Do What You Have To


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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96 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    We should be resolutely working to form an economy and a prevailing social model of childhood-to-adulthood that creates space for everyone to pursue their highest dream, crash and burn, and then fall back to the kind of This-Is-Enough life in the kind of not-necessarily-thrilling-but-one-that-supports-a-decent-family-life job that you describe. That is the only way that a This-Is-Enough life will ever actually be enough for people who are seized with the need to pursue a dream and see how far they can chase it, and the bonus is that it will also maximize the social value out of all the intrinsic motivation that young people charge into life with (often very little of which can be directly translated into boring-IT-type motivation without seeing how far it can lead in the direction in which it initially points).

    This should be doable – there’s great human potential to be accessed on both sides of a person’s run at self-defned success (i.e. pre-and post-failure, treating the rare genuine success as a happy circumstance we can set aside for these purposes). There’s no reason to focus on any loss associated with chasing the dreams that are the product of an intersection of talent and learning and development. Nothing is concluded when a dream has been chased down and turns out not to lead to riches; all that’s necessary not to see that situation as a an irredeemable loss is to change one’s perspective, and to have institutions that don’t give up on a person’s productive potential at that point (and the latter depends upon the former). It’s really not necessary to perceive a problem here at all.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Another point I’d make is that it’s important to understand the difference between the point you are making and the one Tokumitsu is making. (And I phrase know you’re not claiming to simply be endorsing the essay and agreeing with it, but rather giving your own view on the broad subject.)

    Tokumitsu is clearly addressing the class of people who are doing something that makes them well-off financially, either love what they do or have decided to claim to, and are themselves addressing everyone else (or were they actually only ever intending to address graduating classes at Stanford?) who works (for them?), and saying, essentially, you ought to love this job that we’ve given you like it is your personal avocational passion. Her point is that this is completely unrealistic and unfair to the broad masses of people who have made exactly the compromises with life that you, Will, are calling on them to make. They’ve accepted they won’t love their job but they’ve chosen it because it’s reliable or, at least, available, and they’ve accepted the need to do work for pay because they “probably lack the practical and emotional skill set to withstand the vagaries of impecuinity,” as someone once put it. It’s not fair, and it’s actually material harmful in market terms, to then betray the terms of exactly that compromise by expecting them to love the work that’s been accepted in that compromise like it’s a true passion.

    Your point is a completely different one, indeed, I’d argue, nearly unrelated. (Which is fine. But I just want to say it out loud.) You’re saying that people basically have an obligation to be realistic, and in the vast majority of cases, make the compromise that is the premise of the criticism Tokumitsu makes of DWYL. (For the sake of _______ what, I don’t understand. But that’s neither here nor there.) The main thrust of Tokumitsu’s piece, to my mind, says nothing about whether people should pursue work they love or not. What it says is that in the vast majority of cases, in the end, they pursue work that they don’t love (like that), and that, broadly speaking, the employer class should be real about that.

    My view is that if you’re addressing a class of Stanford graduates, then you’re addressing a class of Stanford graduates.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I read the point that Tokumitsu was making as different than you did. What you are talking about is more of the “Love what you do” line of pep-talk rather than “Do what you love.” I take her ultimate point to be that DWYL is primarily an insular ideology among the privileged that allows them to disregard those who can’t do what they love and are more generally living difficult lives (in the case of Stanford grads, they’re doing what they love instead of more actively making the world a better place for those who can’t do what they love). Which is indeed different from my own points. Where I see overlap between Tokumitsu’s POV and my own is the relationship between class and assigning spiritual value (for lack of a better term) to the luxury of being able to fold your passions into your career.Report

  3. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I agree with both of Michael’s points but also think you are a bit on spot as well.

    I grew up in an economically secure/upper-middle class background and my parents if not exactly encouraging me to pursue my dreams, did not quite do anything to discourage them either. They supported my love of theatre. They did not and could not support me like some really wealthy people support their kids but I always had a place to stay during my early 20s when I was doing the unpaid internship and volunteering thing. I think they suspected I would give up and get practical on my own and they were right. My parents also have a bit of an existential and there are no guaranties in life kind of outlook. When I complain about still being a freelancer two years out of law school, they tell me that being an associate is not a secure position and anyone can be fired at any time. You could go into your job and be called into a meeting and hear that the firm is dissolving because it is insolvent after a few bad cases and overextension by the partners, etc.

    That being said, I think the world would be a sad place if everyone was forced to be practical and the arts and humanities were only open to the rich. A moral demand for practicality produces policy solutions like using STEM STEM STEM as a cure-all for all economic woes. Some people are also not practical by nature and it seems cruel to force them to study business/accounting over comparative lit because of a moral demand of practicality. Michael Drew is right in his first comment about what we should be pursuing and can pursue.

    I know a lot of kids from upper-middle class backgrounds who knew from an early age and were seemingly trained by their parents to become upper-middle class professionals and to keep their lives. These kids worked very hard at school and did well but did not seem interested in the material, they were interested in the grade and the grade alone. They went to good schools or a decent to excellent public university and majored in practical subjects like pre-med, various business fields, economics (if their school did not have a business major), computer science, etc. They are nice people but I can’t say we have a lot of interests in common. It kind of depresses me (and it is probably wrong that it does) that there are 18 year olds who dream of being accountants or working in marketing.

