There’s a backlash growing against the idea that people should “do what they love” or “follow their passion”. It smells a bit of privilege and hedonism, like your life should just be this beautiful happy carefree journey with no problems and joy all the time.
I think this misses some of the deeper aspects of what happens when you work on the things you love—lessons that lead to a more satisfying existence that can be applied elsewhere even if you don’t get to make a living doing those things.
I don’t think anyone’s passion is to lie on a beach and drink Mai Tais all day. Most people would find this surprisingly empty. As a reward for a day or a week or a year spent fully engaged, there’s nothing better than some down time with great food, a little booze, and some good sex but, by themselves, pleasure can get boring fast.
So let’s assume that your passion is something more than drinking and partying. When you start working on it, you might yourself entering this altered state, what Csíkszentmihályi calls Flow.
It’s an amazing feeling. You’re connected to the world, buzzing with excitement, and time takes on this weird dimension where it disappears impossibly fast but where each second is stretched out, eager to be filled. At the end of a session you come away confident and satisfied with the things you’ve accomplished.
This state is easier to come by when you do something you love. You’re motivated by this love to focus on it, get better at it, and to not give up when the challenges arrive. Following your passion teaches you what it feels like to reach this zen-like state and be fully engaged in an activity.
Then something magical happens—you can become more interested in returning to that state of conscious engagement that the activity itself. Obtaining that feeling becomes the reward and the work you’re doing almost becomes secondary to feeling so engaged and alive.
Many people stop there, and forever tie this feeling to a particular activity, perhaps not seeing that the two can be separated (or not wanting to separate them). This is absolutely a valid choice. In fact, without it, we wouldn’t have some of our greatest creative works and cultural achievements. How you continue to reach your flow state is less important than just repeatedly reaching it.
But ultimately Doing What You Love is a head fake. It teaches you what it feels like to be actively engaged in an activity and, when you know and love that feeling, then you can expand your horizons and your passions can grow exponentially.
If I trace back to where this feeling first started for me, it was when I got my first drum kit when I was fifteen and started doing the thing I loved most at the time: playing music with friends. Since then, I’ve pursued and enjoyed so many different things. Some of them have made money and some of them haven’t, but I’ve had a hell of a time along the way.
That’s not to say it’s going to fun. Engaged is not the same as happy. A lot of the time (perhaps most), the work will be frustrating or exhausting. As Matthew Inman points out, happiness as a goal is misguided. Engaged and curious and meaningful is better.
I’ve been a musician. I’ve dabbled in legal work. I’m now into drawing and making apps. I go snowboarding when I can. I swear, these days I could pick almost any activity at random and, provided there was room within the activity for me to enter this state, I’d be satisfied.
This is the real lesson of Doing What You Love—learning to love doing.
Of course, I may be considered a bad example. I haven’t reached what would traditionally be described as huge success in any of those fields I’ve attempted. I’m not super famous and, although we get by, we don’t have a lot of money.
But both money and fame are extrinsic motivations, things we are taught to value by society. That’s not to say they’re not important. Having an income is a prerequisite to experiencing flow as it’s hard to enter an engaged state if you’re worried about getting enough money to eat, but the amount required to feel secure enough to find this state is surprisingly low.
Provided you can comfortably make rent, eat three squares a day, and have a little left over for emergencies, you’re in good shape (it also helps to live in a country with universal health care).
What’s more important is to learn what it feels like to reach this state and then, if you can’t live off of that activity, find paid work that gives you the the same feeling or at least buys you the freedom or ability to do the thing that does. Knowing what the flow state feels like gives you a stick other than a dollar amount by which to measure any future employment.
For example, if you find you can get this feeling more often from working in a bar than from an office job that pays double, then by all means go and work in a bar! Others may judge you for it, but the days that make up your life will be richer and more fulfilling than any material object the office job salary could buy you.
So, do what you love. Follow your passion. Learn to feel engaged. The money really does follow, just not in the way you’d perhaps expect.