Pursuing Your Passion And Other Dumb Things We Tell Our Kids To Do

“It’s the surest path to a fulfilling life,” they say.

“You should live a life that makes you happy,” they say.

“Follow your heart and pursue your dreams,” they say.

They have good intentions. Really…I’m sure they do.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Over the last few months, we’ve been spending our “Think Right Thursdays” looking at the differences between highly-successful people and everyone else. I came to the conclusion years ago that the biggest difference is in the way we think – success is a mindset. Successful people respond differently to challenges and obstacles, have different people skills, are constantly learning from others,  I’ve talked about these different mindsets and others, but this week I want to talk about a pervasive mindset in our culture that sounds good but actually leads you away from success.

Go Get Your Unicorn

I was reading recently about European immigrants who settled in the United States around the start of the twentieth century. Many of them didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but they got off the boat, got their naturalization papers and went and found the first job they could get. It didn’t matter if the job involved heavy toil, unpleasant smells, or danger, the goal was to earn a living to survive in their new country, so they did whatever they could find to do.

The book “The Millionaire Next Door” by Thomas J. Stanley does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of this hard-working generation of people who built their fortunes from nothing by doing whatever needed to be done. If you were to ask them if they were passionate about dry cleaning, chimney sweeping, or loading freight trains, they probably would look at you funny. Of course they weren’t passionate about any of those things, but those things needed to be done, and these people took advantage of the opportunity to get paid to do something. When opportunity meets willingness to work, you can make a fortune.

But over the last thirty or forty years, we’ve gotten away from doing what was needed and encouraged each other to go after our “passions” instead.

What does that even mean?

Escapist Thinking

I understand that some jobs can be boring. I pray for the people who have to sit in a cubicle and process insurance paperwork for 40 hours a week. I would go nuts. It’s no surprise, then, that people get bored in their jobs and talk about finding a job they can get excited about. Something that stirs them up and makes them look forward to jumping out of bed in the morning.

It sounds exciting. “Pursue your passion.” Find something that makes your heart soar and do that for a living. If you make a career out of your passion, you will always love going to work, right?

It also sounds like a great way to starve.

I’m passionate about SCUBA diving. I do it as a hobby. Not a career…a hobby.

I suppose if I really had my ducks in a row, I could make a decent living as a SCUBA diver. It might even be fun for a while, but after a while, it would become work. And this exposes a fundamental problem with telling kids to pursue their passion.

Work Siphons All The Fun Out Of Your Fun

I’ve had good friends who were musicians. They loved music. They were passionate about music. They slogged through the work day, just waiting to be able to go out to a club and listen to a great band. Some of them practiced really hard and got pretty good at their instrument. I had one friend who left his day job and took a gig as the guitarist with a touring rock band. Some months, they made pretty good money. Some months, they didn’t. Still, it was pretty glamorous for awhile.

One day, he suddenly announced that he was quitting the band and going back to a day job, which shocked everyone he knew. It turns out that, when he turned his hobby into work, it took all the fun and enjoyment out of it. Instead of having fun making music, he was slaving away, hammering out the same songs night after night, with the pressure of having to perform consistently because his livelihood depended on it.

Or consider the lady who went from having fun shooting weddings for her friends to trying to keep her photography business afloat month after month. It became a burden. Yeah, she worked for herself, but she had to do all the billing, all the booking, all the advertising, all the networking, all the competing, and all the shooting and editing. After a year or so, she found that she hated being a photographer and went back to being a hobbyist.

It’s better to have a day job that you don’t love that pays consistently and you can leave at 5:00 each day. Have fun in the evenings, but as the expression goes, “don’t quit your day job.”

Passions Don’t Make Good Majors

I see it in college students all the time, and I’m particularly attuned to this now that my kids are getting to college age. When you’re living on scholarships and your parents’ money, it’s easy to get casual about your education. The problem is the real world doesn’t have much use for graduates with degrees in Multicultural Dance or Elizabethan Poetry (these are just random examples). It’s fun to study something you enjoy, and even to get good at it, but if the market isn’t looking for it, you can’t build a career around it – unless you are prepared to be hungry for awhile.

It’s hard to tell most kids to get a job doing something that isn’t fun or that doesn’t look impressive on a resume, but it’s how our parents and grandparents built their lives and this country. They did what needed to be done to earn a paycheck and worked their way up the corporate ladder. It takes time. It doesn’t pay $25 an hour the first year. It’s not always exciting.