    I think I would have been a rather miserable person if forced by my parents and society into white-collar office work right away. I do love being a lawyer and find the subject matter and job interesting. I would not love it if forced to become one right away instead of being allowed to pursue the arts for a while.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      I’ve met someone passionate about accounting.
      He’s a psychologist now.Report

    • Avatar dhex says:

      marketing is a lot more fun than you give it credit for. it is the business of the art of making reality from ephemera!Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW says:

      “Stable income” vs. “do what you love” should not be seen as “STEM vs. arts”. There are plenty of humanities jobs with better career prospects than science jobs, it’s just a matter of studying something that gives you usable skills (if you go into the social sciences, learn stats!). But spending four years and thousands of dollars getting a degree in lit analysis or art history…yeah, that’s always going to be an upper-middle/upper-class thing. The good news is that there’s enough information available that a person can learn about that in their spare time if it’s a big interest for them.

      And I can easily understand someone whose dream is to be an accountant. If a person likes organization and things fitting together neatly then it’s a job that suits them. Not everyone has the personality of a conceptual artist, and not everyone needs to (and we’d all starve if everyone did…okay, that’s not nice, that’s the scientist in me).Report

  4. Avatar NewDealer says:

    “The aspirational ideology is problematic because it designs success and failure in such a way that places a moral or spiritual value on aspects of life that they are particularly well-positioned to pursue.”

    What do you think is an alternative that does not keep people in their place? When I lived with a lot of British people, I noticed that they always locked in their socio-economic class at birth. You are right that an aspirational ideology does have significant problems but are those worse than an ideology that say you were born in a family that does low-paid manual labor and hear you shall remain?

    Maybe it is my upbringing but I disagree with telling people to be content with their birth lot is good. Years ago I read a story about a kid from West Virginia who died in an unfortunate accident during Marine training because he never learned how to swim. The article described the guy as bright and good at art. When he graduated high school, his dad was only able to get him a job working at a Wendy’s. The dad worked at the same Wendy’s. He joined the Marines to get ahead and possibly get GI Money for Art School. I don’t think any of this is a sign of a good society.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I think the primary threat of meritocracy is the notion that not only do you have more powerful and less powerful people, and people with more options and fewer options, but the former believe that they deserve to be there through their hard work and achievements. Which is to say someone who followed their dreams to radical success can think that what they did was follow their dreams while the less happy office schlub did not, when in fact the latter trying to follow the path of the former would… not have been fruitful.

      I’m not arguing that people should be content with their birth. Not exactly, anyway. What I am saying is that we should not be pushing people to replicate our own paths, especially when our own paths are dependent on things that we may have that they do not. For those without the social cushion of class, there are other things to reach for (above and beyond “their station”) without so treacherous a fall. I am excluding a lot of people (most people) from a fair number of career paths, but many at least will have the operation to build a cushion for their own children to try to make that leap, if they are so possessed.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        I generally agree with you. I am at an airport and can’t make a full reply.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Sometimes, replicating our paths make it possible for disadvantaged people to do things.

        The things we apply ourselves too can help others, not just feed our own glory.

        I know a guy who loves water. Clean, clear water. He developed a water filter the military uses and distributes to neighborhoods in need. My husband’s software is used by lots of people in 3rd world countries, and he uses stuff they write in his classes teaching music technology (which is about a lot more than just music, it’s about using technology to connect things together); it’s mostly distributed as open source. People in Eastern Europe knit my designs and sell the stuff they make.

        So while I understand the essence of what you’re trying to say, it neglects the good of diligent dream chasing, and focuses on it as an act of selfishness.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Like I said in the opening paragraph of the OP, I think innovators are great. My experience with them, though, is that they don’t need to be told “Follow your dreams!” because they have a boatload of internal motivation. Sort of like how a writer is a writer regardless of whether he decides to be one. Even if she ends up going to law school or business school, she still ends up writing.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Isn’t meritocracy sort of like democracy; full of problems but better then all the other options.

        People who float or claw or ride the escalator to the top are usually always going to feel they got there due to their own brilliance and hard work. There are of course exceptions who recognize their luck.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        I have no problem with people who find a way to the top having a measure of personal pride & satisfaction with regard to being there. I do have a problem with the ones who seem to be devoid of any obligation to pay opportunity forward.Report

  5. I chose medicine as a career strictly as a practical matter. I knew that I would like it well enough, that I’d be good enough at it to have a successful career, and that it would always be a reliable source of income. I didn’t do it because I loved it. And I do what I love (writing) when I can, and then foist it off on you people.

    And, as much as I love awards shows, little annoys me more than the exhortations the winners will sometimes make to “follow your dreams,” as though simply a pure and passionately-followed dream renders a statuette eventually. When Hollywood and Manhattan are chock full of passionate actors who will never make anything close to a living at it, much less become truly rich and famous.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      I followed a similar path minus the forsight to become a doctor (I probably couldn’t have managed it, I have a hissing relationship with most sciences in classrooms and the bedside manner of a rabid ferret).Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Well, quite frankly, if your dream is to be a whore to get ahead, there are all sorts of places that one can recommend (Academia included).Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      On the other hand, there are plenty of hugely successful actors who also seriously suffered the unpaid and starving artist part of their career. Gene Hackman worked as a doorman until his late 30s. John Hamm almost quit acting because he was unsuccessful for most of his 20s.

      So it is not like these actors are not speaking from experience sometimes.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        They’re also speaking from the perspective of someone for whom there was a massive payout.

        Which is one of the issues I have with TV and movies. A natural bias. Since the writers of these things are writers that have either made it or believe in their cause, a lot of entertainment is geared towards “follow your dreams” as a theme. The people who did what they had to do typically don’t get the megaphone to espouse their practical wisdom! (On the other hand, that doesn’t stop con panelists.)Report

  6. Avatar zic says:

    The whole follow your dream thing is so strange. It’s like so many daydreams of weddings; where the wedding is this big, fluffy, deal, perfect with flowers and guests and music, without much recognition of the planning or the actual act of being married to someone for years.

