I watched an interview with a millionaire entrepreneur last week who said the key to his success was following his passions for surfing and racing cars. They led him to develop a product line that people all over the world can use. I've heard the "follow your passion" advice often over the past decade, mostly from financially successful people in the Western world, and more narrowly, who live in the United States. When I hear this, I think, "That makes sense." Then somewhere inside me a cracked bell rings. It's not a false note I hear through these recommendations to follow our passions, but a wrong one. It's a wrong note for five reasons.
It's Not Universal
First, this advice cannot apply to most people in world. I cannot tell the mother of a dead child in Syria, the orphan of an Ebola-stricken family, or the Iraq veteran with a life-changing head injury to just follow their passions. Following one's passion is a recent luxury among industrialized humankind. If you are not safe, if you are hungry or ill, if you live inside a war-torn community, circumstances will not allow you to follow your passion, unless that passion is for death and destruction. I can tell you to not let your passion die, to keep a tiny, invisible, and strong fishing line hooked to that passion, so when the time comes that you are well, nourished and safe, you may bring that passion to the surface of your life and let it flower.
A Need for Qualifying Questions
Second, the unqualified recommendation to follow our passion omits the need for discernment. It doesn't address our inherent biases or mistaken thinking. It does not acknowledge that we may have confused our passion for someone else's. The passion must be lasting and strong enough to feed your "will for the deed" when your willpower runs low. How can we know if our desires have that kind of heft? Advice to follow our passion should come with a list of questions: Have I always wanted this or wanted it for a very long time? Does this passion bring out the best in me? Does it bring out the creator in me, or the competitor only? Does it connect me to others in a positive way, or does it set me apart in a "special" way? Does it enable me to care more or care less for the world around me? Is my passion one to serve, or one to control?
Know the Real
Third, this passion needs to develop in profound, physical reality. A friend of mind going through nursing school shared that, after spending time in an operating room, she finds Grey's Anatomy "ridiculous." Food for thought: no matter what we see on large or small screen, we are protected from the smell of it. If every violent movie included the smell of blood and injured flesh, molten steel, burned wood and ashes, people might be much less willing to call them entertainment. There is a difference between seeing and being, between imagining what we want to do and having an opportunity to encounter it, in the flesh, on the earth, in the real sky or the true sea.
Open to Destiny
Fourth, we need to consider not only what we want to do, but what we are meant to do. Purpose leads to passion just as easily as the other way around. We cannot do or have "it all," because we are not meant to, because that would give us a broad, shallow life, not a deep, full one. The inner whisper will not stir us to do everything we want, but what we want most. And, what we want most is often what we are meant to do. It is also often what we feel closest to or think most about in our childhood before the organized world gets hold of us.
Last, discovering what we are meant to do acknowledges that we serve and that there is either a higher and ethical power or a larger cause than ourselves that we need to address in our life and career decisions. Finding what we are meant to do, however, is not only about our life mission. It is also about how we act and serve in the circumstances that confront us, how we respond to what the present moment brings us, no matter how pleasant or distressing.
A group in Syria, called the White Helmets, venture into the rubble of bombed buildings to rescue people. I have no doubt that this is what they are meant to do at this time, and that they are deeply passionate about it. As life comes at us, we need to be just as aware of what we are meant to do in this present moment as we are aware of the future our passion can lead us to as individuals.
A young man stranded at a gas station approached me last year and asked me for enough money to put a couple of gallons in his car. I gave him $40. It's what I was meant to do in that moment. Most parents know they are meant to raise their children into the fullness of maturity, and it is a passion for them. Doing what we are meant to do bring us also into doing our duty--a word that doesn't get much play in American English these days--but that duty can also be part of a great passion.
The Necessary Partnership of Heart and Mind The key at the heart of this discussion is this: is there meaning inside our passion? If we have passion only, a drive without a purpose outside itself, we are likely to enter the lonely world of addiction, not financial success or personal growth.
How can we know the difference between a wild goose chase and a fulfilled life? I think the answer lies in one Spanish word. The Spanish for reason is razón; to be right is tener razón. The Spanish for heart is corazón. Co-razón. They go together. Never let your heart be without reason, nor your reason be without heart. If we receive our inner whispers from both of these essential parts of ourselves, we have a much greater chance of finding the passion that gives our life meaning, and of finding the meaning that keeps our passion for life alive.
PS: I encourage you to sign the petition for governments to contribute funding to the courageous Syrian Civil Defense, the "White Helmets." Other organizations with people following their passions with courage that you can contribute to are: Unicef and Doctors Without Borders. Both address not only the Ebola crisis, but needs of children and adults in many places of danger.