2012-04-19

3 Out of 3 Rich Suits Agree: Do What You Love

In a blog post at the Harvard Business Review, three fabulously rich guys argue that if you want to be successful, you should follow your passion.

Really, how could they argue any differently? How receptive would a blog-reading audience be to the message that people should under no circumstances do something they love, but instead focus their time on relentlessly earning as much money as possible? They might as well write a blog post extolling the "virtues" of hating kittens or punching rabbits.

Whenever people fill the air with easy answers, feel-good verbiage, and cheap emotional appeal, there always has to be a twist. The twist on the article over at the HBR is this: After pointing out that it would be incredibly irresponsible to sacrifice your basic needs to follow your passion, the authors hit us with the following ray of hope.

But even this doesn't mean you can't work on your passion a little — even if it's just for 15 minutes a day. 
And you should! 
Why? 
Research (such as The Power of Small Wins that ran in Harvard Business Review May, 2011) shows that people who make progress every day toward something they care about report being satisfied and fulfilled.
Follow your passion for fifteen minutes a day, even if it doesn't make you any money, because research suggests that people who satisfy and fulfill one of their needs feel satisfied and fulfilled. The authors continue:
You might, indeed, end up making money if you engage in your passion, even though you currently think you won't. Remember, the future is unknown. Who knows what people will buy, or what you might invent after your very next act. At any moment in time, you are only one thought away from an insight — an insight that can change everything.
In other words, "Gee, you never know! The future is unknown! Keep at it, tiger!"

The truth is, any of the following scenarios are possible in life:
  • You will follow your passion, and make a lot of money.
  • You will follow your passion, and just do okay.
  • You will follow your passion until it runs you into the ground, and then you will change careers.
  • You will not follow your passion, and make a lot of money.
  • You will not follow your passion, and just do okay.
  • You will not follow your passion but will be run into the ground and have to change careers, anyway.
Speaking realistically, the choice has always been an imaginary one. There is no real choice between happiness and money. There is no real choice between passion and success. Dichotomies make for good rhetoric and popular blog posts, but life is not actually a series of X vs. Y dichotomies. Life is complex, reality is a healthy mix of good and bad. Sometimes luck is everything, and sometimes skill is everything. And sometimes neither one counts for much and life just plods on without a big climax.

Knowing that, here's how I look at life. 

First, I keep in mind what I actually value: family, ethics, freedom, music, my health, my integrity, and my hopes and dreams.

Second, I prioritize. If I had to choose between my family and my hopes and dreams, realistically, I'd choose my family. If I had to choose between music and my integrity, I'd choose my integrity. In this way, I figure out what I need to focus on most.

Third, I develop plans that allow me to pursue hopes and dreams in a reasonable way, subject to the things I absolutely must accomplish to consider my life worth anything at all. Subject to my commitments to family and integrity and health, how can I do more writing? Subject to those constraints, how can I still make music like I want to? Subject to my exercise regimen, how can I put in enough hours at work to land a promotion? How can I make the kind of money I want to, knowing what my own limitations are?

Fourth, and most importantly, I just do the best that I can.

I am always looking for ways to improve on myself and my life, not because I'm dissatisfied, but because it makes me happy to earn more money, make more music, write more stuff, do something cool at work, and so on. Like any ambitious person, I push myself hard when I can push myself hard. 

I have a goal in mind, an endgame, a lifelong desire. Maybe I'll "get there," or maybe I won't. I suspect what will actually happen is that I will reach an age when I eventually come to terms with the fact that just trying to do these sorts of things at all is what matters. That, and staying true to yourself and your values.

If what I just said makes sense to you, then congratulations: You have a creed.