The Most Controversial Lie of Them All | Bruce Turkel

I’m sitting in the Admiral’s Club at LaGuardia Airport catching up on my emails and reading the comments on my latest blog post.
A lot of you responded to The Five Biggest Lies In Business and most of the comments were directed at point three, “To be successful, pursue your passion.”

Here’s what I wrote:

“This lie is not only untrue; it’s also cruel. But thanks to its siren call, lots of college students study subjects they have no chance of turning into careers and lots of professionals abandon their careers in order to pursue activities from which they have no chance of earning a living.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a design degree and I think it’s great to study the history of comparative religion or the modal chants of the Renaissance. I just don’t think it’s a particularly profitable endeavor. The ugly truth of many “passion” industries – music, art, filmmaking, etc. – is that you may make a fortune but you can’t make a living. Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs presented a wonderful speech at TED on this very subject. You can watch it HERE.

The simple truth? If you want to be successful, don’t pursue your passion; pursue your customers’ passion.”

And here’s some of what you said (there are plenty more comments HERE):

Michael S. thought that the point “about the passion is just spot on.” Gary Press wrote, “I love the passion thing… I always figured I would try to do something I liked AND make the type of living I desired.”

But more people disagreed with the thought that pursuing passion can lead to success was untrue. Herb Ross said, “I just do not believe that passion belongs in the category of great lies.” And Andy Parrish continued that thought: “…the farther away from the money, the more passion will be required to make a living… you need to give 100% of yourself to become successful.”

That’s how it went. Some people agreed with the concept wholeheartedly, some readers applied a modified version of the concept to their own lives, and some disagreed with me because the thought of living a life of passion is so important to them.

I’ve been going round and round with this “lie” and these comments, wondering if perhaps I’d been too harsh. After all, I had no intention of spitting on anyone’s parade, especially when my own life, both professional and personal, has mostly been a pursuit of my passions. Then I read Vilma’s response:

“I’m 100% with you, Bruce, on the importance of seeking a career in what others are passionate about vs. what we’re passionate about. The notion of pursuing one’s dreams is very romantic, but if no one is buying it and one will go hungry as a consequence, I wouldn’t call that success. Yes, it all depends on how you define success but I think people confuse success with happiness.”

How about that??!! “People confuse success with happiness.” That makes all the sense in the world to me. Of course we should pursue our passions (that journey can very well be what leads us to happiness). And maybe, if we’re lucky, we can also make a living doing whatever it is that turns us on. But as Vilma pointed out in her insightful response, and Mike Rowe made so clear in his TED video, pursuit of passion may make us happy but it is not a necessary component of making a living.

Both of my grandfathers came to the United States as little boys and both of them worked very hard to learn the language, figure out how to make a living, and support their families. Nathan found his success in the cleaning business and later in construction; Hy in gas stations and snack bars. Although I never discussed it with them, I’d be willing to bet that neither of them was passionate about those careers. Instead they were passionate about becoming Americans, earning money and providing opportunities for their families.

If they were still around, and if I approached them with my existential yuppie kvetch about not feeling passionate about my job, I can just imagine the response. Despite their long years in this country and the considerable success they both achieved, I don’t think either one would even understand the concept of me not being passionate about my day-to-day labors. And I’d bet that my wife’s parents and grandparents, who escaped to this country sixty some years after my grandfathers did, and spent their time rebuilding their lives and providing for their uprooted families, wouldn’t understand my whining either.

They were passionate about making sure we wouldn’t have to go through what they did. And because of that, they were probably too busy to notice.

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