What We’ve Been Told About Passion is Bullshit

I have an unbelievable respect for talented artists. When I see life like portraits that an artist has drawn using only three different shades of colored pencils I often don’t believe that what I’m looking at isn’t a photo. Like the one above.

Or someone who paints landscapes of mountain ranges and rivers that look as real and as wild as if they were right in front of you. The fact that sculpters that can take a chisel and hammer and carve out of stone a full sized person completely fascinates me. I have such an appreciation for almost all types of art. I say almost, because there’s one type of art I just don’t get: abstract art. The painting Onement by Barnett Newman is the painting of a solid blue canvas with a white line down the middle that sold recently for 43.8 million dollars. I find myself thinking “but it’s a plain blue painting with a line down the middle. I understand paintings of landscapes or people or things that actually look like they require a lot of skill but this?

I’m sure those who understand abstract art will say “You’re missing it. That painting obviously speaks to the mirror of societies imperfections and man’s search for a domestic role, and the brush strokes here indicate a struggle that highlights the uncertainty of life.” All the while I think to myself “It sounds like you’re just making all of that up to sound like your in the ‘in crowd’ and the rest of us are dummies for not getting it.”

Maybe I am missing something. I’ve never had anyone explain it to me in a way that makes sense, but it’s possible I just can’t grasp it. Nevertheless, people tell me there’s some kind of hidden meaning there but I’m not able to find it. I’ve looked. It’s just not there. That’s how many people feel when they’re constantly told that they need to find their passion.

It’s what I was told. “Just keep looking, it’s there. One day you’ll find it. If you haven’t found it just keep looking.” Which begs the question, how long are we supposed to look? If we’ve already spent a bunch of time searching and coming up short, wouldn’t it be wise to consider trying something different? To that we’re told “You can’t stop now. The hours you’ve put in are going to pay off and one day you’ll find your passion. Don’t give up.”

In economics this is known as the sunk cost fallacy. Like the gambler who’s lost nearly everything at the craps table but decides to bet his last chip because he’s already down, why not keep going. If he quits now, he’ll have to face the fact that the chips he’s lost are gone forever. But if he keeps betting, there’s always a chance it will turn around.

For some people, it doesn’t matter how long we look at that painting, it’s likely we’re not going to see the hidden meaning. And if we’ve already spent a lot of time searching and thinking and trying to find our passion in this life, it might be time to quit. This is not popular advice. In fact, I can already hear people saying “Jeremy, aren’t we being told regularly that we should look for our passion because if we find our passion we’ll never work a day in our lives again? That if we really find work that we were born to do, every day will feel like a vacation and our lives will be amazing because we’re really living every day doing what we love? Isn’t that worth striving for?”

Why Would We Need Passion?

Before launching The Aworkening Podcast, I did a bit of research on passion and I found very few if any quotes from actual successful people that say finding our passion will result in a vacation style work bliss. Many of them, like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, do recommend that we should find our passion, but the reason was vastly different than what we’ve been lead to believe. And if we think about it logically, it all makes perfect sense. Take a look at what one of the most influential people in the world, Steve Jobs, had to say about passion.

“People say you have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true and the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t any rational person would give up. It’s really hard and you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, if you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up. And that’s what happens to most people, actually. If you really look at the ones that ended up being successful in the eyes of society, and the ones who didn’t, often times it’s the ones that are successful love what they did so they could persevere, you know, when it got really tough.” 

Truly successful people know that we need to be passionate about what we do because they know we’re going to need something that pushes us through the hard times. Though we’ve been duped into believing that finding our passion means we’ll never work a day again, successful people know that’s not how it works. If we’re doing anything that matters we’re going to have really, really hard days. And successful people say we need to have passion because they know we’re going to need something strong enough to keep us in the game when we want to quit. They wouldn’t place importance on passion if being successful were easy because if it were easy we’d never be tempted to quit. What many “follow your passion” pushers are forgetting is that there’s a difference between happiness and meaning.

Happiness VS Meaning

There are two types of vacationers. Those that go to the beach and those that climb mountains. Beach goers choose the beach because they want a relaxing vacation. They want soft edges, no hassles, and an easy going, blissful trip. They want to be happy. Mountain climbers have very different goals. They expect sharp edges, big challenges, and tons of hardship. They climb mountains not because it’s easy, but because it matters. Climbing mountains gives them meaning. These two vacationers are choosing their destinations for different reasons. One wants to find happiness, the other wants to find meaning, but the destinations are very different.

When people discuss passion they expect to find happiness and meaning in the same place. That’s possible, but it’s very rare, and it’s certainly not something that everyone will obtain. The more meaning our work has, the more difficult it might end up being. And likewise, the easier or more blissful our work is, the less meaning it might have. Or it might have more meaning, who knows, but it’s unreasonable to expect that every single career path will lead to both.

What This Means for Us

So what are you and I to do if we’ve found ourselves frustrated on the search for passion? Throw out all we’ve learned about ourselves in our search for work that doesn’t suck? Absolutely not. Sometimes all it takes is a shift in focus: from finding work that we have to love to finding work that gets us where we want to go. In short, finding work that works for us. If we can pursue work with our eyes wide open, knowing that every day isn’t going to be easy and that we’ll have to push through the times that suck, we’ll end up with a career fulfillment and life satisfaction that’s far better than sitting around staring into the painting of our lives, trying to extract some magic meaning that everyone seems to see but us.

An endless search for passion often causes people to miss out on opportunities that are right in front of them. Opportunities that don’t carry a halo of bliss that perfectly aligns with some mysterious passion, but rather an opportunity that works well for the place we are in our lives right now and will take us where we want to go. No matter how passionate we are about our work, we are going to have crappy days and we’re going to have to push through those even when we don’t feel like it, instead of grasping for some illusion that work isn’t supposed to feel like work sometimes.

Just to be clear, I’m not against passion. Some people can see the meaning in the painting and follow their passion, and for those people I’m very happy. But as I hear from people on The Aworkening Podcast looking to find creative and interesting careers I’m learning that more and more people are getting stuck in their search for their passion and life is passing them by. There’s a growing number that feel like because they haven’t found a way to get paid from their passion, or that the creative endeavor they’re working on doesn’t make them feel bliss every day, that something is wrong with them. And that’s simply not true. If you and I can find work that works for us and gets us where we’d like to go, even though it might not make us feel passionate 100% of the time, that’s going to make us passionate about life. We’re going to make more money and have more time to do what we enjoy doing, and we’ll likely end up much happier in the long run.

Exploring our passions is not a bad thing, but for those of you who look at a painting just see a white line in the middle of a blue canvas, you are not alone and there’s nothing wrong with you.


Jeremy Fisher is–wait–you know who Jeremy is! He’s the co-conspirator with Erin on the Pick the Brain Podcast and the host of the Aworkening Podcast.


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22 Responses to What We’ve Been Told About Passion is Bullshit

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