Following your Passion vs. Creating it – “Are dreams for suckers?”

It’s such a popular idea to tell kids to follow their dreams. The new thing is to turn your passion into a career, find what you were born to do, and reject society’s cookie cutter path.

As a jazz musician, I certainly relate to this. I showed a lot of promise as a young saxophonist in middle/high school, won a lot of awards, etc., and I was told by all the loving, supportive, and well-meaning adults to follow my dreams! Ignore the haters! Do what you love! Nevermind that I was something like 14 years old… Nevermind that 99% of the people telling me this had never and will never purchase anything from a saxophone player in their lives. Yet here they are telling me it’s probably a good idea to make a business out of it?

First, I’ll clear the air before this gets dark and say that I have no regrets. Jazz, its history, and the community around it has brought me my closest friends, greatest mentors, and my most important personal revelations. However, now as a 22 year old, I’m realizing that I was not “born” to do this. I have no god-given gifts for swing, no matter how many people told me I had something special. What more, I found that I do love jazz, but damn history also excites me! Computers and technology keep me up at night. Philosophy and literature cause me to marvel at this world and my own existence. Photography allows me to capture the way I see the world and present it to other people. On and on…

This idea that we were all born with some singular disposition to a particular field that we must uncover in the first 18 years of life is just ludacris. It leads to the 35-year-old record store clerk who “just wants to be around music”, the starry eyed actor in LA who’s stuck around for probably 10 years too long, and so on. On the other hand, it’s the very same mindset that has given us history’s greatest disrupters, the people who dared to take on the impossible, and go against every concept of normal we accept as a society! From Coltrane to Elon Musk, behind every innovator was a voice that told them not to care about what was “in reach”.

Mike Rowe, who most of us know as the host of Dirty Jobs, is a very outspoken voice for the other side of the coin. Follow opportunity and then become passionate about what you do. You can see how his life experience plays into this. He spends his days meeting the people with society’s grungiest gigs. From the septic tank cleaner, to the dairy cow inseminator, and beyond. Yet he has found that many of these people lead happy and fulfilled lives with vibrant families, faith, personal interests, and more. Granddaddy marketing guru, Seth Godin, also takes this position, citing scientific research that shows how the random choices and circumstances around us as babies eventually become our preferences as adults. For example, NHL players have been shown to have a heavy selection bias towards having birthdays in the first quarter of the year. Theories are that this has to do largely with the cutoff dates for most youth hockey leagues… go figure.

So where does this leave us? A couple of practical nuggets I’ve deduced:

  • It is true that passion is a real advantage. Love for your work can lead you to outlast, outwork, and outwit your competitors.
  • But passion has more to do with chance and circumstance than it does any innate disposition.
  • It is important to take on goals that seem out of reach or even goals that no one has done before. This is imperative to our growth as a society.
  • But if you fail, it’s highly likely that there are many other things that you would also be good at. Even if you don’t think of them as your passion.
  • You can become passionate about most any work from cleaning gyms and flipping KFC chicken to hedge fund management.

Lastly, I will end with probably the most practical, concise reply to this dilemma that I’ve heard:

Put everything you have into your dream for 5 years. 7 days a week, 110% effort. If things aren’t working for you after you’ve done that, find another line of work.

From Hugh Jackman’s interview on the Tim Ferriss show

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