    A dream that you can follow takes effort. Wanna be a rock star? Then you’ve got to master that instrument, which happens with hours by yourself in a room practicing, not hours out partying. That’s before you even begin applying for the fans. Wanna build a better mousetrap? Then you’ve gotta design it, find funding for it, find people to work with you as you build it, market it.

    The collapse and burn of following your dreams is an audacious part of of the tale; few who set out to be rock stars get to be rock stars, and mousetrap improvements are rare. So when you embrace the dream, you embrace the nightmare, too. The potential that you’ll fail.

    Because being creative isn’t all about sparks of intuition and inspiration, that’s like 10% of the process. It’s about being focused to turn the inspiration something tangible; a novel, an album, a mousetrap. It’s a nightmare of work, of false starts, and failures before you get to something that’s actually real.

    But every nightmare teaches lessons. And one is letting go of the sure comfort. I don’t agree with the bullshit notion that you’ve got to be a trust-fund baby to follow a dream. You’ve got to have persistence, dedication, and resilience. You’ve got to be be willing to risk (as opposed to squander, which is what the trust-fund stuff is hinting at). And you’ve got to be willing to work your ass off, without much in the way of financial reward; often while working a day job to fill the belly. That’s what dreams are really made of, the planning before and the long years after the wedding, not the wedding itself.Report

  7. Avatar Kim says:

    Anyone who says “do anything but be a writer, if you can”
    really ought to spend more time talking to folks like Spider

    The actual writer advice is “Do something Interesting. It’ll
    make your writing better.”

    And you’re wrong about “follow your dreams”–
    you must, you should, you ought.
    But as you follow your dreams, never be afraid to let them burn.
    And recognize that many dreams are small, tiny things.

    Know what you want, precisely, and then learn how to get it.Report

  8. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Will, a lot of the left blogosphere is more on your side than Tokumitsu’s side and believes that DWYL is a dangerous and foolhardy mantra. One issue that people aren’t talking about in the DWYL debate is the distinction between a relatively realistic dream, become an architect, and a relatively unrealistic one, become a Hollywood star. Realistic ambitions are usually achievable through dilligence and an average amount of luck. Unrealistic ambitions require an extraordinary amount of luck to pull off.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      To clarify: I consider Tokumitsu and myself to be on the same side (skeptical of DWYL). And Tokumitsu is a lefty (or wrote for a liberal audience, anyway). This issue isn’t rooted too much in right-left (thought right and left can end up talking about it very differently).

      I think perhaps the best way of looking at it is to look at how most people who attempt it actually end up living. If you don’t mind the prospect of being a starving artist and working retail while you keep plugging away at it, then maybe you’re passionate enough about it to pursue it. If your response to that is that you won’t be that you will be successful, then think twice.

      The same applies to midling-aspirational career tracks like law and architecture. It’s not necessarily the wrong choice, as long as your response to Burt Likko talking about it isn’t (“Oh, that’s not what I’m going to do…” because it might well be.

      There is definitely a distinction to be made between realistic dreams (or what I would call “path dreams”) and unrealistic dreams (“luck dreams”). There are some career paths that as long as you do what is required of you, you’ll be okay. Others, though, are such a lottery (except with weighted balls). That’s a pretty good way to look at it.Report

  9. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Funny how this all seems to imply that your “dreams” are static things, and that a person can only have one dream & they must somehow work that into a career.

    When I was 6, I dreamed of being a scientist working with Lasers. Then I was going to design & build jet fighters & spaceships. After my parents decided I was not academically inclined, my dreams through my awkward & ugly teenage years kinda fell to “be a talented mechanic & hope a not-unattractive girl agrees to marry you”. Then it was go to school to be a Draftsman & work hard in the hopes I could someday get a degree in something.

    Then I joined the Navy, became a rockstar mechanic with dreams of joining the US Navy Divers. But before I could leave for diver training, I got into the motorcycle wreck & all my dreams crashed.

    Then I suddenly had money for school & all my dreams had to re-align, and I worked hard & got into a top engineering program. While learning how to design fighter jets & spaceships with math & computer tools, I picked up IT Administration, along with OOP development in order to make extra money (I had a talent for it, who knew?!). I worked 10 years in IT before I realized that having a talent does not mean I’ll love it.

    So I went to work for Boeing, building jet airplanes. Turns out, aircraft design at a place like Boeing is about as exciting & interesting as watching paint dry. But I had a development project while there that I really enjoyed doing! Hrmmm, time for re-assessment of dreams.

    Now I write tools for a CFD software company where I help our customers do interesting & exciting things in all sorts of industries, including aerospace. I really enjoy my job! It was never my dream, but it is fun!

    As for my dreams… I want to watch my son grow into a man & have a family of his own. I want to grow old with my wife. Maybe, if I have time, I’d like to design & build a WIG. I’d also like to write a book or two. But those aren’t big dreams right now.

    My point? As important as it is to shoot for the stars, it also equally important to be flexible with regard to which star you are shooting for.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      And if you can, shoot for a lot of stars.
      You can be a writer, and a glassworker, and be a professional in something else.
      And make money off all of those — at once.
      Will you make as much as if you just did one? Maybe, maybe not.
      But really, who cares?Report

  10. Avatar veronica dire says:

    There seem to be two separate issues here:

    1. The desire to see universal human flourishing, to the extent it is possible.

    2. The uneven opportunities to flourish.

    The point is, people who wax eloquent about issue #1 are often dishonest about issue #2, insofar as their ability to pursue #1 arises from social injustice.

