Following Your Passion: Overused Cliché or Radical Decision?

by Annabelle Parr

Follow your passion.

This is the advice often given to young people fumbling around for a career path. Passion has become a buzz word we aspire to incorporate into our hobbies, our careers, our companies and our lives. But given that this word is used so frequently, it’s at risk of losing its power.

When we advise our children, our students, our emerging adults or our employees to tap into their passions, what exactly are we telling them? Passion implies an intense feeling that comes from deep within. I imagine that someone who is passionate about their work is fired up; they’re excited and profoundly committed to the pursuit of excellence in their field.

But when I was told to choose a career about which I was passionate, it seemed to me that passion meant nothing more than happiness, a shallow guarantee that I would wake up every day happy to go to work. Maybe it’s because most people advocating for passion also employ the phrase “money can’t buy happiness”. So if money doesn’t bring people happiness, passion must.

As it turns out, passion is not happiness. At all.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell explains that the Greek root of the word passion translates to suffering. So following your passion does not always look like bouncing out of bed enthusiastically when your alarm rings each morning. And it doesn’t mean that you come home every night telling your family that you had a great day. Following your passion means choosing a vocation that is so important to you, so vital to your being, that you’re willing to suffer for it.

This radically different message may be hard to accept given that we, as Americans, believe in our right to “the pursuit of happiness.” In the 240 years since those words were etched into our collective identity, it seems that we have forgotten the importance of the pursuit — today we simply believe in our right to happiness. But we need the pursuit and the challenge. We must earn moments of bliss because part of the joy is in the struggle.

Passion is where fulfillment, growth, joy and change exist.

How much richer does a life filled with passion sound compared to one relying on happiness as the sole measure of success? We need to reframe the conversation around passion and talk about what it really means. Because when a person finds something so important that they are willing to suffer in its pursuit, their actions, work and lives will begin to reflect a clearer purpose.

Here are a few Uncommon Sense tips to explore true passion:

Pay attention not to the things that make you happy, but to the things that make you feel the rapture of being alive. Joseph Campbell talks about how feeling alive involves experiencing a gamut of emotions — including pain and suffering.

Think about the drawbacks of a given path. Is the path you’re on so important to you that you would still choose to follow it knowing the inevitable struggles that await you?

Explore different options. You can’t know what you’re willing to suffer for if you have never experienced it. Get involved in areas that have the potential for passion.

Most people are willing to suffer to give their children a better future. Choosing work based on passion sounds like a privilege. But if passion is suffering, then maybe it isn’t about choosing a job you love. Maybe it’s about hating your job, but working hard so that your child can be a first generation college graduate. Following your passion does not have one right answer.

Don’t panic if you haven’t found your passion yet. True passion is not found in abundance. There are likely only a handful of areas in each of our lives that we are truly willing to suffer for. And it takes time to learn what those are.

So follow your passion. But remember that this platitude is actually a radical call to abandon your desire for comfort in order to devote yourself to something profoundly more important. As David Brooks discusses in his article, The Moral Bucket List, finding your passion, your vocation, is not about asking “What do I want from life?”, but rather “What is life asking of me?”

What is life asking of you?

Originally posted on the Bulldog Drummond blog.

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