“Follow Your Passion”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? I’ve seen it on motivational posters, heard it at graduation ceremonies, and listened to it come from the lips of celebrities and CEOs alike for many years. I’ve even said it myself a time or two.

Today I read Mike Rowe’s take on this phrase, and it got me to thinking. And regretting. (Read Mike’s explanation here: Mike’s answer )

At times, I’ve wanted nothing more than to have someone say it to me. “Mary Ellen, follow your passion. It’s the only way you’ll be happy.” “Major in Art in college if that’s your passion.” “Quit your job.” It sounds like validation. Like recognition. Warms the cockles of one’s heart.

Or does it?

Maybe what it really says is, “drop out on all of your responsibilities, ignore the commitments you’ve made, what you WANT is so much more important than what you SHOULD or even CAN do.”

Passion can be great. It lights the fire inside of the creative person. It keeps that inventor working through the night to come up with unique, important ideas. It holds the medical intern to the 48-hour-straight-shift because she wants to save lives. It keeps you working at crap jobs so that you can get that degree.

But passion, in and of itself, is not a virtue. Passion can lead to war. To envy. To selfishness. To obsession. A passion for money chews up personal relationships. A passion for your boss’s wife will lead to betrayal. I’m sure Ted Bundy had a passion for killing women. Certainly ISIS has a passion for beheading people. Does that make it okay? Hey, they’re following their passion, aren’t they?

Passion, like many emotions, is neither good nor bad, neither uplifting nor degrading. It is passion’s root and passion’s fruit that put it on one side or the other. Does your passion bring light and life, or does it lead to anger and harm? Is it borne from frustration and vengeance or is it kindled through compassion, self-awareness, and empathy? If your passion for the simplest, most inane and seemingly harmless activity comes at the expense of your soul, your friends, your family, those you love and those who love you, can following it ever be a good thing?

Beyond good and evil, beyond the big questions of life and faith, God and the devil, Mike Rowe makes another important point: passion for any endeavor without the skills or knowledge or talent for it will lead to frustration and heartache.

“When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.”

Think about it. No one ever told the captain of a ship that all he had to do was “stay the course” if he was headed into a reef. Or an iceberg. Passion does not trump knowledge. Or talent. Or genetics.

I’ll admit it; I watch some reality television. Top Chef. Project Runway. Face-Off. Masterchef. But, please, spare me from contestant rants. “I deserve to win because I have so much passion! I want it so much! I want it more than anyone else so I should be rewarded!” Is this how life works? I certainly hope not. I really want a million dollars – does that mean I should rob a bank? Cheat? Steal to get it? Can I be a professional baseball player right now, walk on the field, grab the bat, and hit a home run? Can I do it if I spend the next five years working out, practicing, and devoting every moment to this goal? I’m a 50-something year old woman. Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

If you can’t find contentment, success, or happiness by pursuing your passion, I think it’s time for a change.

I’d never have made it as an artist. I have a little natural talent in that direction, but that’s it. I know that because, even though I didn’t study it in college, I kept drawing. Painting. Creating. I didn’t need to make it the center of my life to “follow” it. It became a hobby. And it translated well into some of my other responsibilities, like raising my daughter with a love of art and music and making things with her hands, decorating our home, making gifts for family and friends, and inspiring students.

Change your passion. Change your attitude. Change your focus. Take a look around. This economy stinks. People are struggling. Veterans are in need. Children are hungry. Stop telling people to follow their passion and tell them to get involved. Help others. Volunteer. And then look into the eyes of someone you have made the tiniest bit of effort to help. I think you might find your passion there.

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