    And those who are living their type-1 dream lives surely don’t want to face the reality of #2, with anything past lip service.

    So follow your dreams everyone! Just look at me!Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      This is spot on Veronica. The ability to follow one’s dreams is based on either ability to ignore the necessities of life because your independently wealthy or that your just willing to disregard them.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        All due respect, but any dream you can’t live on is a stupid dream (note: no it’s not stupid if you’re not living on it. obviously. write as a sideline, good for you).
        Artists find all kinds of work in “commercial art”.

        Following ones dreams can mean a wide variety of things — anything from writing the best damn engine ever, to saving lives with telemedicine.

        Not all dreams need to be sexy — or big.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        How could willingness make it possible to disregard necessities if they’re actually necessities?Report

  11. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    I’m reading Scott Adams’ new book. Chapter Three is “Passion Is Bullshit.”Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Oy. That’s a pretty good illustration of why turning a concept into corporate-speak is damaging to the actual concept.

      Because passion is so overused as to have become a knee-jerk, often-meaningless phrase. But in my observations, passion about what you do really is what separates the most successful business people from everyone else in their field.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        Or to be more exact, it’s that small subset of people who have passion and the ability to execute that are so much more successful.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Most things in life have both passion and grind. The difference between the folks with a dream, and those who get stuff done, is attention to the grind.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        and the ability to execute

        Hence, the aforementioned bullshitery of passionism.

        I’m pretty passionate about tennis, for example. What I lack is an ability to execute forehands, backhands, serves, returns, volleys, lobs, drop-shots and passing shots. For all my passion, I’ve never made a dime playing tennis. Same with baseball, hockey and golf. For some reason, passion just wasn’t enough.

        Back when I was in High School the counselors encouraged us to pursue academic tracts consistent with our aptitudes and talents on the presumption that people enjoy doing what they’re good at. I think that’s much better advice, actually, if we’re in the advice giving business.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        “Passion” is a symptom, not the etiology, of what those books are really striving to inspire in people.

        Be good at something. Give a damn about doing it well. Care that it has an impact on other people. Take responsibility for it. Take pleasure in your own excellence. Is this “passion”? If so, that word is a label for what is actually a much more complex set of attitudes and aptitudes.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        Kim, that was really well put.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        The basic argument is that:
        1. There’s reversal of cause and effect. It’s easy to be passionate about something that’s working out well for you. He says that he’s been passionate about his business ventures at the start, but that his passion waxed or waned as the business succeeded or failed. Also, people tend to be passionate about things they believe they can do well, and sometimes they’re right.

        2. When someone starts a business he’s passionate about, there’s a good chance he’s letting his passion override his judgment. He mentions that when he worked in business loans, he was told to be extra skeptical of people who were passionate about their fields.

        3. Successful people are likely to attribute their success to passion because it’s more socially acceptable than saying “I’m smarter and/or more talented than you.” “Passion” is democratic, because everyone can be passionate. “Intelligence” and “talent” are elitist, and no one wants to hear that hard work is the key to success.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        and no one wants to hear that hard work is the key to success.

        Huh? Isn’t that sentiment *the* foundational principle upon which American Mythology is constructed? Isn’t it exactly what everyone wanted to believe until it was shown to be false?Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Yeah…people constantly extol hard work as the absolute key to success. Hard work, hard work hard work is where it is at and people tell each other that all the time. The only reason people talk about passion, well mostly, is because it makes all that hard, hard work seem easier, more fun and gives a feeling that success is bound to happen.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Here’s another way to get at the same point.

        It seems to me that according to the conventional definition of “success”, success measured in monetary and social-status terms; an individual is successful insofar as they both choose to and are accepted into a field of endeavor which can yield monetary and social-status rewards; and they realize that entering that field may require them to engage in hard work (measured in long hours, I’m guessing, and not calorie expenditure) .

        So hard work in general isn’t sufficient for success, or (in general) a key to success. It’s usually a requirement imposed in exchange for the salary and social status. In other fields, success is usually determined my being clever, or having good interpersonal skills, or being creative, etc, which is only loosely correlated with hard work.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’d say that hard work is a key to success, and often the missing ingredient. Except when people are following dreams that require a lot more than success. But yeah, it is not in itself a sufficient ingredient.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        Yes, I agree with that. All other things being equal, a person who applies themselves and expends effort to improve the likelihood of their success will be more successful.

        That’s like saying that all other things equal, the person with the greater basic talent will be more successful. Or the person with the better social connections. Or the better behavioral dispositions. Or social grooming. Or better facial grooming – teeth and hair have a role to play here too!Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’d go further than “all things being equal” though and say that the vast majority of the time, it’s out-and-out necessary. Necessary but not sufficient, as my father used to say.

        Where “hard work gets you ahead” does fall short a bit is in the implication that if Person A is further along than Person B it’s because Person A worked harder. Even if it’s the case that Person A and Person B being successful means that there is a good chance they both worked hard, and if Person C didn’t work hard it’s unlikely that they are going to be particularly successful. But if Person D isn’t successful, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t work hard. There are certainly more people who work hard than are what we would consider successful (at least in competitive fields).

        A lot of this is going to depend on how you define success, though. In pure monetary terms, it may not be indicative of hard work if you were born on third base. If you weren’t, though, it’s unlikely you achieved financial success without hard work.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Well, let’s suppose that everyone who gets paid works. What distinguishes regular old normal “work” from “hard work”? In what sense is the claim that “hard work” necessary for success different than the claim that “work” is necessary for success? In what sense are the concepts of success in those two claim ambiguous?

