“Follow your passion!” “The sky is the limit!”
From grade school through adulthood, countless teachers, mentors and dozens of self-help gurus have drilled into us the importance of being passionate about what we do. Millions of books have been published with stories of exceptional individuals who followed their passions to achieve incredible career success. When we think of these individuals, names like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk come to mind. However, what the motivational speakers do not reveal is the number of passionate people who have had a sober reality check. The stark reality is that passion can blind them to the limitations of their ability and/or the economic and political circumstances that are incompatible with blindly following one’s passion.
In my life, I have known many incredibly talented people who would have done better in different circumstances. I think of my father, a very talented artist and a calligrapher, who never had a chance to turn his passion into career success. It is because of the political and economic circumstances in China in the 60’s and 70’s that forced him to abandon his artistic and literary interests. He eventually made his way to Canada where a language barrier forced him into a lifetime of work beneath his skills. Economic circumstances in his new country would never have allowed him to abandon his work and pursue his passion in the arts.
I also have a friend who is passionate about solving world’s problems. She has been seeking a career in a very lucrative field. Being as talented as she is, she has been very idealistic and has grand ambitions. However, her field of interest is also very crowded with very talented people from some very prestigious schools. She may be exceptionally gifted, but she has been so detached from reality that she has been unable to make much use of her talent in a world outside of her field of interest. As time goes by, she has only grown more adamant in her resolve to follow her passion, but her pursuits have all come to a dead end because she is not realistic about the challenges. She has also grown more depressed. Without turning that passion into professional success, life has become meaningless for her. It has become a tough battle because she feels unable to fit in anywhere.
What do these two stories above illustrate? Not everyone will join the ranks of Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg. Even if you have the inner drive to follow your passion, you may never see its fruits. Some people may be victims of political and economic challenges like my father. Others, like that friend of mine, are so overwhelmed by a passion that they can no longer deal with reality. What is one lesson we can learn from this? Does this mean that decades of indoctrinating young people to follow their passions turned out to be just empty flourish? Some drivel from the elite who are also detached from the real world?
There is nothing wrong with following one’s passion. Everyone needs a passion. But we live in a world constantly in flux with circumstances we often cannot control. It is when people conflate passion with purpose that they end up in a situation like my friend. We should live each day with a purpose – doing the best job possible within our human power. A person who lives with a purpose does not live in a fantasy world. They have aspirations, but they take concrete steps each day to contribute to the world. Not every artist is going to be the next Picasso, but they would be happy to keep their day job and teach art to children or volunteer their time to help others create beautiful art. That is really living a life with a purpose.