You don’t have to follow your passion

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I recently wrote about one of my favorite questions to help guide and navigate us through times of change: How can I serve? I like this question because it takes the focus off of us and directs it out toward the world instead, immediately helping us feel less isolated, more empowered and more purposeful.

Today I’ve been thinking more about purpose specifically and whether it might be kinder and more helpful, both to ourselves and the world in which we live, to spend less time trying to “follow our passion” and more time doing our best to live purposefully.

The truth is, I’ve always been skeptical of advice to “follow your passion.” It’s riddled with assumptions, not least of which is that you have a singular passion — notice how it’s never something like accounting or dentistry. It’s usually something far less valued in a capitalist society like literature or drawing or music — and that you ought to try and make a living doing it. I’m passionate about writing. I’ve also tried to write for a living, and let me tell you, the moment I began to treat writing as a means of income, it sucked all the joy out of it. For me, it’s far better to write for its own sake and seek an income doing something else.

Another equally problematic assumption is that this advice effectively divides the world into two types of people: those who have succeeded in “following their passion” (that is, those who earn a living from it) and those who haven’t. Perhaps this is OK if your passion is investment banking or writing self-help books (aside: fascinating, isn’t how, how the people telling you to follow your passion are often the very same ones who claim they can help you make a living from your passion — for a very reasonable fee, of course? *coughTonyRobbinscough*). The rest of us, the poor unwashed masses who still need to earn a living doing something else, are painted as failures, either too cowardly or too lazy to quit our day jobs and make the leap.

Finally, this advice assumes that happiness, fulfillment and following your passion are all linked. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, if you spend all your time and energy chasing after an external passion, expecting it to make you happy, you’re in for a lot of stress and disappointment. It is the most human of contradictions that the less we search for happiness, the more likely we are to find it.

In short: there’s nothing wrong with following your passion, in whatever way that means to you. But you are not a failure if you’re unable or unwilling to monetize your passion. You are not a failure if you’d rather have a hobby than break your back with a side hustle. You can work in a cubicle and still lead a rich, fulfilling life. You can even find joy and fulfillment doing work that has nothing to do with your so-called passion.

In my own experience, once I let go of the need to follow my passion and monetize my personal brand (ugh), I began to see my own strengths and gifts more clearly. I realized that I don’t have to “follow my passion” in order to, well, do what I’m passionate about. I want to write, so I write. I want to travel, so I travel. I want to have rich, meaningful conversations with others, so I converse. And I don’t worry so much about whether I can make a living from any of it.

This is so liberating! More significantly, this mindset allows me to cultivate another, even richer quality in my life: purpose. We are all always surrounded by opportunities to share our gifts with others and receive their gifts in return. It’s why I write on Medium rather than in my journal. This is my offering. A dear friend of mine creates wonderful costumes that surprise and delight the people she loves. That is hers.

We don’t earn a living from these things, but they add immeasurable richness to our lives and to others because they are offered freely, for their own sake. They matter. In this way, they become part of our reason for being.

And this is what I mean by purpose. It’s a much kinder way to live, I think, than chasing after a passion. If we stop chasing, we’ll find that our passions have been right there, waiting to help us live purposefully, all along.