        The ability to do hard work very often sounds like one of those mythic properties that successful people have and unsuccessful people lack. Is it just one of the you know it when you see it things?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        And lest this conversation go to far astray, if the phrase “hard work” is distinguished from regular ole work by implying something like “passion” or “love what you do!”, then we’ve come full circle.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Still, I didn’t say anything like “everyone who gets paid works,” though I did say “a lot of people who work hard are not successful”… which doesn’t seem to correspond with what you’re replying to.

        I did say something like “people who are successful usually work hard.” And admitted that success can be hard to pin down. Hard work can be hard to pin down, too, though even pinned down I wouldn’t directly associate it (and haven’t directly associated it) with wealth, nor a comparative relationship with success (“If Person A is further along than Person B…”).Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Hard work is hard. Passion is easy, which is what makes it the happy, feel-good answer.

        And I assume “hard work” means long hours and staying focused. Unless you’re very lucky or uniquely talented, there’s a limit on how far you can get on forty hours a week.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        And obviously hard work is not a sufficient condition for success. You can dig and refill holes all day long, but no one’s going to pay you for it. Well, maybe a Keynesian.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        What is hard work?
        Working on things you could fail at.
        Taking risks, Figuring out when you’re wrong.
        Not letting yourself be locked in by “what’s always been done”Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        @brandon-berg and everyone else….

        I think you’re all dismissing passion too quickly here. Or, perhaps, you’re confusing “passion” with “fun” or “happiness.”

        Most of the people I know who are the best in their different fields do more than work hard, or work smart. Sure, I know a lot of good, smart, hard workers who put in X amount of hours of work and are more than competent.

        But the ones who are the best are driven in a way other people aren’t. They give up weekends, they give up vacations, they invest copious amounts of time they aren’t in any way paid for, they spend their free time educating themselves about their field, they use their lunch hours not to take a break but to network, etc.

        That requires a tremendous amount of passion; you just can’t sustain that level of commitment without it. It has nothing to do with enjoying yourself or having fun; in fact, it often means sacrificing those things. If the steps it took to be the best was fun, it wouldn’t require passion.

        And you can’t be passionate about just anything. Take someone who makes all those sacrifices at job X and put them in job Y, and more often than not they become that guy or gal who doesn’t see why they should have to come in on the weekends if their boss isn’t going to pay them more.

        (And it’s not even about money. I don’t know anyone at the top of their field that is driven by the desire to be rich. They’re all driven by the desire to be better than everyone else at X.)Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @tod-kelly the meaning of the word passion matters, thank you for pointing this out. While it might include the fun/sex meaning, there’s also the difficult walk, as exemplified most famously by the Passion of the Christ. Blues musicians called it paying your dues; Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in Outliers — putting in the 10,000 hours.

        And @kim, thank you for bringing up risk taking, another thing often confused. We think of risk as drunk driving or too much partying, etc.; not the professional risk, going out in your own instead of keeping the corporate gig, etc. In my experience, the people who become the most successful do both, the transition between self-employment and company job, they change fields, and the pretty consistently produce work worthy of a spot in the resume (music, books, paintings, code) independently of any employer they might have along the way. They generally focus on one thing, but find many ways to apply it.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        @tod-kelly I think most of your comment applies outside of business as well (and, might I add, well-said!!) – but maybe not this part: ” They’re all driven by the desire to be better than everyone else at X.” I know a lot of driven people in non-profit-driven fields whose driving desire seems to be either a) to make something in the world lastingly better, or b) just to be incredibly good at whatever it is without being particularly competitive / comparison based. I’ve known just a few people who really are tops in their field, who don’t seem to have a competitive bone in their body – they simply aren’t interested in what other people do, because that’s attention they would have to spare from the thing that drives them, and from doing the best they can to honor / serve / immerse themselves in that thing.

        There are also some exceptionally driven and successful people in financially lucrative fields, who to any external viewer would exemplify what you say – right up to the point where they reach the level of material security for their family that was the real goal all along. And then remember that their passion for their family exceeds the passion they drummed up to protect them, and they revert to being the “I’m busy, it’s the weekend” kind of person. Not burn out, just reprioritizing. In my experience most of these people come from either dire poverty, or direly dysfunctional childhoods. If you’re desperate enough to be safe, and to keep your family safe, and you have the talent and drive (and sufficient luck and privilege) to invest in something that you really believe will get you there, there are a plethora of careers whose elite will gladly accept you as someone who cares as much about X as they do. Not the choices I’ve made (being the opposite of driven), but I’ve seen people make them. (I don’t think this necessarily contradicts anything you said. But it seems to be rather a special case.)Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        @maribou That’s an excellent point.

        I should say that I skipped a step in what I said there. What I was going for was that those people you look at you are are known for being financially successful — those people others wish to emulate strictly for their wealth, toys, etc., not what they do — you will find that what drives them isn’t a love of money so much as being better than the person they are competing against.

        And even if I HAD said that, your point would still standReport

    • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

      Over on another website, I stated the following:

      In Scott Adams’ latest book, he said that when he worked for a bank, he was told to NEVER lend money to someone who was “following his passion” trying to open a business.

      BTW, was this website down this morning?Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Back when I was working at the restaurant, I found myself in a place where I had something akin to a small piece of heaven. It was a joy to take these cranky, hungry people and watch them become happy and fed in moments. It was exceptionally fulfilling to do that multiple times an hour every day. I was given specials to sell (and the chef was magnificent) so I could share new things and new flavors with people I knew a little bit and I could watch them become happier people, even as I knew I’d see the same thing happen with some of the same people later that week.

