Following Your Passion

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 20 2015

I recently stumbled upon this Yellow Hammer News article from October 2014 in which Mike Rowe of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” discusses why he actually doesn’t believe in advising people to follow their passion. It’s something Rowe has apparently said before, but a fan wrote to him questioning his reasoning for telling people not to follow their passion.

Here is Rowe’s complete response,

A few years ago, I did a special called “The Dirty Truth.” In it, I challenged the conventional wisdom of popular platitudes by offering “dirtier,” more individualistic alternatives. For my inspiration, I looked to those hackneyed bromides that hang on the walls of corporate America. The ones that extoll passersby to live up to their potential by “dreaming bigger,” “working smarter,” and being a better “team player.” In that context, I first saw “Follow Your Passion” displayed in the conference room of a telemarketing firm that employed me thirty years ago. The words appeared next to an image of a rainbow, arcing gently over a waterfall and disappearing into a field of butterflies. Thinking of it now still makes me throw up in my mouth.

Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end? 

When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.”
Every time I watch The Oscars, I cringe when some famous movie star – trophy in hand – starts to deconstruct the secret to happiness. It’s always the same thing, and I can never hit “mute” fast enough to escape the inevitable cliches. “Don’t give up on your dreams kids, no matter what.” “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes.” And of course, “Always follow your passion!”
Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities. Do we really need Lady GaGa telling our kids that happiness and success can be theirs if only they follow their passion?

There are many examples – including those you mention – of passionate people with big dreams who stayed the course, worked hard, overcame adversity, and changed the world though sheer pluck and determination. We love stories that begin with a dream, and culminate when that dream comes true. And to your question, we would surely be worse off without the likes of Bill Gates and Thomas Edison and all the other innovators and Captains of Industry. But from my perspective, I don’t see a shortage of people who are willing to dream big. I see people struggling because their reach has exceeded their grasp. 

I’m fascinated by the beginning of American Idol. Every year, thousands of aspiring pop-stars show up with great expectations, only to learn that they don’t have anything close to the skills they thought they did. What’s amazing to me, isn’t their lack of talent – it’s their lack of awareness, and the resulting shock of being rejected. How is it that so many people are so blind to their own limitations? How did these peope get the impression they could sing in the first place? Then again, is their incredulity really so different than the surprise of a college graduate who learns on his first interview that his double major in Medieval Studies and French Literature doesn’t guarantee him the job he expected? In a world where everyone gets a trophy, encouragement trumps honesty, and realistic expectations go out the window. 

When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfathers 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. 

That’s why I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

Carry On

It’s an incredibly interesting response and one that really got me thinking. We live and work in a business that is a lot about passion. We preach it at conferences and in our blogs and tell people all the time to follow that dream.

Mike Rowe’s thoughts on the subject actually parallel something I’ve thought often, but have never verbalized or put into words myself. There have been so many times when I’ve read query letters or manuscripts and really thought that maybe the author of the material needed to find something else to become passionate about. While she might have loved writing, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t something she was probably ever going to succeed at. And while certainly it’s not my job to tell the faceless writer of a query to go and find another passion, it is something I’ve said to others in this business.

Once, long ago, I had an assistant who was passionate about books and publishing. She loved everything about both and had dreams of working in the business, finding authors and building careers. Unfortunately, while she had passion, she didn’t have two things required to be an agent. She didn’t have the drive to spend her weekends and nights culling through submission piles, reading loads of material to find those one or two great things that would rock her world. And she didn’t have an editorial eye. No matter how much she read, for herself and for us, she just didn’t quite understand what made a book good and marketable. What made it a potential sale. It didn’t mean she wasn’t good at anything, it just meant she wasn’t clicking with what she thought was her passion.

In a number of different meetings I encouraged her to consider other aspects of publishing, jobs I felt she would be really good at and that played to her strengths. She ended up leaving the business altogether and, hopefully, finding other things she was passionate about.

Here’s the thing about passions. Hopefully we have a lot of them and hopefully we develop more as the years grow. I got into publishing in some ways by chance. I had a passion for writing and initially thought I wanted to be a reporter. I pursued that for a while. Until I discovered that I might not have been as good at it as I thought and maybe I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I knew I loved words though. So I tried magazines, copy editing, design and, yes, writing. It wasn’t for me. So I figured books must be next. I kept with my overall passion, but moved around until I found the fit that was right for me.

