There is an interesting discussion brewing in the blogosphere at the moment. My friend and fellow blogger Lisis Blackston of Quest for Balance wrote a controversial article last week about the feasibility of dropping your day job to pursue your passion.
We’ve all witnessed a growing culture of people who are quitting their lukewarm office careers to do what they’ve always wanted to do. There are countless success stories floating about (particularly in the online world) and it almost seems like following your passion — given an unwavering will — all but guarantees financial success. Lisis challenges this notion in her post.
Her article is here, and it is absolutely worth a read.
Several bloggers have responded with their take (a full list is at the end of Lisis’ article) and the topic is dear to me, so I’ll weigh in too.
It does seem passion generates income for some, but not for others. Therefore, ditching a steady job — under the assumption that your passion cannot fail you in the income department — is not exactly a bulletproof idea. But how do you know if your passion is the kind that would make you rich if you ran with it?
When it comes to making money, it seems to me that the starving artists and the turkey-feather craft peddlers are missing a crucial law of profiteering:
Passion has never paid bills, not for anyone.
Not for Michael Jordan, not for Bill Gates, not for the Beatles. What made all of them wealthy was that they created something large numbers of people were willing to pay for.
It just so happens that the Beatles’ passion (along with its much more rare and useful cousin, talent) resulted in the production of recorded music that has actually improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Forty years later, I can come home after a rough day, put on Abbey Road, and suddenly feel a lot better. That’s real, concrete value that their work has brought to my life — “value” as in something so useful I would pay money for it. I even bought Beatles coasters. Sixteen dollars, and worth every penny.
When I was a kid, I watched Michael Jordan’s unbelievable moves on TV and I loved it so much I wanted to be him. I had all the Chicago Bulls paraphernalia: basketballs, shoes, posters, clothes and more. At ten years old, whenever I could round up exactly $1.13, I would rush off to the card shop and buy a pack of NBA cards. So often I had not a penny more, and that’s what I did with my money. Because it was so worth it to me.
The point is this: people part with money when they find something that is directly valuable to them, that is to say they pay for what they believe improves their lives. Jordan’s passion for the game really didn’t really enter into the equation from my perspective. I just bought what I really liked.
You could argue that without passion, Michael Jordan would have had difficulty putting in the thousands of hours of practice required to be so spectacularly profitable. I wouldn’t disagree. However, he needed to be part of an intelligent business model (the NBA) for his basketball passion to be worth a cent. Playing for big bucks in the NBA just a natural career path for a basketball prodigy, but if he’d been a backgammon player — even an equally masterful one — he would never have become rich.
Money doesn’t come in exchange for passion, it comes in exchange for what other people value. That’s the key: the other people. Who says I value what you are passionate about? Elite backgammon matches just don’t produce enough value for enough people for it to make anyone rich.
I spend maybe $150 a year on Gillette Mach 3 razors. I buy them because they are far and away better than any other disposable razor I’ve used. I have no idea if the people at Gillette are fanatically passionate about making the best razors. It is more likely they are fanatically passionate about making money. I don’t care either way, I pay for what is useful to me, just like everyone else. Particularly in the realm of big business, the creative motives behind a product are usually quite distant and irrelevant to the person who is shelling out the cash.
Passion is a rather private and internal thing; it’s more of an interaction between your emotions and your actions. Your customers can only guess at why your product is so awesome (or so awful) and they probably aren’t particularly concerned with how it makes you feel inside.
Where did this myth come from?
So who ever said passion creates cash? I suspect, rather than outright snake-oil salesmen, it was people who decided to follow their passion and found that suddenly they enjoyed working, and were able to approach work with much less resistance and much more creativity. Imagine the difference between living a life where you cringe when you wake up, to one where you rush to work with enthusiasm.
But if your passion does not help you produce something that people will pay for, it cannot be expected to make you money. If your passion is to build and sell houses, you’ll come to your work with an excited and innovative attitude, which can only improve your chances to please clients and master your trade. It’s not hard to imagine that outlook leading quite organically to increased profits.