    Surrounded by food, surrounded by young people working with me, surrounded by skilled food artisans who would explain why they used dill instead of oregano in this particular dijonaisse, and always an extra loaf of fresh bread to take home at the end of the day?

    Man, that was the best job I had ever had.

    It paid minimum wage.

    I have a less awesome job now. Where the majority of my work used to be “computer administration”, I keep getting bumped into positions where I am doing less and less “computer administration” and more and more “paperwork”. I get more than minimum wage, though.

    It’s not a question of whether the job you take will make you more fulfilled as a person. That’s pretty much on you. The mind is its own place and can in itself make something something. The question comes down to “assuming you can’t scratch all of them, which itches are most important?”

    I know people who have jobs that they love and paychecks that irritate them and others who have jobs that irritate them (but paychecks that they love). They both have reason to envy each other… and they usually do,

    Pity, because they both have reason to think that they’re so much better off than the other.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      It was a joy to take these cranky, hungry people and watch them become happy and fed in moments. It was exceptionally fulfilling to do that multiple times an hour every day. I was given specials to sell (and the chef was magnificent) so I could share new things and new flavors with people I knew a little bit and I could watch them become happier people, even as I knew I’d see the same thing happen with some of the same people later that week.

      I so love this. Thanks, JB.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      I think the message here is, Just do what you want. Am I off on that?

      It’s important to remember that what a lot of people, including people without much in the way of wealth or social connection to catch them if they fall, want when they’re young (and later), is to follow their dreams, to do what they love or are passionate about so that they can love what they do and be passionate about it.

      The question that’s been raised is whether, in a large number of cases, it’s best if someone takes them aside and tells them that they should probably not make a lot of big decisions based on that desire. My conclusion from what you’v written would have to be that you don’t think people should take them aside and tell them that. I wonder if that is what you actually think, though. (Huzzah! if it is, btw…)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I think the message here is, Just do what you want.

        It’s more that there are dozens of things that you want and many of these things are mutually exclusive to people who didn’t start out swimming in cash. Pick a handful of the harmonious options and go for those. You’ll always be able to say “I didn’t get everything I wanted”, whether you go for a high-powered job that gives you enough money to buy whatever you want (and gather dust unused while you’re at your high-powered job) or whether you go for the fulfilling job that gives you evenings and weekends off despite your request to your manager for more shifts.

        It’s probably important for any given child to get all kinds of contradictory advice. I mean, it’s all well and good to say “I don’t think people should give children advice” but if you follow that, you’re pretty much just making sure that the kid gets everybody’s advice but yours.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Okay, but the conversation is more about the people for whom there’s one thing (maybe with lots of sub-possibilities) they know they really want and *think* they’re willing to sacrifice a lot (but perhaps not everything? or perhaps everything!) for… which thing isn’t a sure thing to work out well at all, and may not even have all that much to do with going for one kind of job or another at all, when you get right down to it. How to advise them about that kind of thing that some (a fair number of people) want.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        …Where I think I would agree with Will is that I do think we shouldn’t be confusing kids who don’t have things they want in that way by advancing aphorisms like “Follow your dreams” as the right way to choose a path for absolutely everyone, so that they end up thinking they’re doing something wrong if they don’t feel that way. And if that was as much as he was saying, then we agree.

        But there’s a fair amount of distance between being literally unable to do anything but that thing that you dream of, which is the case he suggests as justifying following a dream, and simply earnestly and ardently (and, you think, at least somewhat realistically) having the dream, which to me is the case we need to think about how to advise correctly, and which for me such an approach does’t give itself as a blanket, “Don’t do it.” For me it’s, “Figure out what you’ll be trading off for pursuing it, and, if you think that the value in the pursuit itself will be enough to sustain that tradeoff even in retrospect, knowing things in the future that you don’t know now, then do it.”

        The problem is, that’s basically an impossible calculation to make. As I say above, Will sees a lot of great loss as being potentially tied up in making the wrong calculation. For my part, also as I say above, I think the loss usually overstated; after all, people are forced to come back from setbacks much worse relating to decisions far less life-affirming than the one to chase a creative dream (thinking like, getting addicted to heroin or having a few too many and losing your ability to make the right decision about whether to drive get obliterated resulting in other people dying, etc. etc… that kind of shit happens all the time to people who make the cautious decision about whether to pursue a risky dream: i.e. there are no guarantees. It’s just like in football, the look on a coach’s face who made an agonizing decision to take the three points rather than going for it on 4th and 3 at the 25 yard line, after the kicker misses the gimme: kickers miss gimmes). Also, as I also say above: we should be working to soften the fall precisely to encourage risk-taking of all kinds (that’s just my opinion, though).

        In any case, having taken exactly the path I’m contemplating others doing (in my case, deciding, against really any reasonable assessment of the odds of success, to go as far as I could toward becoming a professional cellist before making any other moves in anther direction, because there’s only one time in my life when I would ever be within spitting distance of doing so, i.e. after I’d pursued my studies as far as I reasonably could, worked at it as intensively and single-mindedly as possible), I could’t imagine telling someone that they shouldn’t take a chance with the only life they’re given with which to take chances. There are plenty of ways to eventually find your way to a minimally prosperous life that’s rewarded by the joys of family [EDIT: …or at least there should be]. Usually, you only have one shot at identifying something you’re willing to put your youthful all into so as to sculpt a life of your own design and make a small mark on the world in whatever way you find compelling.