And what if I someday learn that my passion to be a literary agent isn’t the right place for me? I bet I can easily find something else I love just as much. I love food and all things related to food. I’d love to cook, or create recipes, or blog, or…. I think you get the picture. I also love photography, fitness, dogs, and vacationing. Hmmm, a career vacationer maybe?

I think Mike Rowe has some really interesting things to say about passion. I liked what he said. It doesn’t mean you should give up on what you’re doing, it just means you should be willing to explore various aspects of that passion.


7 responses to “Following Your Passion”

  1. Avatar Kaye George says:

    I'm totally with him on American Idol. I watched for part of one season, but it was so embarrassing! Or should have been.

    I'll have to say I agree. I was a gifted violinist in grade school through high school and was always asked if I was going to major in music. No way! I wanted to keep enjoying music, not work at it for a living. I still love playing.

  2. Avatar Elissa M says:

    Thank you for this. People often forget that passion is fickle and doesn't always last. Rainbow-and-waterfall images fade in reality's glare.

    Passion can be a guide to a rewarding career, but people should be careful when jumping off cliffs (with or without bungee cords). It's not unlike finding one's life-mate. You need a dose of reality to temper that passion.

  3. Avatar AJ Blythe says:

    “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.” – brilliant.

    I would prefer someone to tell me I was barking up the wrong tree with my desire to be a professional author than let me think otherwise. But in a nice, rainbow sprinkled way (there's always a place for rainbows).

  4. Explore the passion is some good advice and interpretation… see where it leads you. I have always been a full believer in following one's instincts, making a change when you can, and taking a risk. On the other hand, we must be practical! I'm still going to support my family and if I have to do it while working at something I'm only "meh" about, then that's what I'll do… but yes, "bring the passion with you" because if you abandon it completely that is a path to a lot more unhappiness.

  5. Avatar Kim Wedlock says:

    Part of the issue with passions I think is also delusion – and I admit that I worry I suffer from that, too. I do believe that you can achieve things if you put the work in, but Mike has definitely hit many points right on the head. I have friends who are trying to get into a business in line with their passions, but I don't have the heart to tell them they may not be cut out for it. Part of me says I'm their friend, I should say something so they don't waste their time, but another part of me thinks that maybe I'm wrong.

    I'm going to keep chasing my passion for writing, and hope I don't believe I can do it because of arrogance rather than actually recognising personal skill (although just saying that makes me feel big-headed). But there are a lot of other areas I can get into if it doesn't work out – or try to get into, at any rate.

    But basically, though I fear it may apply to me, I do agree with what both you and Mike have said, and though it may be a little tough to accept, I'm glad there are people willing to say it. At least putting it out there might make individuals take a critical look at themselves rather than looking critically at others instead – I know I am!

    Kim x
    A Blackbird's Epiphany

  6. Typically, I’m reading this a day late but would like to add a little something. This is an awesome post and should be required reading for every freshman entering college and every person considering dissing their nine to five for rainbows and butterflies.

    Trying to make a living at that for which you thirst, may in all sincerity, kill the very passion which envelopes your soul. The “have-to” aspect, instead of the “want-to”, oftentimes defuses the pleasure of accomplishment. (All references to sex deleted with a smirk).

    I think it is very important though, that when you come upon someone, who you know, (because you are the kind of person who knows about such things), does not have what it takes, honesty should be delivered carefully. Because we live in an overly realistic world truth can poison even if it is meant well. There is nothing sadder than “I could have been” and “never was”.

  7. Avatar says:

    Thanks very much for sharing this. It's a reminder that not all of us are cut out to make a living at what we love, which is not the same as saying we can't still do what we love.
    I graduated college (I won't tell you how long ago that was!) with a degree in communication and really wanted to do something with writing, possibly in public relations. And although I believe I had the writing skills, I was woefully unqualified personality-wise. I didn't have the confidence to make it in such a competitive field. I eventually became a librarian and only recently returned to writing, without the expectation of making a huge amount of money. I do it because I've discovered I can't NOT do it.