Follow Your Dreams! (Over a Cliff)


I came across this thought-provoking video from Mike Rowe about following one’s passions. The gist of the video can be summed up in a great takeaway line:

Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.

Be sure to watch the whole thing before going any further.

The idea that Mr. Rowe is trying to convey is that oftentimes our passions (in the colloquial sense of dreams or desires) are a poor indicator of what is attainable or feasible, especially as it relates to one’s career. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, but I also wanted to expand upon this idea, as a 5 minute video is simply too short to explore this concept.

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As kids we were taught, as George McFly of Back to the Future aphorized:

You put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

And as Mr. Rowe notes, we are constantly being told to follow our dreams, to pursue our passions, etc. The idea is that, on an admittedly superficial level, if we want something badly enough we can have it. Passion in this case forms the driving energy of accomplishment, as well as provides the justification for any course of action.

And of course, there is nothing wrong per se with having dreams or having a passion for something; the difficulty, as Rowe’s video illustrates, is that passion is not a guarantee of attainment or success.

It’s easy to misunderstand this concept, as many of the commenters on the YouTube page do, either intentionally or not. After all, following one’s dreams is so much a part of the American ethos (and even mythos) that we tend to bristle at the notion that our dreams and passions may not be indicative of what we should do or even can do. We want to think that McFly is correct, and that putting our mind to something can call it into existence. The alternative, it seems, is to relegate one’s existence to not reaching one’s potential, to settling for second-best, to work at a soul-crushing job until death ends the misery.

False choices are always popular.

If one’s dreams and passions are not necessarily indicative of what is attainable, then what role do they play in what we pursue, the careers we strive for, etc.? Is there a good place for them to fit into what we make of our lives?

I think there is, and I think Rowe’s video is a good jumping off point. If we recognize that following one’s passions doesn’t mean one won’t suck at that thing, then where do we go from there?

1. Passion is not eternal

It is interesting to me (and probably only me) that we tend to use the term “passion” for the things we most desire. Etymologically, the word passion comes (via Old French) from the Latin passio which means “to suffer.” It only took on the meaning of “desire” in English when the Latin was used to render the Greek pathos. The idea is presumably that a passion is a desire that is so strong that it metaphorically burns like a fire and must be quenched.

It is our itch that must be scratched.

It is perhaps appropriate that we use passion for the desires that drive us most. When we have dreams for a specific career or that thing we want to devote our lives to, it can take on the aspect of suffering; it can drive us forward and cause us to engage in some sort of action. In this sense passion is an important aspect of our constitution as human beings.

The difficulty, however, is that passion in and of itself does not reveal the goodness or reasonableness of any particular course of action. In this sense it is a blind emotion, a desire that desires for its own sake. And like all emotions, it can be extremely fickle.

One thing I think that we all eventually discover about our passions is that they are not forever. They actually seem to change with appalling frequency and are- if we are honest- often tremendously conditioned by our state in life, our age, etc. They also tend to vary considerably in intensity and over time.

The conditional nature of passion makes it a useful thing to bring to what one is doing, but can often be an unreliable guide in making decisions. Oftentimes our passion can direct us towards something good, but when it comes down to specifics and the practical outworking passions tends to fall short.

When I was in my final years of college if I were to describe my passion, it would have been to go to graduate school and study historical theology. I know that probably sounds really lame, but at the time it was a passion that largely consumed my interests, my time and my future plans. I did everything I could to prepare for what I thought would be my career path as it aligned with my passion; I studied a lot, I applied for tons of schools, wrote all the essays, looked into getting money, got lots of advice, etc. To me it seemed at the time that I would never want anything else.

But then reality stepped in and made mince meat of all my plans. I got into the schools I applied for, but I didn’t have any money. And it would have been ridiculously expensive, on the order of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to go all the way through to become a professor. To be sure, things might have changed along the way, but to me it seemed as if the universe was playing a huge joke on me. I couldn’t understand how I could have this burning passion to do what I thought I was meant to do, but then run up against such mundane things as money. It felt almost dirty, like I was being forced to sacrifice something noble for something ignoble.

As I watched my dreams fall apart, I was pretty devastated and spent the next year essentially pouting. But as I eventually got away from the pain of the disappointment, I began to find other opportunities present themselves, if only I was willing to take them. I was still not happy about it, but as I began to apply my effort in other directions, I found something remarkable begin to happen.

