Following Your Bliss (Isn't Enough)

Last week I got myself in a bit of hot water by reposting an article to Facebook wall that I really liked. The title of it was “Whatever you do, don’t quit your job to pursue your passion” and the thesis of the article was a deep skepticism of this narrative we have in our culture that everybody ought to be pursuing their passion for full-time work. I liked that the author was willing to take an honest look at the pros and cons of this narrative and especially that she recognized that the concept of pursuing your passion in and of itself is a narrative that is heavily laden with privilege.

I also got a lot of pushback from posting this article, especially from people like myself who have made the leap to quitting gainful employment to pursue their passion full time.

I’d still really recommend reading the article. It makes a lot of incredibly compelling points about how finding a passion, much less pursuing it full-time, is a very middle class kind of idea. Having the leisure time to pick up a hobby you’re passionate about is a lot harder when you’re working three jobs and trying to support a family on minimum wage. But I also recognize that it’s necessary to parse out a more nuanced answer than either you should or should not pursue your passion.

There’s no doubt that there’s a very powerful narrative at play in our culture right now: it starts with someone working a soul-sucking office or service industry job, dreaming of something more stimulating, creative, and engaging. In their spare time, they have a creative hobby that makes them feel alive in ways that their work doesn’t. They dream of a day when they can quit their job and do what they love full-time. The media is full of charismatic celebrities telling them: believe in yourself! Pursue your passion! Follow your bliss! After all, goes the saying: do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life. Right?

Let me say up front that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being passionate about what you do for a living. Clearly, it’d be pretty hypocritical of me to put that message out there given that Flow Arts is my full-time gig at this point. But at the same time, I feel like this narrative imposes the assumption that if a person’s job isn’t a creative one that they’re doing it wrong.

I think that there’s satisfaction to be found in selling insurance, making and serving people food, sitting at a desk and crunching numbers all day. I know that I’m not happy doing any of these things, but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t be. These are jobs that exist because people need them. Because they offer society a useful service and for quite a lot of people, being useful is all they need to be satisfied. And that’s okay.

I also think that buried within this narrative is a somewhat destructive assumption that people shouldn’t have hobbies. That if there’s something you do to recharge after a long day of work, that the joy you experience from that is a message that it’s the thing you ought to be engaging in full-time. I engage in the Flow Arts full-time, and I still have hobbies outside of it. I do this because while I love spinning, my brain needs a break from it every so often. That’s healthy and it keeps Flow Arts from becoming just as menial as my old office job was years ago.

First, to come clean and do a little bit of mythbusting: no matter what you do for work, there will be good days when you’re brimming with energy, ready to take on the world, and excited for what you’re doing. There will also be days that will be a drag...days when you don’t want to get tasks done, when you feel uninspired and uninterested. This will still happen, even if you pursue your passion full-time. You may get a higher percentage of the days when you feel super engaged, but fundamentally at some point, you’re also going to need to learn how to keep yourself working even when the work isn’t exciting.

There is no such thing as a job that is constantly joyful and engaging. One of the reasons that side projects tend to feel so joyful and relaxing is because they’re something you only get a few hours a week to do. Since the amount of time spent on them is smaller, it’s much less likely they become boring or a chore.

But without a doubt the biggest problem I have with this narrative is that it’s incomplete and I think that leads to a lot of people becoming very frustrated with the results.

There’s a missing step here, much like the underpants gnomes in South Park. Step 1: pursue bliss, Step 2: unknown, Step 3: profit, right? Before embarking along this path, you should really ask yourself: why should anyone pay you to do this particular thing you’re passionate about?

Because work isn’t purely about finding joy--that can be a part of it, but fundamentally it is also about being of use. It is about providing a service or product that other people appreciate. Something that matters to them and is valuable to them. If your passion only serves to satisfy you yourself, it isn’t worth very much to other people and they’re not going to have any incentive to support you in doing it.

Are you teaching people how to get better at something they enjoy? Are you creating a product that they need? Are you entertaining people in need of a break from their own work? What fundamentally are you doing that is of use to other people? Because it’s when you’re providing people with something they need, whether they knew they needed it or not, that they’re happy to support you. When your work is adding something significant to their lives--something they realize they’d really miss if you weren’t around. That’s when your bliss becomes their bliss and that’s when it’s really something worth pursuing.

Of course, I’m also glossing over a whole host of other factors to think about: how good are you at managing a business, being a manager, marketing, so on and so forth. But this is one of those little nuggets that I thought at the least was worth dedicating a video to.

I’ve long believed that telling people to follow their bliss is terribly good advice. I think it sets up expectations that all you need to have a successful career is just to be very passionate about what you’re doing--I think it’s far better advice to tell people to find happiness in being of service. Maybe that’s your boring office job, maybe that’s spinning props for a living. But either which way, you’ll be happier overall in the long run if you’re helping to stoke other peoples’ happiness rather than just your own.

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