The concept of turning your passion into a vocation, making a living doing something you love, easily generates two opposing viewpoints. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a privileged upbringing, but it depends on the perspective. I had the freedom to explore a variety to activities to help nurture my mind, soul and body. As a kid, I explored computer programming, music performance, acting, summer camp, karate, Little League baseball, and even tennis lessons. This alone is enough to make people less fortunate scoff at the futility of my time while growing up. I could have lived in a developing country where kids have no choice but work so their families could survive day-to-day.
In an effort to develop artists, one recurring theme always present in my activities was the idea that life provided endless opportunities. There was no need to be resigned to an unsatisfying job, working for money rather than soul satisfaction. With enough education and practice, everyone would have a chance to find a way to earn money doing something with passion, an activity that was more than just “work.”
To characterize the two perspective, one would say that everyone, at least those with sufficient resources, can find a way to sustain a family while pursuing a passion completely. The other perspective takes the position that following a passion is a luxury and most people would be better off finding a job that pays the bills right away and looking for passion elsewhere, like with hobbies or family.
I wrote about pursuing my passion six years ago. I mentioned that I was stuck in a rut and was still trying to determine what my “dream job” would be. I went on to spend five more years working for a corporation in a job I had little interest. At the time, I didn’t really consider Consumerism Commentary a business. I didn’t consider it my passion, either. I never desired to be a writer or a publisher, but an interesting theme running through the last twenty years of my life has been building communities, particularly online, and that is a bigger passion for me than writing.
With a less personal approach, I suggested starting the decade off right by doing something you love.
I wouldn’t have been able to pursue Consumerism Commentary if I wasn’t already meeting my baser needs. I started this website after I had already started moving in the right financial direction, with a new income at a corporate job ready to help me pay off my debt and save for the future. If I had been struggling to find affordable shelter and scrounging for food, I’d have greater concerns than finding a web server.
When considering the idea of following a passion, particularly if that passion doesn’t naturally coincide with a potentially high-paying career like mathematics or engineering, I find that Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an appropriate metaphor. Following your passion is related most to the top of the pyramid, self-actualization. All the issues pertaining to the levels below self-actualization must be met before a quest to reach one’s full potential can be moderately successful. Because of these pre-requisites, paving one’s own way to create a successful life that doesn’t rely on typical social structures (like corporations) is rare.
Once physiological needs like food, water, and shelter are met, the next needs pertain to safety: having sufficient finances, job security, and health security. A good portion of the middle class doesn’t really get past this stage of needs. Living paycheck-to-paycheck keeps the lower middle class unfulfilled. The upper middle class may not have money that could be used in an emergency other than the wealth locked in the value of their primary residence, or those who do have emergency funds would not be able to live off savings for a year to pursue a financially risky endeavor. The working class relies on employers and rarely sets out to build their own business, again due to risk.
To get past this second stage, you need to be in a position where worrying about finances is unnecessary. When there is little concern about whether you can afford to fail, you have the opportunity to try different approaches to life-sustaining pursuits of your passion.
In my work with non-profit organizations, I noticed that many people involved with activities were not in a financial situation where they needed to worry about finance. If the organization failed to provide a paycheck one week due to the company’s negative cash flow, they didn’t start a riot. If you’re “independently wealthy” the paycheck from one week to another is not the main concern, and you have the ability to take some risk in order to spend the bulk of your waking life working with your passion. If you’ve retired from your former career and just looking for a good way to spend the last few decades of your life doing something meaningful, and if you’re done raising a family and paying for a house, you have the flexibility to work for little or volunteer without concern about moving up the corporate ladder. If your spouse brings in the money and you’re only working to keep yourself from going insane alone in the house, your options are wide open.
When I was working for the non-profit, I was in a significantly different financial position, and this was a message I had some difficulty getting through to the executives. Then again, why should I receive preferential treatment of any sort when the rest of the employees were happy with the poor financial situation within the company. In the end, I made some sacrifices in my living situation and other expenses to make things work a little better, but I was also sacrificing my future financial stability. My following a passion early on in my career, I was skipping over the more basic needs like a safe living environment and financial security while seeking higher-order fulfillment. It didn’t work out so well for me.
While it’s good to persuade young students to follow their passion — and this is a great topic for motivational speakers for adults as well — it’s more important to look at any particular individual before condoning leaving reason behind to search out a living following a passion. For some, the risk of financial failure could be a good motivational tool for bringing about success while following a passion, but for others, it’s nothing more than false hope and results in a delay in building a solid financial foundation.
Updated September 27, 2011 and originally published September 26, 2011.