Updated on 10.21.14

Some Thoughts on Following Passion

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, Mike Rowe (perhaps best known as the host of the Discovery Channel television series Dirty Jobs) posted an interesting essay on the subject of following your passion. In fact, it was interesting enough that it popped up all over the place on social media sites.

His central point is that passion alone won’t bring you success in the field of your choice, which is something that I certainly agree with. However, he carries it a bit further than that, stating that the advice to follow one’s passion is inherently bad:

Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?

He goes on from there:

“Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence – while most often associated with success – are also essential ingredients of futility.

And:

That’s why I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

I have mixed feelings about what Mike Rowe wrote here, so I thought I’d walk carefully through my own views on passion and how they intersect with careers and the need we all have to earn a living.

What Passions Are

Before we get started, I wanted to talk a little bit about what I view passion to be, and by doing that, I’ll end up discussing some of the things I am personally passionate about.

First of all, in my eyes, passion occurs when your enthusiasm or desire for something is great enough that you’re compelled to do it without compensation, when others would insist on compensation for the same thing. In other words, if you enjoy something so much that you would do it for free, you’re passionate about it.

I’m that passionate about writing. There are few moments in my regular life that fill me with enough internal pleasure than getting lost in writing. When I get so absorbed into putting my thoughts down on paper or on the screen that I lose track of time and then I suddenly “snap out of it,” I feel incredibly fulfilled on a personal level.

I often feel this way when I’m reading a book that really clicks with me, or playing board games with my friends, or when writing computer programs. I also often lapse into this kind of state when spending time with my immediate family. I can feel this way about exploring the wilderness, especially when I’m observing the wildlife or looking for something (such as geocaches or morels). There are a few other events that can trigger a burning passion, such as competing in sports or watching an exciting sporting event, but it’s relatively rare.

Naturally, if you can find a way to make money based on something you’re passionate about, that’s a sweet gig. That, to me, is the real American dream.

The Problem with That Picture

Mike Rowe does a pretty good job of spelling out the problem with this picture.

To put it simply, people pay for skills, not for passion. You can have all the passion in the world, but if you don’t have skill, people aren’t going to pay you for it. It just isn’t going to happen.

I have always been lucky enough that I’ve had enough skill with my passions to earn money with them. My first post-collegiate job tapped into my passion for computer programming. Today, I can tap into my passion for writing as a way to earn an income. In both of those cases, I tapped into something I was passionate about that also coincided with at least some level of skill. I don’t claim to be a great computer programmer, nor do I envision myself a great writer by any stretch of the imagination, but I can write a program to do the things I want (for the most part) and I can get my ideas across with the written word.

Still, we’re stuck with the core problem. People pay for marketable skills and talent. Passion might make those skills and talents really shine, but passion alone does not create them.

So, how can a person “follow their passion” and still make a living if their passion doesn’t happen to match up with an obvious way to earn an income? There are really four separate things you can do here, some of which Mike overlooked.

Build Transferable Skills That People Will Pay For

In other words, you should be skilled in areas that can find employment in a lot of places. Don’t overspecialize. At the same time, at least some of those skills should be transferable to as many fields as possible.

For starters, you should try to choose an area of study that leads to a lot of potential jobs. In fact, I’m going to suggest something that might surprise some people: unless you are quite passionate about a specific field with strong employment opportunities, you should strongly consider going to a trade school. Become an electrician or a plumber or a carpenter. As long as buildings are being built, these types of jobs will always find employment with a solid pay rate.

If you do choose a specific field in school, try to choose a specific path that opens as many doors as you can. Add a teaching certification to your studies. Add a second major so that you can see work in either field. Be diverse.

What about transferable skills? This website offers a great list of these skills. Those skills should be all over your resume because they’re valuable in almost every field. Find ways to build these skills, particularly in ways that enable them to be added to your resume.

This is the exact career advice I’m giving to my own children already. Try things. Figure out what you’re naturally good at. Hone those skills. Add some transferable skills to the mix. If you find your passion and it happens to line up with your skills and healthy employment opportunities, chase that. Otherwise, get into a field with lots of employment opportunities that either uses your natural skills or is something that anyone can do with adequate training.

