Follow your passion or build your life work?

Somewhere on the way to adulthood I bought into the idea that I should follow my passion, chase my dreams, and do something great in the world.

Those ideas were in the air during the 70s and 80s, the years when I was growing up.

I’m pretty sure that idea didn’t come from my parents.

They were/are part of the “greatest generation,” a group of people that exemplifies almost the opposite viewpoint. Hardworking, do-what-you-have-to-do people, who did exactly that. As far as I can tell, there was no dream chasing in my dad’s career path, unless building a secure and stable life for his family was the dream he sought, because he surely did that.

Wherever my passion-following bent came from, I had it, and it became increasingly more frustrating the older I got.

Why? Simply because “it,” my passion, stubbornly refused to identify itself. By the end of my Senior year of high school I had no hint of what I was “supposed” to do. Though I never said it aloud, I felt there must be something weird about me to make me so clueless. I had many friends who seemed to know what they were going to do with their lives: architecture, music, teaching, and I wasn’t coming up with much.

I wound up choosing a college major I was somewhat interested in and moderately talented at (music) but knew deep down that it wasn’t the thing that lit me up in a good way. {{SIGH}}

On top of that, I grew up in the Christian church.

I constantly heard the stories of biblical heroes, missionaries, and pastors who received a “calling” from God almighty.

Wasn’t that a sanctified “passion” to follow? Wasn’t that what I should expect since I was a Christian, that God Himself would lead me into His calling for my life?

I can see now that I viewed those called-out-ones in the pages of the Bible a bit too idealistically. Some of them (Moses, Jonah, Saul of Tarsus) didn’t exactly pursue their version of a lifelong dream, and once they received their “calling,” not all of them were super excited to follow it.

As a result of all that angst and confusion, I was well into my early adult years before I found what I felt I was truly “meant” to do… which is not what I’m doing to put bread on my family’s table now. But that’s another story.

Is that the way it’s supposed to work?

Did people in the past follow a passion?

Looking at the way those Bible people thought about life and making a living got me thinking. In fact, I’ve been stewing on this one for years.

In the past things worked very differently than they do in our day.

Youngsters typically learned and carried on the family trade, many times carrying it with them as an identification or surname (Smith, Baker, Miller, Hunter, Mason, etc.). In those days there was hardly a dream chaser in the bunch. The primary passions most folks cared about were those of keeping themselves alive and fed.

There were surely exceptions. There always are. But to figure out how things are supposed to be by looking at the exceptions isn’t a very smart way to go about it. The exceptions aren’t helpful by nature of what they are – exceptions.

Those were the days of the ”craftsmen,” people who learned and practiced their trade to the point of mastery and artistry. Long years were spent apprenticed to a master, learning the intricacies and nuances of a craft. It was a job to be sure, but more than a job. The trade became an identity. There was as much pride taken in the exquisite nature of what was made as in the income it produced. Quality mattered. It was an identifying mark of the person.

What about today?

If we humans are meant to “follow our passion,” how do we explain the craftsman of old? Their path into adulthood was not characterized by following a passion. It was in many ways the pursuit of the path of least resistance. In most cases, those individuals took up whatever trade was at hand or necessary, and over time became the best at it, loving it as a result.

That right there might be a clue for us to consider.

Follow a passion OR build one?

Somewhere in my internet wanderings I came across a guy named Cal Newport. He’s been giving thought to these things as well.

Cal believes that career fulfillment and love of what you do come over time as you do the hard work of honing specific knowledge and skills to the point of expertise. Only then do you possess something worth feeling fulfilled about.

Cal is a professor of computer science at MIT. That means he’s really smart. 🙂 When I first noticed Cal I didn’t know he was a professor, nor did I know he taught at MIT. All I knew about Cal Newport was that he’d crafted a headline to a blog post that resonated with something way down inside me.

The Passion Trap: How the Search for Your Life’s Work is Making Your Working Life Miserable.”

In that post, and some others Cal wrote as part of a series, he cites modern stats about job dissatisfaction, chronicles the miserable career journeys of 20 and 30-somethings, and argues that the rise of career discontent tracks concurrently with the rise of the “follow your passion” mantra so popular today. I can attest to its prevalence in the entrepreneurial world. Many of my clients and their featured guests espouse the passion doctrine week after week on their podcasts.

Cal’s position is that focusing on an ethereal passion or undefined dream rather than concentrating on the acquisition of rare and valuable skills, is a damaging and fulfillment-delaying practice. He suggests that a better course of action is to start where you are with what you have available, which would include interests and natural abilities, and begin intentionally acquiring the “career capital” (needed knowledge and skills) to become an expert where you are.

  • Doing so will provide opportunities to advance.
  • It will naturally set you apart from the crowd.
  • And it will open doors that those unwilling to put in that kind of work only wish for.

Sounds like the work of a craftsman, doesn’t it?

One of the most interesting things about Cal’s investigation of this approach is that in person after person Cal interviewed about this topic, doors opened for them as they pursued excellence, and many times those doors led into things they found themselves very interested in.

Am I saying there’s no such thing as a “calling?”

Not at all.

I served as a local church Pastor for 20-ish years, and did so because I believed I was “called” to do it.

I have a long time friend, Greg Stier, who received such a calling way back when he was a pre-teen – at least I think that’s how the story goes. He’s been after that “one thing” ever since then.

So I believe in receiving that kind of calling. And I don’t think it’s always or only a “religious” calling when it happens.

But I’m not sure that’s the norm, or that it’s supposed to be.

Being out of my “called” vocation for over 3 years has shown me that my experience in receiving my calling is not the experience of most people, and that waiting on that kind of calling puts the average person far behind the curve and at a disadvantage in life. And as I look at my situation after reading Cal’s book, I see that some of what he describes is what happened in the path I followed into church ministry. One of the “open doors” was my first opportunity to preach/teach, which revealed some gifts and desires within me that I wasn’t aware of up until that point.

My working theory after reading Cal’s book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” and after thinking through this issue on my own, is this:

The average person is given opportunities by God that will lead into His intended place for them. As they pursue the opportunities that open to them, they will discover any “calling” that may be there. It may come in a flash of realization they actually see as a “calling.” Or it may come through the slow and steady development of skills and expertise that make them into a craftsman.

Either way, they don’t necessarily follow their passion, their passion follows them.

And for most of those people, what they find as they mature is that what they really love about their role in the world is the things it provides for them and their family.

Food. Shelter. Clothing. A lifestyle.

Sounds like my Dad. Sounds like a craftsman.

Sounds like a passion worth following.