them that, yes, there are choices that ou can make to improve your life if you’d just find something you’d like to do and appreciate what you’re already doing (the second half of “Do what you love…” has a conformist angle unmatched by the blander “Follow your passion.”).

Look, I’m no determinist – it’s way too depressing. Skills can be learned, and, yep, new passions can be kindled. I learned how to use a UNIX/OS X command line interface last year. But so many things had to go right for me to get into a position of even wanting to dedicate enough effort to learning it:

  1. My dad was an early PC adopter and taught me to use DOS before I was 6
  2. A friend recommended I take programming as an elective in high school
  3. At the last minute in 2004, I decided to take Greek instead of Italian in first semester of college, in what was basically a coin flip decision. This was unfathomably important as it introduced me to someone who later helped me get a job at a software company, which brought me full circle to programming after a detour into humanities.

Others would have been fighting a tougher battle. Maybe they could have ended up in a similar position, but just think of the literally billions of people who are in no shape to follow passions of any sort. They need help surviving. They need material aid and shelter and fairer economic policies, not rhetoric about passion that is little more than faith-based snake oil.

For everyone who is more fortunate, consider: what has following these passions produced? Tokumitsu identified the unpaid intern and adjunct professor as byproducts of the passion-obssesed world, and I agree. My passion for literature led me into adjuncting in 2010. I loved talking about literature, even in that capacity, but it was work all the same, and unsustainable work at that. I moved onto things that I had never – and sometimes, still don’t – consider ‘passions’, but I’m immensely happier. Writing tons of support emails, for example, is probably no one’s idea of a “passion,” but I did it for years after I left academia and it enabled me to live a more fulfilling life than I had passionately ranting about Waiting for Godot.

The issue is perhaps the idea that passion has to be folded into work, a notion that implies that there really isn’t time for much activity outside of work. Another way to say it is perhaps that your passion has to be your work, or else you have no opportunity for passion. That’s insulting and depressing, plus it’s bullshit. We really deserve a society in which identity is not synonymous with occupation. That would open more doors for culture, equality, and well, passion.

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