My passions actually began to change.

And as I developed other interests and skills and allowed myself the space to try out other things, I noticed that the itch didn’t itch so much, and other things began to become more important. As I moved into my current career I found that the passion didn’t actually die, but it did modify somewhat. I discovered that while I am still very interested in the things that revolve around that passion, it was not necessarily something that would have been a good career for me. As I now think about the track I was planning to take to pursue it, I am often grateful that life (and providence) got in the way. I also now find that I am still able to pursue the passion on my own; it just took some time for that passion to be purified so that I could find out exactly what it entailed.

2. Passions are rarely specific

Dovetailing off of the previous point, many times we have to realize that our passions are usually pretty vague; they don’t often give us a specific road forward. This can be frustrating in that it can leave us with no idea of how to fulfill that passion, but it is often better because it means that there are a lot of ways to fulfill one’s passion.

In my own life, I had never planned on getting involved in graphic design and animation. While I dabbled in it a little bit while I was in school, it was certainly not something I was thinking was going to be my career. As I was studying theology I had (at the time) no doubt that this was what my passion was and where my future career lay.

But as I worked my way through my frustration and disappointment with not being able to pursue theology in the way I thought I had to so as to be fulfilled, I began to learn that I could actually apply it in far more ways than I ever thought. While I have a lot of different kinds of clients, I tend to do a lot of work with churches, ministries and the like. I would have never even thought that my training in theology could be used in such a way, but as I have developed my career more and more I have found it an invaluable asset. It lets me speak the language of my market and helps me develop things that work in those contexts. It even helps me to bring differing perspectives to non-church related work that, while not religious or theological in nature, nevertheless benefits from all the things I have learned, the things I am interested in, etc.

In a similar manner, after I got out of college I thought for a time that my passion was now going to be for music. I was wanting to be involved in that on some level or another, and so I worked hard at that, searched for jobs in that space, etc. Like with my former passion, I thought this was now the one that was going to take me forward, and if I couldn’t do that then everything was for nothing.

Well, things never worked out with that, but like with theology, having that musical background has helped tremendously in my current career and I end up using it on a daily basis. I have also found that I am always able to play music on my own, with bands at church, etc., and so am able to still pursue that passion, just in different ways. As I have gotten some distance from the disappointment I often find myself relieved that it didn’t work out, because I am now able to pursue it for the pleasure of it, rather than having it tied to the stress of it being my job.

The more specific your passion is, the more fleeting it is likely to be. But oftentimes time will help you realize that a passion isn’t necessarily tied to one job or even a career; sometimes it can be brought to bear on things or in situations you would never have thought of. That realization actually gives nobility to passion, because rather than something that is so tied into one thing that if it doesn’t come to fruition it is all for naught, it can be something that transcends the fire of the moment and be something which brings lasting satisfaction.

3. Opportunities can develop passion

It is easy to see passion as something which arises in a vacuum, as if it somehow emanates forth from the depths of our being. When we combine it with the rhetoric of being a “dream” or a “calling” or “what I’m meant to do,” it can take on an aspect that is more substantive than it really is.

It is natural for us to want there to be some sort of transcendental nature to our passion, since it can give us a feeling of purpose or of rightness. And so we often tend to think that passion is not only unrelated to the mundanity of life, but somehow stands in opposition. Thus, we tend to present binaries between a “dream job” and a job, between following one’s passion and the drudgery of the working life.

But the reality is that most of our passions are developed within and out of our experiences; they don’t usually just pop into existence. The things that you do, the people you know, the experiences you have all serve to draw out latent desires and something even kindle new ones. Sometimes passions don’t develop until we begin to be involved in something or until information we didn’t have previously is assimilated.

Because of this, following one’s passion can be a short trip to disappointment, especially the more emotionally (and financially!) invested one gets in the pursuit of that passion. There is nothing wrong with striving towards something, but it is usually a mistake to allow (as we have already noted) a usually temporary and generally vague passion to form the guiding impetus of our actions. We are not simply our desires, but as reasonable beings need to bring reason to bear on our passions, to judge and determine a course of action that is for the good. That is not something that passion can illuminate.

