Many times I’ve debated — and have asked friends whose opinions I trust — some form of this question:
Is “follow your heart” good advice?
Because you know what? It sounds really compelling. We all like the notion of a kumbaya world where we can do exactly what we want to do, whenever we want to do it. We all really dig the idea that we can, should, and must ditch the bullshit in our lives and pursue our passions. If you’re stuck in a job you don’t like, it’s really appealing to have permission to quit doing it and to take to the road playing the harmonica if that’s what moves you.
There’s a million variants on this theme.
Do what you love. Follow your bliss. Pursue your passion. Turn your hobby into your vocation.
My friend Lee Stranahan says, “If you’re in a job where people don’t thank you for what you do on a regular basis, I think you should stop doing it.”
For most people, all of these usually amount to the same big question: Faced with a choice between doing something you love (which may not pay) and doing something you don’t love (but that pays), which should you pursue?
Speaking for myself, I have two answers to this question:
First of all, following your passions is an incredibly stupid thing to do.
And second, you absolutely must follow your passions, because not doing so is the stupidest damn thing you could ever do.
Let me explain.
Follow your heart
What terrible advice. I know people who say this, but I also know what they really mean, and “follow your heart” isn’t the whole story.
I would never tell anyone that they should always follow their heart. Passions come and go, and the trouble with passion is that it’s incredibly loud. It drowns out lesser preferences and desires. If you only listen to passion, that’s like listening to the one loud asshole in the crowd who’s complaining about the show you’re putting on and ignoring the quieter majority who are enjoying it just fine. If you follow your passions without thinking, you’re listening to the squeaky wheel and giving it all the grease.
Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say you really want to play the harmonica. It’s all you want to do, all the time. It’s your passion, in the purest sense of the word. You think about the harmonica constantly. You wake up and grab your harmonica. You go to sleep with your harmonica in your mouth. You make room when brushing your teeth so that you can play harmonica at the same time. You bought an electronic harmonica with headphones so that you can play it secretly at work. No sexual experience that does not include harmonica is worth engaging in.
So you should obviously quit your job and just play the harmonica all the time, right?
Wrong. Stupid. Because unless you’re very, very unusual, I’ll bet you have other, quieter desires that your harmonica-lust is drowning out.
For instance, I’ll bet you like to eat food. And I’ll bet you like that food to be a step above Ramen noodles on occasion.
I’ll bet you enjoy living under a roof. In fact, I’d further bet that the vast majority of you prefer to live under a decent, clean roof in a good part of town. And I’d go on to bet that well over half of you enjoy living where you are right now, or have ambitions to live somewhere better.
I’ll bet you enjoy your computer. Your iPod. Your iPhone. Your iPad.
I’ll bet you enjoy pleasing any family members you may live with or may support.
In other words, your harmonica passion isn’t your only passion. Each yin has a yang, and each thing you want has a price. Unless you get a harmonica sponsorship or unless Blues Traveller signs you up, leaving your job to play harmonica is going to involve a significant — possibly total — pay cut. Are you cool with that?
If you are, awesome. Quit your job, marry and fornicate with your harmonica, and have fun out there.
But because most people have those other desires too, my guess is that you aren’t going to be cool with it. Following your heart would net you a big win in the harmonica department… but would cost you in a lot of others.
It’s a recipe for a huge, foolhardy net loss.
But, follow your heart
Noticing some incongruity here?
I’d also say that burning your days doing things you don’t care about or don’t want to do is akin to slow suicide. We only get one life, and this is yours. We only get one today, and you’re living yours.
Wasting your life doing things that aren’t in your heart is the stupidest thing you could do. It’s just as stupid as quitting the stuff you don’t like in order to do the things that are your heart.
Before I stop fucking with you, let me just incriminate myself a bit further.
I just finished writing a novel called The Bialy Pimps. (I’d very much like to link to it for you, but I can’t publish it until the cover art is ready.) I’m very proud of this novel. Creatively speaking, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I can’t wait to have it out in the world. I can’t wait for you to read it, because I think you’ll really, really like it. I can’t wait to write another one. I can’t wait to do a few cool things to spread, market, and disseminate this novel and the ones I write next.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is my harmonica.
I’m writing and publishing fiction right now because I’m passionate about it. What other reason could there be? Yes, I might make some money on it, but I’m definitely not counting on it. I don’t expect to become a bestselling fiction author overnight. I don’t think it will help grow the business I’m currently in, because nobody reads a novel and then says, “Hey, that was great… let’s buy some of this guy’s info products!” And I’m certainly not planning to abandon what I’ve built in the business/blogging/rule-questioning space to follow my new bliss, because I like it a lot here.
I’m doing it because I want to do it. Because it’s in my heart. Because I think about it all the time and because I can’t not do it.
