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The Problem with “Follow Your Dreams”

Is this self-help classic really that helpful?

“Follow your dreams” is an inspirational mainstay, maybe the most commonly expressed inspirational concept ever. It encourages us not to stay content in our safe existence, but to make a leap, to follow the passion that would drive us if we just gave it the chance. The inspirational literature is full of stories of people who left high-paying corporate jobs to teach deep-sea fishing in the Caribbean or to run a bed & breakfast in the Appalachians. These people gave up what, on paper, seemed to be perfect lives to do something that they had never dared think of before, and now are poorer but happier, with dewy skin, shining hair, and a wonderful partner who is a perfect match.

Pardon the sarcasm.

For a while after I graduated from college, I felt completely at a loss about what I was supposed to do next. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, and no real idea what this “passion” was that seemed so important. So I decided I was going to find out what I was passionate about.

I started with writing. I had, after all, always been a writer in the most general sense. I started a writing group, and decided I'd write short stories. After a year or so during which I was never able to finish one short story, I realized: I really wasn't that kind of writer. This was before blogs and other “personal nonfiction” forms became popular. At that time, writing fiction was the pinnacle of the writer's art. I probably could have developed the skill to do it, but I just didn't really love it. I wasn't driven.

Then, I decided I was going to paint. I bought art supplies and produced a few small canvases, which I still have hanging on the wall in my spare room. But after I finished one canvas, I rarely had any urge to finish another one.

I tried any number of other things: collage, gardening, crafts, book design. They were all interesting and could be fun, but none of them were my “passion”. In fact, I still don't know what people mean when they say to “follow your passion.”

I was so obsessed with this issue that several times I took workshops or classes in “finding your purpose," which is another empty concept similar to “follow your passion." The result? More self-awareness, more understanding of what feeds me (nature, a loving relationship, books, music, animals, growing things), but ending up no closer to knowing what dreams I might follow or what my “purpose” is than I was 20 years ago.

In fact, I spent years believing that I was passionate about environmentalism because I equated a strong emotional reaction to an issue with passion. When I realized that I had very little in common with the people who were true environmental activists, I, luckily, stopped spending my time on an issue that tended to make me angry and stressed.

The trouble with the exhortation to follow your passion or dream or to find your purpose is that it implies that those of us who are decently content, albeit not particularly passionate about any one thing, or those who are unemployed or underemployed, depressed, raising kids, or otherwise unable to gather enough resources to start off on a new path, are somehow devoid of dreams, passion, or purpose, are even somehow small people: the “sheep," as I've heard us “non-passionate” people called by those who consider themselves to be more “passionate."

Another problem is the assumption that anyone can just drop everything they've built to follow an interest that may or may not be able to support them. That a single mother, for example, could somehow rationalize quitting a job that pays for her kids' food, schooling, and healthcare, and go make bumper stickers for the local activist co-op. Yes, it would be wonderful to show her kids an adult living her dreams, but maybe not so wonderful to be living out of her car with no health insurance. And what about someone with chronic health problems or aging or ill family members for whom he is the caregiver? Unless your dream consists of working at a job that provides a healthcare and a living wage, most people with these longings can only really afford to indulge them part-time. That's just life, and personal responsibility is arguably more valuable than any vague “passion."

Then there's the completely questionable assumption that there's such a thing as a “purpose” that we have besides living, growing, and loving one another, that sometime before we were born, we were assigned a larger “purpose” and that the thing we're doing now called life (working, connecting, cleaning the house, raising the kids, writing the blog posts) aren't enough. The workshops on finding your purpose are designed to play on modern Westerners' fear that life, which is so often a slog, is the only thing there is. But what if this IS all there is, and it's OK?

I've never been a fan of feel-good aphorisms. They don't ring true for me most of the time, and seem highly oversimplified, not acknowledging the complexity of the human experience. It's popular to post these sorts of quotes on Facebook, usually accompanied by an image of a skinny, scantily-clad white woman staring at a sunset. But when I look at those, I usually roll my eyes. Maybe I should create a series of memes that actually reflect real life:

  • “Do what gives you joy, and then a lot of the time do things you don't want to do because you have responsibilities to other people”
  • “Sometimes life is hard and it sucks, and look at you! You've survived this long!”
  • “You're doing your best: Keep up the good work!”
  • “Sometimes the small moments of happiness are enough.”
  • “You don't need some grand passion if you're kind and self-aware.”

My “passion," if that's what you call my sense of what's important, is to live a good life, which means to learn and grow, to help those around me, to connect, and to be present with what's happening. This takes up much too much of my time and energy to waste any more of it trying to figure out what my “passion” or “purpose” is. And do you want to know a secret? A lot of the time, it doesn't feel very passionate. It feels hard, or boring, or confusing. Or it makes me sad or tired. Then sometimes there's a moment of connection or joy or beauty that makes it worthwhile. I don't think there's any more purpose than that.

It might make more sense to exhort us to "Find Passion in Something You're Already Doing." After all, most of us spend at least some time doing things we love. It may not be feasible or possible to do it for a living, but we can still find the joy and passion in the times when we can do those things. And many of us spend a lot of time doing things we don't necessarily love most of the time (jobs, childrearing, exercising) but know that they're useful in some way. How can we find passion and purpose at those times?

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