The danger in following one’s passion exclusively (as Mr. Rowe points out) is that it can actually cause you to miss out on other opportunities. If you are so invested in the one thing that at the time you think will be fulfilling or complete your dream, you may have a diminished ability to perceive different opportunities that may in fact either be the path to fulfill that passion or which may- by pursuing them- draw out and develop other passions that are more within reach and which are more fulfilling.

Passion at the time seems like the end-all, and the disappointment that its deferment brings can be crushing. But since it is so intimately related to our emotions and often such a fleeting thing, it is almost always the wiser course to rely more on reason to adjudicate the good than to abandon all to follow a passion.

After my own career disappointment, I mentioned that I pouted for about a year. That may be overstating the case a bit, but I did have the sense that since I couldn’t pursue my passion in that way I thought I had to, there was nothing left for me. In truth this was kind of pathetic; I was only 25 or so and had my whole life ahead of me, but I was allowing this one experience to cast a pall over the entirety of my future, and potentially missing out on even better things.

At the time I was working what I thought was just a job, and for the first six months or so I was kind of miserable since I was still in pouting mode. But as the pain of disappointment subsided and I started to grow up a little, I finally decided- as Mike Rowe suggests- to bring my passion to what I was doing. Nothing about the job actually changed all that much, but my attitude did, and that made all the difference. And because I was bringing all I had to what I was doing at the time, eventually what I thought was just a job began to open up a lot of opportunities.

Most importantly, my head was finally in the right place, enough to be able to see those opportunities as they came along. Instead of pouting over my disappointed passion, I was able to try new things. As I did, I noticed that my passions started to shift, and I found that I was able to do things I’d never thought about doing before. Eventually a new passion that more strongly coincided with what I was doing formed, enough so that I eventually decided to pursue that. The more I did, and the more I poured myself into what my career actually was, the more I discovered a passion for it.

That didn’t mean there were no challenges, but it did mean that I was able to approach opportunities with a greater sense of openness, to see my disappointments not as a blight on my life or a rebuttal of my passions but rather as a necessary correction to them.

4. Passion requires a lot

I think there is a pretty widespread notion that following one’s passion is somehow the easier road. This is probably because it is often contrasted with soul-sucking drudgery of a j-o-b. But I think we tend to have this idea that pursuing our passions, landing the dream job, etc., somehow is effortless once it comes about.

It’s easy to see why. When you think about doing something you love to do, the thought of getting paid for it and doing it as your career is very attractive. It is certainly easier emotionally to do something one likes to do rather than doing something one hates or finds tedious. However, I think too often we tend to perceive these things in snapshot mode, having a mental picture of the dream job locked in a moment in time, which we then extrapolate into the future.

It is certainly a good thing to make a career out of what you like to do and are good at. Having them coincide is a great way to be successful, however one ends up getting there. However, the truth is that when you follow you passion, or even when you land the dream job, it is going to require a lot of you.

To be successful at anything ultimately means a lot of hard work. We all know people who are excellent at what they do, and when they do it they make it seem effortless. And likely they love to do it as well. However, we usually only see the end result of someone who is living their dream; what we don’t see are all the long hours, sacrifice and hard work that go into bringing that about.

If you really want to follow your passion or get your dream job, you can pretty much forget about working a forty hour week. Success usually means that you are working harder than anyone else and that you are working when no one else is working. You have to always be learning, practicing, experimenting and even failing. In this sense passion can be an asset since it can give you the fire needed to keep going even when things get hard and you are bleary eyed from lots of late nights and early mornings. But being passionate isn’t enough; it has to be accompanied by lots of hard work.

When I was beginning in the field of design I felt like I had perhaps some latent creativity, but I quickly realized that that simply wasn’t enough. I was fired up to launch into this career, but the emotion simply wasn’t sufficient to propel me anywhere. As creative as I thought I was, I knew I initially had a very small well to draw from. As skilled as I imagined myself to be, I knew there were skills and techniques and processes I had yet to learn, let alone master.

Within a few years I had improved remarkably, and my passions had shifted enough so that I truly felt I was working my dream job. But it required a lot from me; lots of extra hours, lots of late nights and early mornings and all nighters, constant learning, constant failure. There was nothing else I would have rather been doing, but there was probably nothing else that would have been as demanding on me.

I have been doing this for just about a decade now, and sometimes I look back on my early years and shudder at the aesthetic drivel I inflicted upon clients and the world. I never realized at the time how far I had to go, but in retrospect I can see how far I’ve come. The experience also helps me to realize that I still have a long way to go yet, and the same formula is always in place.

