I’ve been reading articles and watching TED talks about the advice “Follow Your Passion.” For many the advice “follow your passion” has been either deified as excellent or vilified as dangerous. And whether it’s ultimately excellent or dangerous is usually determined by the financial outcome. You follow your passion to become a writer and you starve: bad advice. You follow your passion and sell as much as JK Rowling: excellent advice.
See how that works? I do, too, but I keep trying to not fall into the all or nothing trap. Just saying "follow your passion" without adding "and expect to work just as hard as if you hadn't" should be added. Even working at something you love has moments of intense boredom, tough days and mundane chores. Even so, I don't think one should sway the other way and not do what you love simply out of a fear of failure or low returns.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan uses the term “scalable” and states that he would tell most people to work in a non scalable job. A dentist’s job is not scalable, because she gets paid only for each hour she works. A writer’s job is scalable, because a book can be sold thousands or millions of times but only needs to be written once, and so has the possibility to provide a high financial reward for the same amount of work. He admits that he himself engages in a scalable job and has become quite successful, but he would not advise others to do so. He states that a scalable job is only good “if you are successful; they are more competitive, produce monstrous inequalities, and are far more random, with huge disparities between efforts and rewards…” (pages 28-29). He’s got the disparities right, but the rewards are not always tangible. Writing is extremely rewarding, it just doesn’t always end with financial reward.
Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, gave a TED talk that gets a lot right, but also sends the message that following your passion is not the path to success. His nuance is a bit different than most, because he points out that many successful people end up working in jobs that they had no vision for in advance. Rowe mentions a pig farmer that collects free scraps to feed his pigs and ends up a millionaire and a dairy farmer that uses cow manure to make biodegradable pots that he sells to Walmart and also becomes a millionaire. Rowe points out that perhaps neither of these men “followed their passion” to be farmers, they just simply worked hard.
I’m not so sure that follows because both of the men in question had an innovative idea and both worked to follow that idea to its ultimate creation and success. Their idea was their “passion.” What I presume also is that while these men were tinkering with their ideas they also worked every day at something unrelated to their idea.
And that is what Rowe gets right in the same talk. He says that people in all walks of life and with dirty jobs are often very happy in their work. And if happiness is the final arbiter of your life, then don’t worry so much about financial reward alone, just get the work down and find joy in it. And through it all do what Rowe’s crab fisherman told him: when the seas were rough and Rowe asked him about safety the boat captain said something along the lines of “it’s my job to make you rich, not to make you safe. That’s on you.”
Your happiness in your work is on you and keeping yourself afloat while you follow your passion is also on you. But make no mistake, the creative industry is a multi- billion dollar industry. There is money to be made here at all levels. And no one ever said following your passion was easy, or was unadulterated joy. Even as a successful writer there will be many, many things you will be required to do to make that career a success that you will decidedly not enjoy. Know this going in as well. But if you’re like me and you need to write no matter what, then go for it. What could be more fun? As I’ve said many times, someone has to be a writer, it might as well be you!
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