What if you’re already in a tight career field? Get training in another field. Take evening classes so that you can move into a career path with more diverse options. I’m reminded of my mother-in-law, who moved from a very narrow field (she had a very specialized skill set that basically linked her to one employer anywhere near where she lived) to nursing, which has many opportunities for employment, by taking evening classes. She was in fact taking those classes in the evenings when I first began dating Sarah and then moved on to a successful nursing career from something completely different.

Find Ways to Use Passions at Work While Plying Your Skills

If you follow the first step, you’ll have a job that pays you at least somewhat well. You might not be following your passions, but you should be using at least some of your natural talents and skills.

Once you’re in that context, keep your eyes open for any and all opportunities to use your passion at work or in that career path.

What kinds of projects come through your workplace? Do any of them brush upon your areas of passion? What about projects that other people and companies in your field are tackling? Do they parallel your passionate areas?

If you’ve involved yourself in a field that has lots of employment opportunities and you’ve also built some transferable skills, you’ll have some flexibility in your field. You may be able to jump to another employer who is doing something interesting. You may be able to convince your boss to let you work on a particular special project.

What if there’s nothing in the pipeline that even looks close to your areas of passion? Be patient. Look for things that people are doing anywhere that merge your field of expertise with your areas of passion, then do what you can to prepare yourself to be able to do that should the opportunity present itself.

You might not ever be able to work exactly in your area of passion, but you can certainly merge your skills with some aspect of your area of passion. The possibilities there are limitless.

Devote Your Spare Time to Your Passions, Not Time Wasters

I try very hard to spend my evenings and free time on the things I’m passionate about. I’ll get lost in the pages of a book. I’ll gather a bunch of like-minded friends and play a mind-crunching board game with them. I’ll come up with some sort of crazy project and do it with my kids (and my wife). I’ll work on writing a novel. I’ll work on an iOS app. I’ll learn about something new or try out a new skill.

To me, a great day is one where I get lost – even if just for a little while – in one of my passions where I lose track of time. I’m not doing it for cash; I’m just doing it because I love that particular activity. That is a key part of any great day.

Does this mean I’m magically going to make money from that board game I’m playing? Very doubtful. What it does mean is that passions are a part of a complete life. My life is better because I spend some of my spare time diving deep enough into my personal passions that I lose track of time.

But I don’t have time to do that! Many people come home and spend their time… well, wasting time. The average American watches five hours of television per day and more than an hour of internet usage for pleasure per day. That’s a lot of time.

I’m not suggesting that a person completely cut the cord on their television, but if that average American cut their internet and television time in half, they would have three more hours a day for their passions.

The point? Find time. Look at what you’re doing each day. Of those things, which ones are genuinely more important than investing an hour or so into something that truly makes your life better? Does Sportscenter or The Big Bang Theory trump that?

I devote a block of time each evening – usually from about eight, which means the kids are in bed, to about ten or so – to some specific passion of mine. Often, I’ll devote a healthy portion of my Saturdays and Sundays, too. Most of those times, I’ll get lost in whatever it is I’m passionate about until I’m literally interrupted from it.

That experience makes my life better. It is perhaps the single biggest key in my life to keeping melancholy at bay.

Share Your Passions

Now, here’s the kicker. This is the big part that I felt like Mike Rowe was missing in his essay.

People love passionate people.

Few things make me happier than seeing someone else engaged in something that they really care about in a positive way. I love seeing someone engrossed in a book. I love hearing from someone who is really excited about that book and wants to tell me about it. I love it when someone who is truly passionate about something takes the time to share some aspect of that passion with me.

That’s cool. In fact, in my eyes, that’s about the coolest thing a person can do.

Whenever I listen to a podcast or watch a video on Youtube or read a blog or take a class, most of the time, I’m bumping up against a passionate person, a person who really cares about whatever it is that they’re sharing. That positivity is infectious and enjoyable. It comes through.

For the most part, those people are earning money simply from sharing their passions. They’re not usually experts in their field of passion. They’re ambassadors.

Youtube is full of ambassadors for various passions. So is the field of podcasting and the blogging area. Some businesses hire people with passion for customer relation purposes.

How does this happen? It’s just people sharing their passions.

The Simple Dollar started as a way for me to share my passion for writing by using my own story and the joy I was having in figuring out how to turn my financial life around. I shared it with a few friends. Within a few years, the site was popular enough that I was actually able to leave my primary job to work on The Simple Dollar, earning ad revenue money and signing up for lots of other related projects.