If your passion is to balance chairs on your chin, no matter how good you are at it you may have difficulty paying your bills, simply because people generally don’t tend to spend a lot of money to see people balance furniture on their chin. This, in turn, is because watching a chair-balancer doesn’t improve people’s lives in a significant or lasting way.
The correlation between passion and income, then, is only circumstantial, not absolute.
The economics of it can’t be ignored, and I don’t think any reasonable person would say that business sense is irrelevant just because passion is in limitless supply.
Fine art is one area where the passion-for-money fallacy is most apparent. I’ve seen more incredible works of art than I can count — intricate, painstaking, eye-popping work that must have taken hundreds of hours for the artist to compete.
But who will pay for those hundreds of hours of passionate work? I can see a hundred such works of art in the same gallery, deriving a measure of joy from each, for twelve dollars. For all the untold heaps of passion that go into it, where does the equivalent in money come from?
Nowhere, because there is no equivalency between passion and money. The market for fine art is very small. Most people never buy art, and when they do they don’t spend much. How much do you spend on paintings and sculptures in a year, compared to say, gasoline? There are art collectors out there who spend fortunes, but not many.
There is a tremendous disparity between the passion and effort that goes into a work of art and the amount a person is likely to pay for it. Some areas pay better than others, and your passion may very well not create much in the way of salable value for anyone else.
In a Mexican gallery I once saw a wonderful iron sculpture that I would have loved to own. The price tag was eight thousand dollars. Even though I loved it, if I had a spare eight thousand dollars (or a spare fifty) I wouldn’t buy it. There are too many other things I would rather spend that kind of money on: travel, furniture, living expenses. Eight thousand dollars worth of any of those things add much more value to my life than eight thousand dollars worth of sculpture.
Even if I had a spare half million, I don’t think I’d drop eight grand on it. I can always get more value out of eight thousand bucks than what a sculpture or a painting could possibly bring to my life.
So you can see how unbridled passion can easily eat up time and resources that nobody will ever see fit to compensate you for. Passion is no safety net at all. It could very well be dead weight, at least as far as supporting yourself goes.
To make money, you have to understand what makes money: delivering something of value to people willing to pay for it — and you have to be able to create that something of value efficiently. It’s extremely simple, but for some reason it it doesn’t seem to be widely known.
So to follow a passion with no regard for its value to others is just plain foolish, if you’re expecting it to pay your rent.
The whole discussion has left me slightly confused. I have to say I don’t really know who these oft-maligned snake-oil salesmen are. One name that keeps popping up is Tim Ferriss, the author of the lifestyle-design handbook The Four-Hour Workweek.
I own the book and have read it through, and I remember it being rather sobering and practical. I don’t remember promises of automatic riches, just a cutthroat method of maximizing productivity. If I recall, the book’s overwhelming message is this: spend your time doing things that are proven to generate income.
By the sounds of it, the discussion around “making money doing what you love” is centered disproportionately around the “doing what you love” half of the equation, as if the making money part is an inevitable byproduct, rather than an equal consideration.
I guess I never expected it to be that way. I have long known that the holy grail of reward without effort, in any form, is a myth. It’s today’s equivalent of alchemy. Nobody has ever come close to turning lead to gold, nor have they ever had any convincing reason to believe it’s even possible. The whole idea — and the thousand-year craze that followed it — is based on nothing but a fantasy. Yet somehow the promise of something for nothing continues to seduce and intoxicate enough people to keep it alive centuries later.
Diet pills, electro-ab machines, pyramid schemes, get rich quick… all of it is alchemy. I don’t find it particularly dangerous, because I don’t expect to get something for nothing. There seems to be a sizable proportion of the population who are still trying to turn lead to gold, and they will always receive the only things alchemy has ever yielded: disappointment, and plenty of lead.
If one never loses sight of the amount of value their work adds to the lives of others, then they should never be surprised at the degree to which they are compensated for it. I think North American culture in particular is preoccupied with the getting paid end, and sometimes forgets that income is compensation for something someone else receives, not an intrinsic benefit to keeping yourself busy.