The paradox of following your passion is this: The more passionate you are about something, the more it will require of you. Yet as demanding as it is, there is nothing else you’ll want to do.

Part of the pursuit of one’s passion is realizing this dynamic. You passion will never be fulfilled unless you work harder at it than you will work at anything else. The amount of work required is a blessing, however, as it is wonderful at helping one discover if a particular passion is actually something one really wants to pursue. It can be surprising how experiences and work can begin to mold our passions and illuminate things that we might not have realized otherwise.

5. Passion needs a plan

The emotional force of following one’s passion can make it seem like if one wants something badly enough, the pieces will fall into place. Life is usually pretty helpful about disabusing us of this misconception.

An important thing to learn about passions is that they need to be tempered.

In my life I have had my share of disappointments and frustrations. Things that I thought I wanted never came to fruition. I had to change directions or “give up” on a dream because life got in the way. After while the sting of disappointment goes away, sometimes in moments of introspection there can be those gnawing “what-if?” moments?

I’ve eventually learned the hard way that passion- for all its usefulness and importance- needs to be tempered. That is, I need to avoid allowing the fire of that passion be the driving force in anything I do. That is not to condemn passions bad, but as reasonable beings we are meant to use our minds to guide our emotions, not the other way around.

This can seem like we’re back at the beginning, settling for second-best or signing on for a life of drudgery. However, this is where the other sense of tempering comes in. When you temper metal you reduce its hardness so as to increase its toughness. If a metal implement is too hard, it becomes brittle and more prone to breaking; however, with tempering the metal can take a lot more abuse.

Passion is often best tempered by identifying what the passion is aiming at and then developing specific steps to achieve that passion. The step-by-step planning seems dull and boring and antithetical to the fire that passion brings, but in the end the flexibility that specific steps afford to passion make it much more likely to come about.

If you are passionate about something, don’t just leave it as a vague notion. Identify concrete realities in which that passion can be manifested. Oftentimes you might discover that your passion can be fulfilled in ways other than the obvious one; that is, it might be that your passion isn’t a specific job or position, but rather is something you can bring to bear on lots of different situations or positions or is even something that can be gotten at more indirectly. But however you end up there, make a plan to get there. Look at different steps that need to be taken to get there, and make sure they have a timeline associated with them.

Your plan of course needs to be tempered by reality; as life happens, you may need to modify your steps. You may also find that the path you are on ends up taking you somewhere else entirely. Be willing to explore new opportunities and to adjust your plan as needed.

Having a plan allows you to actually harness your passion and direct it in specific directions; just vaguely chasing after a passion will inevitably mean it is the one holding the reins.

In my own career I have ideas and dreams that I would like to see happen in the future. But over the past decade I have also discovered that if I am not taking specific steps towards something, I am by default taking steps away from them. So now as I think about the future I am doing so with far more intentionality and purpose. This involves both steps that I am wanting to take, as well as ones I have decided I am not willing to take.

As an example, for quite a few years my dream was to strike out on my own as an independent designer. For quite a bit of that time I sort of just had this vague idea that I’d like to do it, but never really did much concretely about it. After some years, however, I began to take the idea more seriously and thus began to take steps to make it happen. It meant being more intentional about the relationships I was developing and the clients I was taking on. I had to learn how to manage my time and money. I had to seek out opportunities as well as be open to ones that came along.

And, of course, it always meant that I was working really hard and a lot!

Eventually I had to come to the point of making the leap, which as a moment of decision seemed like a snapshot of time but in reality was undergirded by years of work, planning, more work, learning, even more work and finally choosing to go one direction and having an idea and a plan of when that time would be right. Over all that time there were lots of opportunities that didn’t pan out, missed chances, failures, things I would do differently, things I didn’t expect, things I expected that didn’t happen, and a host of other things.

But having a sense of where I was going as well as milestones of what getting there would look like helped me to stay on track and to be flexible enough when life disagreed with my plans. All those experiences have helped me to have a more tempered view of my dreams and my plans, which doesn’t water them down or entail me settling for something less, but rather makes them stronger and allows me to have a better chance to reach what I am reaching for.


I think Mike Rowe summed up everything here well when he states:

Never follow your passion, but bring it with you.

Sage advice, that.

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