Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Don't Follow Your Passion

Sometimes a culture will promote a constellation of ideas. Between philosophers and the therapy culture we have all been assailed by a constellation of ideas that recommend an inside/out approach to life.

They tell you to look deep within your Self or your soul and to get in touch with your feelings, find your passion, or else, to access your impulses, instincts and concupiscent longings. At times, you will find the answer in your gut or your loins or your heart. In all cases, you will find it inside.

The precepts assume that when you are facing a difficult decision, you need but introspect, get in touch with some inner emotion or sensation and then follow it wherever it leads—often off the cliff.

Behind this madness lies an ethic. It tells you to express your feelings, openly, honestly and shamelessly. In today’s parlance it encourages you to vent, to give full expression to your anger… and to ignore the consequences.

The constellation is so influential that it has even invaded the business world. There, people are routinely told to find their passion and to follow it, blindly. If it’s your real passion, everything will work itself out.

I have often had occasion to critique this mindless piece of culturally-driven advice. Recently, Mackenzie Dawson outlined the case against finding your passion. In her New York Post article she notes, sagely, that this mania about passion gives pride of mental place to grand, large, uncontrollable emotions.

Some cultures-- not limited to the therapy culture-- suggest that the more powerful the emotion, the truer it is. One can only wonder why more people have not critiqued this debilitating idea.

Dawson outlines the problem well:

Grand emotions tend to get a lot of play in the professional world: “Find your passion,” new graduates are told, as they sally forth into the job market, ready to try their hand at something that will hopefully pay them money. “Figure out where your bliss lies,” mid-career professionals are advised when they’re looking to transition out of their current industry. “If you do what you looove, it won’t feel like work,” say others.

Keep in mind, this is not the world of interpersonal relationships. It is not the world of therapy sessions. It is the world of business and the professions, the marketplace.

What’s wrong with the idea? Dawson explains that it induces people to blind themselves to the reality of the marketplace, to ignore their ability to contribute to an enterprise.

Dawson recounts a conversation with a recruiter named Nathanial Koloc:

“A lot of people don’t know what their passion is — it’s a monolithic way to describe a career. Also, careers don’t work like that directly,” says Nathaniel Koloc, the co-founder of the progressive recruiting firm ReWork. “Your career grows as you learn to give more value. Also, it’s misleading to imply that simply because you like to do something, other people will value it enough to pay you. At the end of the day, you’re talking about the marketplace.”

Instead of the dreaded P-word, Koloc recommends approaching your career choices from a different perspective, and asking yourself two main questions: “Where will I learn more?” and “Where will I provide more value?”

“If you constantly run those two questions, you’ll end up in a good place,” says Koloc. “Now, we can refer to ‘value’ in terms of earning, but it could also mean, where are you helping people the most? It’s not a useless question to ask.”

Dawson adds a Peter Drucker notion, namely, that it is good to know wherein your talent lies. And she also mentions the possibility that you might be really rich and thus might be able to indulge yourself by undertaking a profession that you have no talent for and that does not pay:

Other questions that might seem less intimidating than the all-encompassing “now-or-never” of passion include asking what kind of skills you possess and whether you’re independently wealthy.

In the meantime, Melissa Dahl offers a trenchant critique of the inside-outism that is explicit in the constellation of ideas about finding your passion. She wants to show that this constellation has gotten it backwards.

As Dahl reports, the research shows that if you work hard at something, the passion will come to you. I suspect that by passion, the authors mean something like enjoyment. This resembles the Confucian precept that you should do the right thing even if you do not know why, because eventually you will understand why you are doing it and your action will take on sincerity.

As I said, it’s the opposite of what passes for wisdom in the therapy culture.

In Dahl’s words:

Another reason to question the standard “follow your passion” advice: The cliché suggests that the correct order of things is to first identify something you feel strongly about and then get down to work. But some new research suggests we may be getting this backward and that excitement about a project may in fact follow the work. 

But, the satisfaction of a job well done must also involve doing a job that one has talent for. It also comes about when one receives positive and honest feedback. But, intriguingly, Dahl also adds that, in order to feel true satisfaction, you need to feel that you own the work, which means that you had a free choice in undertaking it. If you are forced to work on a project you are unlikely to feel any real satisfaction.