        Only a small proportion of our young people ever really form such a vision, though not all of them are so single-mindedly obsessed with it that they couldn’t ever conceive of doing anything but pursue it. For my part, it would actually only be a fairly specific set of circumstances where I would tell a young person with such a vision that they should really reconsider pursuing a dream like that. I would just tell them that they should be sure to be aware of what they were considering giving up for it, and think about it in those terms. After all, a not-insignificant part of the existential value of such a pursuit lies in knowing exactly that.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        That’s a really good comment, man. At the very least, it brings out my more nuanced approach to the issue, which around here tends to be a good thing.

        On a broad level, I feel like if you’re that passionate about it, you really shouldn’t need a pep talk about it. Or, for that matter, my approval or anyone else’s. It doesn’t have to be all the way to “You can’t do anything else” but if you’re passionate it seems to be to be self-encouraging.

        I think about what I might do if Lain comes to me and says that she absolutely has to try to be a professional cellist. Chances are, she wouldn’t get encouragement. But I would like to think that my focus would be on “Well, here are all the things you’re going to have to do…” and “Here’s what will happen if things don’t work out” and as much as I could dig up on the chances of success. I don’t know a whole lot about your path or how it works, so some of this wouldn’t be valid but I hope it gives you an idea of where my mind will be: I might look at hiring people to sit in on a session and appraising her talent, or at least speak to her instructure to get as good a gauge as possible about what her chances were, and that would influence my thinking.

        (And I should say, I would be as honest as possible. Not a “scare straight” lecture downplaying the odds of success or talking about how she’s going to have to sell herself into prostitution if things don’t work out.)

        I’d also try to put as much work on her as possible in figuring out for herself what will be required (even if I already know). This would be directed at gauging her actual level of passion about it. I’d also simply want her to have a plan for what she intends to do, what she is willing to sacrifice, and so on. The thought has occurred to me throughout this thread that a lot of the people I know who have run amok due to their passion for the arts… didn’t have a plan. They just had a lot of talent.

        If after all of this there is a reasonable chance of success, I’d probably turn a lot more supportive if she wants to go to music school instead of getting a more practical degree. If the chances of success are incredibly long, I might turn more towards “Let’s talk about a double-major…” but I would start really working with her on that plan. Helping however we can.

        There are a lot of assumptions baked into this cake. Not the least of which is that she has a mother, who is probably less likely to be as supportive as I would be. It would also depend a great deal on what I’ve seen about her work ethic (the more she takes after her mother in that regard, the more likely I am to support her). So it’s riddled with “It depends…”Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I think about what I might do if Lain comes to me and says that she absolutely has to try to be a professional cellist. Chances are, she wouldn’t get encouragement. But I would like to think that my focus would be on “Well, here are all the things you’re going to have to do…” and “Here’s what will happen if things don’t work out” and as much as I could dig up on the chances of success.

        Actually knowing some professional cellists, I’m very curious what you think this means. Because I’m sensing you’re only including the elite performers with major orchestras in the category ‘professional cellists.’ Not the cadre of professional cellists who teach and perform in their communities. Same with the writers who pump out corporate communication or the painters who put those bulletins and web sites together using their graphic design skills.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I know very little about it, to be honest (practically nothing). One of the first things I would do would be to find out as much as I can. That would obviously influence the questions I ask and the assessments that follow. This is true regardless of whether it is something about which I admittedly know nothing, or something about which I think I might know something (acting, writing).Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Yeah, that’s the thing that really annoys me about how people think about Artists.
        They have this conception that if folks aren’t doing High Art, they’re not going to be
        employed. They may not be /happy/ (I suppose it takes a certain sort to enjoy
        putting together church bulletins), but it’s not like they’ll be working at McDonalds.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        It would be an… unusual time in life for Lain to make that decision. Generallly, I’m focused on youthful decisionmaking here, and would certainly take a more cautious approach for people looking at later-in-life changes in direction.

        Also: this implicates the marriage conversation in an illuminating way, I think. It’s completely different once you’ve definitively linked your future to that of a specific other person, especially if the idea of having kids together is a live one. Then the tradeoffs you’re making aren’t just your own. I suppose this goes to the heart of my caution about marriage generally, and to my hesitancy to make it a tool or even an aim of policy – same for having kids. Not that preserving the ability to make semi-crazy decisions with your life is an inviolate policy aim to protect, but just that the way marriage and kids impacts the ability to do that in a responsible way to me means that the whole area needs to be treated by individuals purely on its own terms, not with nudges that have partially-related policy agendas (even if good ones, like poverty reduction, or “poverty reduction,” as the driver).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        When it comes to kids, I’m very much in favor of enabling kids to follow their interests as much as is reasonable, practical, and possible. She wants a cello and cello lessons, she gets them so long as we can afford it.

        I was envisioning a scenario in which she wanted a cello and lessons, got the cello and lessons, loved it immensely, and was talking of going to music school, going to college specifically to study music, or some other life-altering decision on the basis of her desire to be a professional cellist.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        For @will-truman


      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        …I’m sorry. I got Lain confused with Clancy.

        I wouldn’t have any problem with any part of that approach. Especially in this economy. Part of why I got encouragement was because it was the 90s and people were getting hired for good white collar(ish) gigs with BAs in anything. So I don’t deny that context matters. But a large part of the point is that I wouldn’t give back the experience I had for a good job today. People figure it out eventually. If pursuing something like that is worth it to someone, I agree that they should have a strong sense that it is independently. So I guess the question is what to tell them. I think what you outline would be a great way to approach such a person, especially if it was your daughter.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Yeah. My sweetie teaches at one of those music schools. He codes software, too, using those music skills; they just filmed stuff for the next season of Almost Human using one of his projects.

