How important is it to love what you do for work? Should you pursue your passion as your career? When should you go for it? When is it better to keep your hobby as just a hobby? Should you go all in and risk everything? Should you nurture it on the side?
These were some of the questions I began with at the start of this little project.
Fast forward to today, over a year later, and while I’ve learned more, it seems I know even less. But I’ll share some of what I’ve learned on this journey nonetheless.
It’s no secret, my inspiration for interviewing a bunch of people who are doing what they love in life comes from my own personal struggles with this issue. There are certain recurring themes in anyone’s life… patterns that replay themselves over and over… and this one has been one of my biggest repeating loops.
I am not somebody who can just punch a clock while really living for my evenings and weekends. I seem to be wired to need to be doing something for work that I find meaningful. Yet time and again I’ve found it difficult to figure out what that thing should be or how to make it a reality.
I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s that I got somewhat of a late start to this reflection, dropping out of a Ph.D. program and realizing my entire education had sent me down “the wrong path.” Maybe it’s that I have too many interests, and each time I start to progress down a path I feel some other passion is neglected and find myself pulled off course. Maybe I just haven’t found my calling yet. Maybe I’m overly idealistic and my expectations are too high. Maybe all the things that give me a sense of purpose are too difficult to rely on for income when I have a family to support. Maybe I haven’t been patient enough. Maybe I’ve been too much of a sissy and haven’t been willing to really take a risk.
Living in a “land of opportunity,” it has been instilled in me from very early on just how lucky I am. Not only am I not going hungry, I even have a choice when it comes to livelihood. Not everyone does. Many people are born to different circumstances. Sometimes one can’t help but feel selfish in having a desire for more meaningful work. After all, even in a land of opportunity there are a ton of people who have to clean toilets to support themselves. Hell even I’ve had a job where I cleaned toilets.
But where has this gift of choice gotten me? Usually it’s put me in situations where I have a great job, but something feels missing, I feel drawn to finding something that aligns more with a sense of purpose, yet I’m beating myself up for not feeling more grateful for something so many people would be lucky to have.
So that’s the loop. Fifteen years after dropping out of a Ph.D. program, that same loop is still playing.
Which brings us to these posts about real artists pursuing their passion…
I decided on the name “Dream Followers” and immediately regretted it, but I’ve learned that when I insist on perfection, nothing gets done, so I decided to let it stand. This inquiry wasn’t about following a dream, which is often mixed up with people pursuing goals that may be whimsical, petty, or self-centered. Even a noble “dream” connotes some lofty ideal that one would be lucky to have come true. But this inquiry was not about finding people who have made their dreams come true, as in “gotten what they wanted.”
No, I was after something much more grounded, much less self-centered, and far more profound.
Just about all of us have probably at one point or another found ourselves doing something in school or work that misses the mark for us somehow. Something in us tells us “this feels off.” Sometimes it is a subtle feeling, sometimes it is painful. It is a sense of lack, a sense that something is missing.
And my strong view, which has only grown in strength after pursuing this project, is that this feeling is an indicator that you should be doing something else, not for your own self-interest, but for other reasons entirely. It’s almost like a message from the universe that something is out of alignment.
There is a difference between passion and purpose, even though I’ve used “passion,” “calling,” “what you love,” and even “following a dream” somewhat interchangeably. I explored one side of this distinction in Jon Allegretto’s story. And to me, it boils down to the difference between “what I want to be doing” and “what I should be doing.”
“What I want to be doing” is an ordinary desire. If we are chasing some life situation to make us happy or fulfilled, we’re doomed from the start. If we haven’t noticed already, no external situation will ever give us happiness or a sense of peace or fulfillment except maybe for a short while. It doesn’t matter whether that’s some job, or getting married, or having kids, or anything we might happen to want in life. If we want it and think we need it to be happy, we will suffer, to use the term attributed to my good friend the Buddha.
“What I should be doing” is a way of describing the process of following your own inner authenticity. Jon Allegretto said it really well when he referred to his calling as “almost like a responsibility.” Forget the specific outcome, that’s for the universe to decide. But in any moment, you can be acting in alignment or out of alignment with what is true for you.
Out of alignment hurts. That’s the universe’s way of nudging you to get back in alignment. You can be in alignment even if at the moment your job is to clean a toilet when your real heart’s desire is to paint vistas or write the next great American novel.
That’s because it’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about who you are.
What most of us actually want, whether we realize it or not, is not a more fulfilling job, or a relationship, or more money. We want what we think those things will give us… a sense of happiness, a sense of fulfillment, a sense of existential satisfaction. We want inner freedom. We want inner peace, love, gratitude, an open heart, a sense of alignment with what is.
And those are byproducts of waking up and being our true self.
The artists I interviewed all share something really important in common. They are all in touch with this authenticity when it comes to pursuing an inner calling. That’s how they have been able to do what they do. Whether they’ve always realized it or not, it’s about something bigger than them. If it were just about chasing a personal desire, most of them would’ve given up by now. Personal will isn’t a powerful enough force. It always dries up eventually.
How else would Ross have been able to shoot photography for ten years as a side job on top of a full time job and having twins? How else would Jon have demonstrated a similar level of hustle for so long? Where does someone find the strength to hustle that much?
How else would Jen have been able to overcome her almost daily encounters with fear and uncertainty after she leapt into the unknown? How else would Damon have been able to summon the courage to put every last dollar he had into sharing his music with the world, or to take years to move backward in his music ability so someday he could reach new levels?
How would Ali have found her way out of her Dark Period, how would Ross have withstood depleting his retirement account, how would Edward have dealt with his parents’ consistent rejection of his choice of career?
How would just about every artist I profiled happen to have stumbled into a unique combination of professions that allowed each of them to financially provide for themselves while pursuing their soul’s craft, whether that was Jon’s photography enabling his music, Edward’s DJing enabling his acting, Damon’s youth sports enabling his music, Ali’s work in autism enabling her art, or Jen’s graphic design enabling her studio art?
No, personal will couldn’t have accomplished one-tenth of that.
We find strength like this from being authentic and true to ourselves. We listen to a still, small voice inside that impels us to pursue a path. It doesn’t matter if someone does that full time or on the side. It doesn’t matter if they make money from it or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s met with wild cheers and approval or it’s lost in relative obscurity. It’s not about the outcome.
In my own small way, this project has been a microcosm of following that small voice. It began over ten years ago when I first reached the height of confusion about what to do with my life, a confusion that returned over and over again over the years. Even in the middle of the project, I set things aside for over a year without finishing it. I beat myself up for that a number of times, not because anyone else necessarily cared, but because I was attributing it to a lack of follow-through. But the truth was that life had its own course to chart, and in the end things came full circle anyway.
I wish I had done a better job on these amazing people’s stories. I did my best, but I still feel like I came up short and didn’t do the stories enough justice. But again, it’s not about the outcome. Perhaps my intention and effort is enough.
And it’s certainly not about me anyway. All I’m doing is giving voice to something you already know anyway. I’m just reminding you.
Reminding you of what?
Listen to that still, small voice inside. Follow your truth. Not just for your own sake either, but for all of us. Because everyone who discovers the sense of alignment that comes from doing what you love is a living example of the natural freedom that comes from being yourself.
Every individual who shares themselves authentically is a gift to the rest of us.
♦ ♦ ♦