Dahl writes:

For one, positive feedback helps. For another, excitement is more likely to happen when you feel ownership over whatever it is you’re working on. In one scenario, they let students choose a business idea to develop, mostly by filling out questionnaires about their opinions on the concept. But in another, the students weren’t given a choice. In the latter scenario, Fradera writes, “their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.”


But in another, the students weren’t given a choice. In the latter scenario, Fradera writes, “their passion never went up, even with positive feedback on making progress – and when there was no progress, it actually dropped.”

This is bad news for anyone hoping this research implied that diligently working on a boring assignment will result in sudden and inexplicable enthusiasm for the work. On the other hand, it's another decent reason to let your own curiosity and interests help guide you toward your passion. 


Anonymous said...

To my limited knowledge, the modern concept of "Follow your bliss/emotions" is derived from Joseph Campbell. From his video/audio conversations at the Lucas Ranch.

Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" is supposed to be the inspiration for George Lucas' "Star Wars". And Lucas' Weltanschauunge (sp).

A highly commendable concept of life, IMHO.

Unfortunately, most people have not/do not have such an option. They must struggle thru life the best way they can, w/o Bliss.

I was v v fortunate. I became a reasonably successful writer. A bookworm all my life, Fortuna smiled upon me. After a series of hard work, ruinous setbacks, and curious chances.

I deem it unfortunate and painful for most people to expect Bliss from their work. A decent life w/loving family & friends is quite enough - indeed, Bliss enough. -- Rich Lara

Ares Olympus said...

Passion is a funny word. I remember reading Erich Fromm explaining why passion is effectively slavery and seeing love as the opposite of passion.

And it would seem to agree with this statement below - whatever you do, if you do it only because you feel compelled by external rewards or internal compulsion, you will experience suffering and resentment. So the trick is to take the time align your intention with your actions, and then you are the creator of your choices.

Stuart: But, intriguingly, Dahl also adds that, in order to feel true satisfaction, you need to feel that you own the work, which means that you had a free choice in undertaking it. If you are forced to work on a project you are unlikely to feel any real satisfaction.

Back to Fromm... here's a quote from his book.
If we say love is an activity, we face a difficulty which lies in the ambiguous meaning of the word “activity.” By “activity,” in the modern sense of the word, is usually meant an action which brings about a change in an existing situation by means of an expenditure of energy.

Thus a man is considered active if he does business, studies medicine, works on an endless belt, builds a table, or is engaged in sports. Common to all these activities is that they are directed toward an outside goal to be achieved. What is not taken into account is the motivation of activity.

Take for instance a man driven to incessant work by a sense of deep insecurity and loneliness; or another one driven by ambition, or greed for money. In all these cases the person is the slave of a passion, and his activity is in reality a “passivity” because he is driven; he is the sufferer, not the “actor.”

On the other hand, a man sitting quiet and contemplating, with no purpose or aim except that of experiencing himself and his oneness with the world, is considered to be “passive,” because he is not “doing” anything.

In reality, this attitude of concentrated meditation is the highest activity there is, an activity of the soul, which is possible only under the condition of inner freedom and independence. One concept of activity, the modern one, refers to the use of energy for external aims; the other concept of activity refers to the use of man’s inherent powers, regardless of whether any external change is brought about. The latter concept of activity has been formulated most clearly by Spinoza.

He differentiates among the affects between active and passive affects, “actions” and “passions.” In the exercise of active affect, man is free, he is the master of his affect; in the exercise of a passive affect, man is driven, the object of motivations of which he himself is not aware.

Thus Spinoza arrives at the statement that virtue and power are one and the same. Envy, jealousy, ambition, any kind of greed are passions; love is an action, the practice of a human power, which can be practiced only in freedom and never as the result of a compulsion.

Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for.” In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

Anonymous said...

During an introspective conversation I asked a man how he managed a career (as a college professor) after enduring a persistent pattern in childhood of being mostly abused by his mother and ignored by his work obsessed father. He said, "I created a parent for myself. I did something I enjoyed and the money showed up in my bank account."

Business relationships must be recognized as interpersonal relationships if one truly wants to add value. To offer value you must recognize what other persons value: the idea that one delivers value for money and other compensation is based on the extension of interpersonal relationships into the sphere of commerce. However it is very possible to profit while destroying value such as during war, criminal behavior, or shifting costs onto others or the natural environment while creating a parent for oneself by having the money show up in your bank account.

Caedmon said...

"Nothing is fun when you have to do it." - Hunter S. Thompson