Ditto the Badass Project conference I hosted last week. Someone asked me why the team and I went to all that effort when there’s zero financial or business gain to be had from it. I didn’t (and won’t) make a cent off of anything the Badass Project does. I got some good exposure and connections by doing the conference, but that was a side effect. At root, and at its inception, I work on the Badass Project because I’m passionate about giving people props for saying, “Fuck you, world… I’m going to do this whether you think I should or not.” I’m passionate about making people who blame external circumstances for the crap in their lives feel like douchebags.
I think you should ditch the meeting to go to see your kid’s dance recital. I think you should tell co-workers you can’t work a certain time because you want to go see a movie. I’ve said that my mission statement in life is to “do cool shit with cool people.” I believe firmly in the doctrine of dicking off.
Passion. All passion.
So… now what?
Passion is overrated. Passion is underrated. Following your heart is usually a stupid idea. Not following your heart is the stupidest thing you could ever do.
You can believe all of those statements, because very few things in life are absolute.
As always, it comes down to self-awareness… and that means knowing which questions you’re really asking.
The question isn’t, “Should I follow my heart?” It’s “Should I follow this particular aspect of this thing that’s in my heart, now, in this way, in full awareness of both the positive and negative consequences that may or may not arise from my decision?”
Almost nothing is as absolute as YES or NO, regardless of qualifications. I say “It depends” a lot. You know why? Because it always fucking depends.
So, should you pursue your passions?
If you’ve ever asked that question in its naked form, you either aren’t paying much attention or are afraid of taking the scary, decisive action that might come from a legitimate answer to a legitimate question.
So, if you can get a handle on your fear, I’ve got something for you to try. The next time you’re trying to decide whether you should follow a passion, ask yourself five questions.
The first two are:
1. What do I have to gain by following this passion?
2. What am I losing by not following this passion?
These two are easy, because it’s what’s being screamed in your ear by that internal voice. That voice knows all the reasons why you should quit your shitty job and go play harmonica (#1) and it has many pushy opinions about how staying in your shitty job is sucking the life out of you (#2).
But then, keep going, and be honest.
3. What am I gaining by not following this passion?
Think really damn hard about this one. Be honest in both directions, meaning that you’ve got to truthfully come up with things that you are gaining from staying right where you are even if you don’t want to admit it (self esteem, the perception of safety, the feeling that there’s safety in numbers) and that you can’t exaggerate the importance of not rocking the boat on your current situation (i.e., your job is not keeping you alive, and it’s pretty unlikely that it’s literally keeping a roof over your head unless you have no friends or relatives who would house you if there was no alternative).
Frame these things in the positive, because you’ve got to see the good in the situation, not just the bad in the alternative. So if you think that quitting your job would have you borrowing money and that would embarrass you, reframe it. Say that your current situation protects your dignity and makes you feel respected.
The next question is the hammer. Pay close attention to it.
4. What’s the price of following this passion?
Everything has a price. EVERYTHING. The price of a normal job is forty to fifty hours per week, a defined salary, and the need for approval of your actions, among other things. The price of playing harmonica all the time for no pay is that you may (may!) have to live in your parents’ basement and have no spending money and be called a loser. Everything has definite and potential upsides, and everything has definite and potential downsides. You’re going to pay the price for whatever you do, so make sure you’re okay with the price you’re choosing to pay.
There’s one more. And this is where things get really fun.
5. Are there other ways to get to where I want to be?
In other words, question the rules, because everything you’ve carefully reasoned out in questions 1-4 may be moot if you find an alternate way to satisfy your passion. The price may be far less in size, and far more appealing than you’d imagined.
I was talking with my buddy Benny Lewis yesterday. Benny travels. Like, that’s what he does, essentially for a living. He goes to different countries and he immerses himself in the local culture and he tries to learn the language. He’s from Ireland, but he really only goes back for Christmas. Everything he owns, all together, weighs fifty pounds. He’s a true nomad.
Benny said that people tell him all the time that they wish they could do what he does. And Benny told me that his response is, “So do it.”
But people don’t think they can do it. They’ve decided that the “price” of doing what Benny does is different from its true price, because they’re “pricing” a traditional, inside-the-box model. Benny’s model is outside the box. Most people think of travel as consisting of an expensive plane ticket, a week or two in a hotel (which is usually expensive), and then all sorts of other vacation expenses. But Benny doesn’t fly in and fly out. He flies in and stays for months. That’s several plane tickets a year, not several a month. He rents a place for the long term. His current place in Taiwan costs $300 a month. And if that’s too pricey? He couch surfs, and gets his accommodations for free.
Benny told me that most people have this mentality that says, “Work hard, save up a big chunk of money, and then travel the world.” But if you hack the system, you can start now. With just a bit of planning, you could do what Benny does for a pittance. So don’t wait. Travel, and earn that pittance as you go along.
The bottom line
I think that you should pursue your passions. I think that you should follow your heart.
…if, that is, you decide what it’s going to cost you, and decide that you’re honestly okay with paying that price.
Anything is possible. The only questions are how, where, when, and at what cost.
Following your heart isn’t bad. Staying where you are isn’t bad. What’s bad is inaction. Malaise. Inertia. Apathy. Unconsciousness.
Decide, then do.