        Having spent decades living in the college neighborhoods around Boston, I’d suggest there’s a lot more to fear in a kid who doesn’t have a passion, who doesn’t want to go to music school. A lot of people sit on the border of finding a strong internal drive; they give up when the discover something they love isn’t easy. We could do a whole lot better talking about and modeling the habits of success; we too often dismiss effort as natural talent. Part of passion is understanding the field; the potential paths you can follow, like teaching others how to play the cello while you work for that seat in the orchestra or making cool-looking websites while you paint works for that gallery show in NYC.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Zic, I think there is a balance to such things. I would worry about a child that didn’t have any passions. That’s why I am big on cultivating her interests (especially creative ones). There are limits, though, to how far I want them to pursue those interests. It can and often (though not always) does come at the expense of other things. I’d need to be convinced.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @will-truman, For the most creative people I know who’ve lived through their parents’ notion they could limit creative endeavors, the limiting typically increased the drive to create and became a source of discord between parents and child.

        But my concern here isn’t for those kids; as you pointed out in the OP, they’re already driven. It’s for those kids who sit on the fence of driven, who, with just a few words and encouragement at the right moment in their lives, could become driven to excel at something creative instead of becoming cogs.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        But my concern here isn’t for those kids; as you pointed out in the OP, they’re already driven. It’s for those kids who sit on the fence of driven, who, with just a few words and encouragement at the right moment in their lives, could become driven to excel at something creative instead of becoming cogs.

        Here’s yet another shade of difference among kids with creative drive – not exactly the same as either of the groups Will or I have described.Report

      • Avatar zic says:


        Then the tradeoffs you’re making aren’t just your own. I suppose this goes to the heart of my caution about marriage generally, and to my hesitancy to make it a tool or even an aim of policy – same for having kids.

        I’ve had the privilege to know many gifted musicians over the years. The #1 reasons I’ve seen for setting down the ax is marriage, but not children; most often a spouse or life partner who couldn’t handle having their partner in bars all the time. Jealousy.Report

  13. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Good post, Will. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot over the past three years, because at different times I find myself agreeing both with you here and David Ryan elsewhere.

    I’m not even sure how to describe my own place on this spectrum, because I’m clearly an advocate (and example) of someone who traded vocation for lifestyle. And yet there’s no question that the only reason I am able to do this is because I spent almost three decades putting vocation before all else.Report

  14. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    One other quick comment: I think where a lot of people who “follow their career dream” get tripped up is that their dream is an outcome, not a daily process.

    As a guy who played music for years, I can’t tell you how many people I knew who said their dream was to be a professional musician. But for nineteen out of twenty of those folks, being a professional musician wasn’t really their dream — their dream was to be a rock/pop/country star, which is something entirely different. Most of the people I know who really did want to be professional musicians still are, if only part time with a “regular” job to support their efforts.

    And that applies to people with “business dreams” as well.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      And most of the people who want to be a rockstar, really just want a bunch of people falling over themselves trying to give them free sex.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Yeah, that too. There is a seemingly limitless number of people who’s dream job is “to be a writer” even tho they don’t ever actually write.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        The reality of professional writing is frequently not much of an aspiration, much along the lines of the professional musicians @tod-kelly discusses. And unfortunately, trends in the industry indicate that it’s going to get leaner for writers in the future. Those times I’ve looked to shop my writing around I’ve always been offered “the usual rate” for my work, and then only if I assign my copyrights in exchange for the privilege of being published.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        It’s hard to be a published writer, let alone a monetarily compensated writer, let alone an it-pays-the-bills writer, let alone a financially successful writer who leads a fascinating and romantic life filled with adulation and awards. It’s effing hard to do. My point was that I meet people all the time (tho less frequently as I get older) who say they “want to be a writer” even tho they don’t actually write or appear to enjoy writing or feel like they have anything to say.

        What they want is a fantasy.

        Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting a fantasy…Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Sure. I want that fantasy life too.

        But if I’m going to publish at “the usual rate,” I’d just as soon do it here. At least here I can keep my copyrights.Report

      • I love writing. If I had to do nothing but write to earn my living, I would be tickled pink. (The only thing I’d like more would be being paid to talk, an even slimmer possibility.) But since I know that making a living even close to what I make now as a writer is a pretty bad bet, I won’t be quitting my day job.

        But I love writing, mainly because I love the idea that people might enjoy what I’ve written. I write because maybe people will take pleasure in what I’ve produced. Which is why I write here, even though it doesn’t pay anything. Because the satisfaction of knowing that people have read what I’ve written is enough.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      This is a good point. My usual thought of advice to aspiring actors is that they want to be frequently casted character actors and not stars. There is a good documentary on the subject of background/secondary actors in Hollywood that gives a good overview of the life of work-a-day actors instead of mega stars. The title is something like The Guy in that Thing. They should have interviewed some women though for the documentary.Report

  15. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I would suggest that “follow your dream” is perhaps best understood as something other than an exhortation to shoot for the moon. Dialing the aspirational rhetoric back a bit, I don’t feel bad about telling a young person, “Find something to do for money that you’re going to enjoy doing, or at least something that you’ll be able to do without it exerting a psychological toll on you, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it, over and over again. Understand what it is that people in that ‘dream job’ really do, rather than what you see on T.V.” Of course, I’m most directly thinking about the legal profession when I say that, but I think it also applies to quite a lot of vocations.

    It’s just not as fun a thing to say as “follow your dreams!” But I think it’s the best career advice you can give a younger person.Report

  16. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    The biggest thing I learned in my career path over the last year is that even if you don’t like your job very much, you can find joy and satisfaction in doing it well. When you go home from your day job knowing you gave it everything you had, that carries over into your free time and gives you a lot more motivation to chase your dreams, be they career-oriented or something else.Report