Passion as a Career Path
So where do I stand on the passion vs. practicality debate?
As we’ve seen, it’s practicality that turns effort to dollars, not love. Love may have uses in business, but only insofar as it is practical. Loving your customers is perfectly practical to business goals.
My unsolicited, unqualified advice? Err towards passion, certainly. And by a lot.
I took the opposite approach out of high school. I was terrified of following my passions and finding they could not support me. I was determined never to be one of the legions of university students studying marine biology just because their hearts melt at the thought of swimming with dolphins, or the wannabe movie stars doing deodorant commercials.
So out of principle I ignored any career path that could possibly be exciting or fun, and went into computer programming, which was at the time (c. 1999) an extremely lucrative field. I had a talent for it, but zero interest in it.
I hated school throughout, performed terribly, limped to a late graduation and never worked in the field at all.
The second time around, I chose a slightly less lucrative field that I was slightly more interested in: civil works. I enjoyed the work more, but I would shoot myself if I truly believed I would never find a more enjoyable way to earn a living.
Strike two. I should have picked something that really got me excited.
I sure don’t make a fortune in this latest career, and since I don’t particularly like it I don’t see myself racking up promotions or engineering groundbreaking new methods. I sure could use some passion in my line of work.
I think most people find themselves in careers that do nothing for them aside from paying the bills. In that case, passion is only useful after-hours, and that’s a disturbing thought. The typical arrangement is to sell half your waking hours, at a flat rate, five out of the seven days in a week — to somebody else who is making a lot more money with your effort than you are. With the modest amount you receive — and the remaining half of your time — you are to build a life.
Most of us live this reality, and I now see it as a bloody curse. Of course we can do better. We settle, because it seems impractical to walk away from a steady income. Business owners who get rich from our modestly-paid efforts want to make sure we don’t get too entrepreneurial ourselves, so they get us dependent on health benefits that are so difficult to walk away from. Beware. This is the reason public healthcare is so violently opposed in the conservative contigent of the US, but that’s another post altogether.
In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn encourages the reader to ask “What is my job in this planet, with a capital J?”
Good question. Is it selling insurance? Programming data entry systems? Processing credit card records? Stocking grocery shelves? Helping the suburbs of Winnipeg get bigger?
With one precious lifetime to spend, and all the advantages of a developed world and a free market, maybe it’s nothing short of idiotic to resign yourself to a post in life that has nothing to do with who you are or what you love.
Like so many others, I have the dream of becoming rather well-off doing work I love. Unless I die in my thirties, I will do it. You can bet the farm on it.
I’m certain of it not because Tim Ferriss or Steve Pavlina or Tony Robbins says I can, but because I’ve decided I will. It’s not a gamble, it’s not a leap of faith. It’s how I plan to spend the rest of my life. It will take considerable amounts of practical effort — planning and testing — but it is certainly a lost cause without passion.
Passion is definitely not a requirement for a steady income though, not by any stretch. In fact, it’s probably easier to find a steady income if you forget about your passion completely. Don’t let it bug you, don’t allow yourself time for it, and you’ll have your rent paid with ease. Maybe you can let it poke its head out on weekends. Just make sure it’s out of sight by Monday.
To be blunt, working for the weekend is a shit existence, and even though it seems to be the default strategy in my culture, I will not settle for it. In a bearable but uninspiring job, the days slip by so freely that suddenly you wake up to find a decade has gotten behind you and you’re nowhere closer to anything you love. With the exception of what simple pleasures you can cram in on weekends and evenings, it isn’t life, it’s a slow death. There is too much up for grabs for the intelligent (and passionate) individual to let himself pass the years that way.
Certainly a middle ground holds the most promise. I tried the career game without passion for a while, it led me somewhere unbearably mediocre. I’m starting over, with passion as my compass and practical thinking as my throttle.
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and think that passion should take a back seat to practicality. One without much of the other is a recipe for disaster, yet I think practicality without passion is much more dangerous, because it can steal your life from you without your realizing it. Maybe it already has.
Passion isn’t worth any money. It’s priceless.
Photo by Zarko Dricnic