Do you like your life? Are you where you want to be right now? Are you living where you want to live? Is your job a good match for your interests? Are you fulfilled?
In the Fall of 2012 my answers to most if not all of the above questions were “no”. Then my wife Jammie and I made some drastic changes (we quit our jobs, traveled the world for a year and found new jobs that we liked better.) I can honestly say that my “no” answers have now switched to “yes”.
Some would say that the reason I can now say that is that I “followed my passion”. I don’t agree. “Follow your passion” can be horrible advice if it is used as an excuse to avoid hard work or the inevitable pain of growth in an area (even an area that you love).
At the recommendation of my uncle I just read a book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work Love. The author, Cal Newport, argues full-force against what he sees as a “follow your passion” epidemic where people obsess about pursing work and a life they are passionate about. Calport says people spend their lives hopping around and feeling unfulfilled because they never quite find their passion and they never invest in any job enough to gain the satisfaction of mastery. I think he makes a good point.
Although I definitely believe that you should lead a happy, meaningful life, I want to add some major caveats to the “follow your passion” conventional advice:
Do some careful planning – I get nervous when people hear our story and use it as a justification to think they should quit their job on the spot, throw caution to the wind and pursue what they supposedly love. I admire courage and going for what you really want but there are good and bad ways to pursue passion. Thinking that you can get by on passion alone is crazy. You need a plan. Jammie and I planned financially for our move for several years. As in we put aside money and laid the groundwork for more revenue streams. We also made sure that we had job opportunities that we could take when the time came for a longer term (1-2 years) relocation.
There’s nothing wrong with doing things just for the money - Unless it is unethical or your work makes your miserable, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being practical and doing things just for the money. My dad gave me excellent advice when I was about to head out to college and thinking about how to create an income stream for pocket money: “Just get a job. Nobody cares what job you have in college, just get something so you have spending money.”
So I sucked it up and took unglamorous jobs at the university cafeteria (one was particularly horrible and involved walking around in a huge freezer at 6:00 AM). It worked and I was able to finance what I really enjoyed: hanging out with friends and traveling. After a year of working in the food service I found better work as a news and PR writer for my remaining three years in school.
Be prepared to not like a lot of what you do – Even great work is work. And there are parts that are not fun whatsoever. Jammie and I love freelance writing, for example. We are good at it and we like the writing process. But a lot of the related tasks are less cool: finding the business, chasing late payments, writer’s block – I could go on and on. But this is part of it. I recognize that but I am not even vaguely tempted to try to go get my old job just back because there are parts of my new life that I don’t like. Reality is messy. It pays to understand that and have some patience.
Stop trying to find yourself – If you don’t feel like you are living a life that you are passionate about it is easy to freak out and wonder why you “don’t have direction”. One of the most common things driving the travel industry is people out there traveling the world and trying to “find themselves”. With all due respect to the “Eat, Pray, Love” crowd, that is a very flimsy mission. Recognize that life is fluid and that interests and passions evolve. Life is a process of discovery and there is absolutely no point spending your days mourning your lack of absolute certainty in life. If you are miserable about your life direction, start taking steps to correct course but realize that absolutely bliss is not going to manifest. I am much happier for having planned and executed a lifestyle reinvention but I certainly have my moments of doubt and soul searching.
I will always have more dragons to slay. There will always be course corrections to make when I misstep. I will always feel like there is something better just over the horizon. But I am not going to be anxious about the fact that I haven’t arrived. Nobody ever does. I just want to focus on taking the best “next step” possible.