Your passions mean nothing. Your passions mean everything.

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’m the guy who told you that you’d better carpe diem immediately because the universe doesn’t care about you, and hey, also, by the way, you’re dying, so you’d better get a move on.

I’m the guy who told you to schedule your fun stuff so that you can have more fun.

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?

Yes, if.

No, if.

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.

Ask:

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.

Go.


Comments

  1. This was crazy Johny!

    Yes to be passion driven or not is a question we always ask ourselves. Its a cliche to say work for something you love. But is Love permanent. I mean wont an Athlete feel some day not to practice his marathon? Wont a singer love to take a break? Or worse go for a sabbatical?

    I guess Passion comes in cycle. At times you are ready to quit every darn thing and jump on what you are passionate about …… and there are times you would have to pull & push yourself to do something which originally was proclaimed as passion. That is the time when your environment manages you. A loud cry of those 1000 fans claim that its worth doing. So before the passion cycle drops down burn yourself for those 1000 fans because when you would be out of fuel they would light you up!

    By the way I now a days meet people who are ready to create passion where the profit is. I think thats outright foolish. My version for a NO NO to passion for these silly chaps is here http://bizdharma.com/blog/does-passion-really-matter-most-difficult-questions-about-passion/

    End of the day I believe its about living your life on your terms. Passion is one of the attributes that come under this

    Cheers
    Himanshu

    • Johnny says:

      Yep, “on your own terms” says a lot about this, I think. There’s an “it depends” for each side of this issue (and I agree about passions coming in waves), and ultimately it comes down to doing what you truly want, not what you THINK you want.

  2. Awesome, wonderful, engaging post. I love that there’s stuff like this on the net.

    I realize you spoke to trusted friends, I realize you quoted Lee, (and not me :P) this is a topic I’m extremely … dare I… Passionate About 😀

    So,
    I’d like to add another dimension.

    Before I get all passionate, let me say that I believe one way or another, we’re on the same page here.

    You finished the article with a punchy:

    “I think that you should pursue your passions. I think that you should follow your heart…Anything is possible.”

    Excellent.

    So here I go:

    “Follow Your Heart” is completely, 100%, rock-solid reliable. In a world of stupid choices, it is the least stupid and with complete reliability delivers results far beyond anything else that professes to deliver results.

    Let’s say your heart tells you to jump off a cliff:

    a) you could come out unscathed, and from that point on have the strength of character to accomplish anything
    b) you could follow the impulse and move towards the cliff, your heart could then tell you to stop – you come out with this crazy story and a deep trust in your intuition, which “tells you crazy shit” but never enough to “harm you”
    c) you could move to jump off the cliff, some hot chick could see you and shout, and you start a deep relationship
    d) you could die — but then Johnny’s already written about this:
    http://johnnybtruant.com/edgework/
    http://johnnybtruant.com/the-universe-doesnt-give-a-flying-fuck-about-you/

    The point I’m making is that IMPULSES and PASSIONS are INSANELY FLUID, they change all the time, are way beyond prediction, and any, and I mean ANY logical analysis of them (this article *might* qualify), is such a tiny piece of the puzzle.

    And looking at a tiny piece of the puzzle (oh, I analyzed everything and NOT following my passion is best), when there’s a broader view available (well, following my passion can go anyway, anywhere, faster than I imagine and change directions before I approach any harm that seems imminent.)

    To bring this home, I followed my passion to:

    1. Quit my job with zero safety net or fallback plan.
    2. Be homeless basically because ‘my girlfriend was scared to do anything else’.
    3. Run my business while homeless.
    4. Write two books that went no where as yet.
    5. Live on High-Street
    6. End up homeless a SECOND TIME (who does that? lol)
    7. Be arrested and go to jail on false chargers
    8. Fail 8 businesses in 6 years.
    9. Lose all my possessions (seen Storage Wars?)

    And all of this done because I followed my passions.