One close friend of mine started a side business of buying and selling trading cards out of a room in his basement. This allowed him to spend his time sorting and organizing cards and trading them with others, something he deeply enjoyed. It’s been a major part-time gig for him for years, which has enabled him to only “work” part time in his community at another job while still, overall, making a great salary. He found a way to share his passion for these cards and the social connections it has built for him and make money from that.

Another friend of mine makes a living from his Youtube videos and a related podcast. What does he talk about? He talks about his own experiences playing games. That’s all. He makes a living at this.

What do all of these stories have in common? All of us spent our spare time on something we were passionate about. We took a chunk of that spare time and channeled it toward sharing what we were passionate about. People were attracted to that passion, which opened up opportunities for each of us. In each case, it took a long time – years of trial and error and sharing and many failures along the way. But, in each case, we made it eventually. The passion for the topic is what kept each of us involved.

Beyond that, most of my closest friends were discovered through my attempts to reach out regarding my passions. I sought out others who shared the same passions that I have and, over time, I’ve built close relationships with many of them. My life is a better place for having found these people.

It shocks me that Mike Rowe overlooked this. It certainly seems like he is passionate about trade craftsmen. He’s not an expert at any particular trade – far from it. Yet, he took that passion for trade craftsmanship and basically made a career out of it. That’s what Dirty Jobs was, in essence. Dirty Jobs could have been made as a YouTube series by two people and a camera (or even one person, for that matter). Perhaps it wouldn’t have had quite the same production quality, but it could have had the same passion and wit – and, honestly, that’s the attractive part of it.

Whatever it is that you love, find a way to share it with others. It’s a great way to build relationships. It can often earn you some income. Sometimes, it can even find you a job that lets you earn a living from that passion.

Final Thoughts

Whatever you are passionate about, find a place for it in your life. For me, at least, one of the big reasons for working is so that I can secure space in my life for the things I’m passionate about. I work to live, not live to work.

Maybe you can find a place for that passion through your primary job or your career path. Perhaps you can find a way to get there in a parallel fashion by finding ways to share it in your spare time.

It doesn’t even really matter whether you’re highly skilled or not, just that you’re passionate about some aspect of it. (Skills help, of course, but it’s not entirely required – look at Mike Rowe’s “skills” at the jobs he did on Dirty Jobs.)

That’s not really necessary, though. All you need to do is to find room in your life for the things that make your heart sing. If you can do that, your life will be in a better place, period.

And One Last Thing…

So, why have this discussion about passion here?

Passion is a big reason why personal finance is so important to me. When you have control over your money and you’re spending less than you earn as a natural matter of course, lots of good things happen.

For starters, you no longer feel an overwhelming stress in your life. Back in the dark days, I felt absolutely tied to my job. Every decision there felt stressful because I needed that job. Our finances were so precarious that losing that job would have been a complete disaster, and a mis-step at work could have caused that firing. This caused me to be constantly stressed about my job for years. It made me often choose “safe” choices at work, which meant that I spent less of my time doing the things I was passionate about and more time doing things that grated at me. It also made me take on extra things that I didn’t want to do, like travel and handling weekend emergencies.

The end result of that experience is that I came home feeling dead inside. The stress just ate me up. I was often happy in the evenings to just sit there staring at the television. Because of that, I lost touch with many of the things that I was passionate about.

As our finances improved, I felt substantially less stressed. I began to realize that if I lost that job, we’d be okay, at least for a while. Our debts weren’t closing around our necks. We had an emergency fund. That paycheck was important, sure, but if I messed up at work, it wasn’t going to end us.

This led to less stress at work. That led to less stress and more energy at home. That led to my ability to start rediscovering my passions, particularly writing, but also reading and some other things. That led to my launching of The Simple Dollar because so many positive changes were happening at once, and those changes were led by our financial turnaround.

Being smart about my money was at the core of everything. It gave me the space in my life to rediscover and dig into the things that I was passionate about, and the ability to do that has helped my life in virtually every dimension.

Remember, always remember, that you should work to live, not live to work, and living is best exemplified by falling deeply into the positive things that you’re passionate about, whether it’s hiking in the woods to find arrowheads, reading deeply from books, or anything else.

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