Commentary: Pursuing passion not always best advice
Passion smassion. Especially for all those high school seniors, including my own daughter, being told that in looking for the “right” college they have to be passionate about what they pursue. Or those college students, including my freshman son, being fed a constant diet of “follow your passion.”
Enough. As my own older children agonize that they have yet to find their “passion” and this might doom them to a meaningless life, can we please recalibrate? In the 1950s, when my dad was starting out selling insurance and before that when he was in chemical engineering and before that when he was trying not to get killed in World War II, people didn’t talk much about pursuing one’s passion. They talked about doing your duty or finding a job you could do well so you could provide for your family and not disgrace yourself.
What often happened is that you worked hard at something, learned your job or profession, and then maybe you became pretty passionate about oh, say, being a good life insurance salesman. That’s what happened to my dad. He didn’t grow up passionate about helping people provide for their loved ones if they died. But he sure got there.
He became more passionate about helping people plan for the future as he became better at helping people plan for the future.
Or as “Dilbert” comic creator Scott Adams put it in The Wall Street Journal recently, in his own work “success caused passion more than passion caused success.”
The famous “Dilbert” strip was just one of many “schemes” Adams tried, he said. He also recounted his many failures. And Adams maintained that goal-setting often doesn’t work. As perhaps only the creator of “Dilbert” could put it, Adams wrote that “goal-oriented people exist in a state of near continual failure that they hope will be temporary.” In contrast, having a “system” in place — for instance, always looking for that next good job even while you are in a good job — is what he believes is most likely to produce success. In his case the more successful he became at cartooning, the more excited he became about cartooning. Adams’ Wall Street Journal piece is adapted from his forthcoming book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” due this month from Portfolio.
This is a message young people in particular need to hear. No doubt, there are some who know early what they want in life and who pursue it all out, and couldn’t survive with just a “system.” (I have one of those children, too.) But for so many, they need to let life play out, develop skills and tenacity and eventually find success in perhaps unexpected places. Why limit them? By preaching “passion” we are too often encouraging young people to leave their brains behind (what if they are “passionate” about something really foolish?) or to be profoundly disappointed if life reveals in them an aptitude for, say, selling life insurance.
Look, I’m all for figuring out what one’s interests and abilities are, and pursuing work that is fitted for our different gifts. If we can grow to intrinsically love our work, that’s a wonderful bonus.
But, I also believe the more secular our world becomes, the more we seek to find new meaning in worldly things like work. And so we raise work to a spiritual level that will disappoint far more often than it satisfies.
So thanks, Scott Adams.
I have to say, it seems now that I am increasingly living with the ramifications of the “pursue your passion” mentality. I find that preaching “don’t worry so much about finding your passion” to my children is something I’m increasingly, well, passionate about.
Reach Betsy Hart at www.betsysblog.com.