    Did anything BAD happen to me?
    Nope, I haven’t had so much as a cold in all the time. I’ve made more friends, connections and CONTENT than anyone I know who DID NOT follow their passion. I’m closer to my goals and dreams, and even sharing hints of my story opens doors and earns respect and street cred from people everywhere.

    On Monday I was talking to a convict with anger issues. Everyone around him was telling him he was scarred and has a LONG road ahead of him.

    I told him that I saw in him a man who has LIVED life, a man who has experiences to share that can CHANGE OUR CULTURE. I saw a powerful, strong presenced, public speaker, who ditches his thug-wear and settling for telling his story and signing his book.

    His response?

    His eyes lit up, he said “I’d love to have someone write my book”, I told him I’d send him some connections that might point him in the right direction.

    He hugged me and we went our ways.

    My heart told me to do all these things, and I am a fantastic human being because of it, and each of them seemed dangerous, risky, scary, with a ‘price-to-pay’.

    So there’s my 2 cents, I know its long, but hey, passion pours out of me. Hopefully my story can shed some light on things.

  3. Shanna Mann says:

    That was a very succinct article in answer to a question I’ve tried to answer succinctly many times. “Yes, but,” and “No, but” was as far as I got before giving up in a splutter.

    Thanks.

    • Johnny says:

      It’s about seeing all of the variables, I think. It’s interesting how we have to re-learn to think in simple, unclouded terms.

  4. Nicholas Tozier says:

    Hear hear!

    Pro tip: folksinger-style harmonica holders leave both hands free during sexytime. And let’s face it: when you’ve got a harmonica, sexytime is ALL the time.

  5. Every time I’ve followed my heart, the universe has provided in one way or another. Sometimes It’s provided the kick in the pants I needed to move in a different direction… but isn’t that “provision?”

    Until I freed myself of the paralysis of “fear of the unknown,” or rather, when I felt it worst, “fear of the fear of the unknown,” I didn’t live.

    Now I live. Fear still rears its ugly head once in a while, but I can beat it back pretty well. If I walked around fearing I’d be hit by a bus every day, chances are I would manifest that bus. If I walk around saying “fuck the bus” I’m much less likely to be plowed over by it.

    There is no try. Only do. Didn’t Yoda say that?

  6. So very well put, as usual. Thanks Johnny! Life is rarely a clear choice between this or that. It’s about grey areas, which drives black&white thinkers crazy. Which is good, because being crazy isn’t all bad.

  7. Complacency is the killer. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t as important making the move.

  8. When I live in a way that allows me to be a big animal, I’m know I’m on the right path at the right time. I am a big animal, so it’s good.

    “Leap and the net will appear”–this is weighing the pros/cons thing. I’ve always disliked that Pollyanna-gone-zen homiily. It’s like an insurance policy. Truth is, leap and the net my not appear, but the pavement may still be a hell of a lot better than where you were.

    So, leap if you choose to, know it may not always work, and then give yourself permission to change course. And, give yourself permission to change course without calling it a failure.

    The worse case scenario? Staying inside the box. Eventually we realize that staying inside the box may extract a payment that is quite steep.

    Thanks for the passionate blog, Johnnny!
    Best — Meredith Blevins

    • Ellen says:

      Meredith, that was so wise I might just have to tattoo it inside my eyelids.

      I’m a leap-er. Usually it works out well by my standards. I know there are risks. This time, I hit the pavement — HARD — and have been beating myself up over it. But the truth is, it was an incredible journey and the pavement is better than where I was, in a financially safer place.

      Time to get up, rebuild, move on. And NOT call it a failure.

      Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. […] First up, we have one of my personal favorites: Johnny B. Truant. This guy! Oh people, this guy gives it to you straight. He spends a lot of time on what he posts, he’s passionate, and he never sugarcoats. He makes you think, hard. (We know I love things that make me think, right?) For anyone who wants to break out of the nine to five and build your own life following your passion, you need to read this. Your Passions Mean Nothing / Your Passions Mean Everything […]