Don’t get me wrong: we still need passion in our lives. Passion gives us the emotional charge to get up and get to work every day, but it’s not enough to build a life on.

Where’s Your Focus?

The biggest problem with the “pursue your passion” mantra is that it is ultimately self-serving. Your passion is what makes you feel good, what you enjoy, or what you feel strongly about. What if your passion doesn’t serve anyone else? Money comes from people. Who will pay you to do what you do?

Young people would be better served if we would encourage them to find their PURPOSE and build a career around that instead.

What is purpose?

Every tool in my toolbox has a purpose. It was invented to perform a specific task. A Phillips screwdriver has a specific design and function that is different from a pair of pliers. I need both. I don’t have much use for a blowtorch, even though I’m sure they are awesome.

You were born with some inherent qualities and developed others through your life: your personality, your education, your experiences, your physical strengths and limitations, and the people in your life all contribute to who you are and what you can contribute to the world.

Your purpose is what makes you unique. It makes your life significant.

One of the reasons depression and suicide are so prevalent among young people is that we encourage them to spend their lives pursuing what makes them happy instead of pursuing what will make them significant, and they are finding that happiness is an empty substitute for significance.I think most people wake up to an existential moment at some point in their lives that asks:

I think most people wake up to an existential moment at some point in their lives that asks:

  • “Why am I here?”
  • “What is my contribution to the world?”
  • “What will people remember about me when I am gone?”

The answers to those questions are the foundation of your purpose, the centerpiece of your fulfillment in life. If you can’t answer them, it’s easy to question your value to the world. At our core, we all want to know if we will make a difference in the world.

Passion focuses on self. Purpose focuses on others.

Happiness is fleeting, subject to whims and emotions. You can’t count on happiness to stay, nor can you trust the things that make you happy one day to make you happy every time. Fulfillment is something deeper, and it is rooted in satisfying that longing for significance.

Significance is based on the contribution you make to other people’s lives. Not necessarily financial contributions, but life impact. If you were put on this earth to be an encourager and you keep yourself penned up in a cubicle away from people, you are doing the world a disservice.

What To Do When Purpose And Passion Don’t Meet

That’s not to say that your purpose in life is something you would be excited about. It may not be glamorous. It might not pay as well as other careers. But if you are making a contribution to the world that the world needs, then you are pursuing purpose.

Consider Shane. Shane would love to be a rock musician, and he’s pretty talented. But Shane discovered years ago that people would pay him to paint their houses. Then he found they would pay well to have their trash removed. He built a painting business and sold it, then built a trash removal business and is making a small fortune in a line of work most people would turn their noses up at.

Becky takes care of elderly shut-ins who need help with errands. Stan picks up the discarded cooking oil from fast food restaurants. Adam cleans dryer vents. Jim sells discounted services. Do they love what they do? Heck, no. Are you kidding?

Why do they do it? Because someone needs them to do it. It gives them purpose.

Each of them is making a fortune doing things no one else would want to be bothered with. They didn’t find their passion, but they found a purpose and a steady stream of income. They can go home at night and spend their free time on things they are passionate about, like raising families, expressing themselves artistically, or serving in church.

Or they can choose to get passionate about serving others in their chosen field.

It’s always nice when you can be passionate about your purpose. I have the God-given benefit of being able to make my living on skills that give me purpose, helping people in a way about which I can be passionate. But you don’t have to have both.

Some of America’s richest people are rich because they found a need and filled it. The difference between successful people and everyone else is that they were willing to fill a need that made them money even though they didn’t personally care about it. Do you really think Sam Walton was passionate about retail?

Get yourself out of the way and help others get what they want, and you will be unusually successful.

Why are you here?

What experiences, skills, and knowledge do you have that could help people?

How can you make a mark on the world?

For the next few months, we’ll be doing one blog a week instead of three. I’ve been doing some remodeling in the office and gearing up for some significant growth in the fall. I’m pretty excited about the things we’ll be launching later this year. I hope you will continue to faithfully join us each Thursday and share the articles the way you have been. Together, we are building a community on Facebook, encouraging each other to “move right, eat right, think right, and live right.” Thank you so much for being part of this great online family. If you’re in the Naples area, be sure to stop by my office the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas

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