You’re toiling away at the most mind-numbing job that has nothing to do with anything you like. A few ‘middle managers’ are fighting over the next big promotion using every chance they can to one-up the other or stab someone in the back secretly. The catch is, you make a great salary, but you can’t stand the job. It’s starting to make you be like those other middle managers. It’s making you chronically annoyed, which isn’t doing anything good for your psychological health. It bleeds into your personal life even though you have enough money to do things you want to do.
The problem is, the opposite situation can be worse: a job that you have a passion for but makes no money can leave you struggling to make ends meet, not being able to support your lifestyle, let alone a family. The stresses of worrying about the next bill or how to fix the broken car can be extremely difficult.
There are tons of polarized views on ‘following your passion’ because it doesn’t usually seem realistic. If our passion is to play video games, then chances are we aren’t going to make much money, which means we won’t be able to afford a place to stay, food, or whatever other comforts we may want or need.
Everyone knows this in general, that we have to be realistic, or we’ll be stuck making no money living in someone’s basement or worse. We get paid to work because it’s something most of us wouldn’t normally do for free. We will play video games for free, but most of us wouldn’t shovel snow for free. Then why does something feel off? Why do we always feel pulled to chase our passions to find that ever-elusive “fulfillment”?
The Supernormal Exceptions
Our misconceptions grow as a result of the readily available ‘supernormal stimuli.’ These are exaggerations that we see in everyday life that we instinctively react to. One famous study involved mother birds with black-spotted eggs. When the scientist used a marker and put bigger spots on the egg, the mother birds would pay significantly more attention to the egg with the darker, bigger spots.
Funny enough, this is our world with the internet and social media. We see the most beautiful, the most successful, and the ‘happiest’ people in these short videos and images. The opposite is also the case. We see much more of the worst killings and worst cases of people being horrible or idiotic. These are all forms of ‘supernormal stimuli.’ We see the most exaggerated versions of everyday life.
It doesn’t help that it’s so easy to fake a great life and tell ourselves that if we believe hard enough, it will come true. Smile for the camera next to a mountain, and we look like we’re having the time of our life. Buy an expensive car and post it with #thegoodlife, and everyone thinks we’re making good money. We don’t have to show that we are up to our ears in debt, or that we are unhappy with our significant other, or hate our jobs.
All we see are posts of happy and successful people that seem to love their lives (and subsequently, their jobs). We have no idea whether it is genuine or not. After seeing nothing but happy successful people, it would only make sense that we’d conclude that to get there, we must find what we love to do, find that passion.
Elons in the Basement
There are probably at least a few Elons in basements around the world. These are smart genius-type people who are researching building things because they love to figure out things and want to make a positive impact. There are probably at least a few Bezos out there too, born into different situations, working in good, corporate positions right now.
Having a passion for engineering doesn’t mean we’ll be the next Elon Musk. It doesn’t even mean we’ll have a fun or enjoyable engineering job. In fact, maybe we don’t even work as an engineer because we can’t afford school. Instead, we’re in a basement teaching ourselves to build robots using YouTube and random internet blogs.
A wealth of people spend many hours after work focusing on some random thing that they love and not getting paid. They’re just doing it because they have a passion for it. Will they be successful from their passion? Not necessarily, but they are probably happier than most without a passion.
What Is Passion?
Passion is that strong feeling or enthusiasm to do something. Passion seems to represent a culmination of strong positive emotions driving us toward something. What we fail to understand is that we don’t typically have passion for a “job” in the strictest sense. We have passion for something about the job. The “job” of being an NBA player includes giving interviews, addressing fans in a politically correct way, and behaving appropriately off the court, among many other duties outside of playing basketball.
Most of those folks who advise against following your passion for work are making semantically similar statements about following your ‘purpose’ or somehow having a ‘life’ outside of work. They are downplaying passion, but in the end, if we don’t have strong emotions driving us toward something, it doesn’t seem to be a very fulfilling life.
So, despite the negative views on following your passion, we happen to be very big proponents of following passion. The reason, however, isn’t because it will make us rich, but because it only makes sense. Who wants to live life without any feelings of enthusiastic drive? Imagine doing work without having something that drives us to do it day in and day out; that would be mind-numbing.
Following passion doesn’t mean we do it for a job. Since when is the job itself the reason we work? We work to achieve goals; some of us have jobs that are closely related to our goals (e.g., NBA player wanting to be the greatest basketball player), while others have highly unrelated jobs and goals (e.g., stockbroker wanting to be the greatest basketball player). We tend to be missing the point when we speak about passion and jobs.
What MAKES Passion?
Let’s explore what makes up passion with just a touch more detail. We know that good feelings in the brain are a series of chemicals. We also know after reading the Manage Anger by Doing This section, that there’s a good chance that emotions are telling us about our ultimate instinctive goals. In the most basic sense, when things are getting in the way, we feel generally negative emotions. When we start to see the light toward our goals, we generally get positive feelings.
Passion from an emotional perspective is that light. Happiness is that light. So, successfully chasing our goals can make us generally happier than not chasing our goals. In the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, one of the studies he mentions shows that overall dopamine release in anticipation of getting something can often be more than the dopamine released after attaining whatever that something is. This supports the idea that a long ‘journey’ can be much more rewarding than the end goal. This is the real point of following passion. It means we chase those life-long goals, such that we are always moving forward with small boosts of positive feelings along the way.
Establish Unyielding Goals
In conclusion, all we have to do is set unyielding goals and do our best to achieve them. That’s what following our passion means. The problem is that most of us set goals, but they are weak goals. They are either inconsistent or are in direct conflict with other things we want. For example, if we have a goal of stay in shape but hate working out more than the desire to stay in shape, then it’s not an unyielding goal. When we work out, despite how much we hate it, then we know we have an unyielding goal. That’s following passion.
Notice that following passion doesn’t mean we’ll love everything; in fact, we may hate everything about what we are doing at first. But the unyielding goal generates passion that tells us we will do this anyway. Believe it or not, when we consistently chase unyielding goals, we are teaching ourselves to keep chasing them.
Passion isn’t something that is found; it is something that is created through pursuing goals persistently. The more we chase our goals, the stronger our passion will be. So, if we can’t find our passion, then we can create our passion by establishing unyielding, life-long goals and doing everything in our power to tackle them.