I spent about four hours a few weekends ago – instead of studying and writing a paper about that (in)famous verse in the letter of James, “faith without works is dead” – watching Ted talks about passion. I have spent many years in an anguished search for mine because, after all, the most prevalent and oft-repeated refrain in the “career advice” department is “follow your passion.” You know, like Steve Jobs at the 2005 Stanford Commencement address: “Don’t settle for anything less than work that you love” as but one example of such advice.
One TedX talk starts to challenge the phrase a bit, stating that Generation Y (anyone born between 1983 and 2003) has been labeled “the worst generation” and it’s in part because of the sense of entitlement that comes with being fed “follow your passion” ad infinitum. But then, she ends up affirming it at the end, “refusing to believe” that the answer to all this entitlement is throwing out the phrase altogether. She does mention that passion is a privilege (which this TedX talk embodies well) but still thinks we should follow it, and, after making the obligatory “who are you not to be great?” reference, even (sort of) quotes theologian Frederick Beuchner, who actually said, “the place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.”
Another Ted talk presenter promises, after stating that the past and the future are two things we “absolutely can’t control,” that if we follow our inner child, it will take us places beyond our wildest dreams (which sounds a bit like influencing the future, if not “controlling” it, in my opinion). This Ted Talk presenter owns and operates a housecleaning business and connected her current job to her entrepreneurial endeavors as a child. She does pay tribute to her role model parents, of course, celebrating that she grew up in a safe home that encouraged curiosity and passion but mostly, she absolutely promises that following your inner child will lead you to success.
One thing that really bothers me about the pop-culture advice to “follow your passion” as perpetuated in these Ted Talks (and reinforced by things like Oprah’s 17 Quotes to keep you following your dreams) is the assumptions they make about their audience – namely, that they have the means to turn down jobs (even “dream jobs”), that their childhood was not just about survival and, most importantly, that that people know what their passions are. The woman who owns the cleaning business said that we may have “forgotten” what our passions are; the youngest CEO who wreaks of (white, male) privilege encourages nonconformity as a way of finding what you really love; the co-founder of The Passion Project, in all her bright-eyed enthusiasm, merely offers the same advice – “follow your passion” – but with qualifications about how to do it; another talk by a psychiatrist diagnoses the inability to follow our passions as “getting in our own way”.
None of the Ted Talks that discuss passion or how to find work you love, even ones with some form of “how to find your passion,” have been helpful for me in resolving what has become a full-blown existential crisis blooming from years of cluelessness about passion, vocation and direction. Yes, it’s partly about the loss of childlike wonder. Yes, it’s partly about over-thinking. Yes, it’s partly about getting bogged down in scrambling to participate in a script I didn’t write. It may even help to follow Five Keys to Finding Your Passion. But I’m starting to wonder if we really know what “follow your passion” truly means. One thing that seems clear to me is that it’s not very good career advice and has even been something of a trap. I must look elsewhere (stay tuned for part 2).