I’ve had a few recent email conversations about the subject of passion. We usually agree that passion is important, people have initial interests that guide them towards a passion and that passions develop over time.
However, then I bring up what I believe is an equally important point: society needs to recognize, reward and value your particular passion.
At this point, most of my recent correspondents disagree: “why should that matter?” they argue, “you shouldn’t limit your passions to those things that ‘society’ declares as valuable.”
Passions Don’t Exist in a Vacuum, Incentives Matter
This point of view seems to be a surprisingly common one. Howard Roark, in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, was lauded for his ability to ignore societal wants in favor of his personal vision.
Author, Steve Pavlina, doesn’t go quite as far in offering career advice. But he does recommend putting your passions before economic interests or the value you provide to society. His theory is that if you lead with the heart, that the money and purpose will follow.
But for every Roark who successfully answers to no man, how many never leave the quarry? And for each millionaire leading solely with their heart, how many are broke and miserable?
Unrewarded Passions Are Fun, They Just Don’t Pay the Bills
If you’re passionate about something that society doesn’t reward, that’s fine. That’s why people have hobbies.
I didn’t construct the title to attack gamers. I used to love online games, and I’ve had different phases of deep interest in a particular game or hobby. The point that was obvious to me, and most other gamers, is that since society doesn’t reward this output, they are just for fun. You can cultivate a passion, but they aren’t a substitute for a career.
Note: Yes, I am aware that some online gamers have begun to monetize their game playing. But, considering the ratio of dedicated players to those who have it as a career substitute, for the overwhelming majority they are just hobbies.
The Myth of Specific Passion
I believe the real crime in passion-only career advice isn’t that it can result in economic failures. Instead, I believe it is because people can ultimately have many passions, so why choose those that make it difficult to support yourself or large impact on the world?
I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and I love running this blog and the business attached to it. But while the passion may have specific manifestations at times, there is flexibility.
Before starting this blog, I had worked on trying to start an online games business and later software. I don’t know whether this business will be forever, or whether I will shift into another manifestation. I’m also sure I could find a way to integrate my passions, even if my area of mastery turned to computer science, nutrition, psychology or something completely different.
General Interests, Specific Passions
“Love consists of overestimating the differences between one woman and another.” – George Bernard Shaw
I believe with every specific passion there are general interests which can become passions, given effort, time and a little success. It doesn’t make sense to me that we would focus on a particular manifestation that will be extremely difficult to get rewards, when shifting our focus a few steps to the left might make it considerably easier.
This difference in specificity means that you might have a very strong interest in online gaming, and are currently passionate for World of Warcraft. But that space of interests, may also include game design, programming, psychology, graphics design, or other interests which share commonalities.
Picking the skills you will focus on for the next several years, therefore, shouldn’t be just about what your current passions are. They should look at the interest spaces you have, and be a joint decision between your interest in the direction and the impact you can have if you pursue it fully.
Don’t Be the Struggling Artist (Because We’re All Artists)
The idea that “art”, whether that is impressionist paintings or writing database software, should be elevated completely above societal pressures is a popular one. So much, that there is often a sense of pride at being dedicated to a creative pursuit without broader societal value.
However, if passions are just specific manifestations of more general interest spaces over time, is this a sensible way to live?
Why force yourself down the least likely path to success, if you could develop an equally fiery passion for something society actually cares about?