Follow Your Passion? Maybe Not


The advice given too often to jobseekers is to “follow your passion.”  Looking back now on my 40+ year career as I approach retirement, it is not advice that I followed, not even when I had the chance to reevaluate my choices mid-career. Nor is it what I would necessarily counsel others.

When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, “following my passion” never even occurred to me.  I majored in computer science partly because I was good in math and not good at writing, and partly because I thought it would lead to a good job out of college.  I was focused on being able to support myself.  Doing the things I loved, such as folk dancing and museums, was for my free time.  And it worked.  I have had a successful career in the IT/business world without a graduate degree.

I was was in my mid-40’s when the company I had been working at for 15 years closed down. This gave me an unexpected prompt to re-consider my career choices.  My passion at the time was the arts, and a significant part of my evenings and weekends were spent going to the theater and museums, watching dance, or hanging out at jazz clubs.  I took evening classes and read about the history of art.  I read reviews and critiques. I sought and found those transcendent moments when art is most powerful, when it reaches the soul, when it makes life a little more worth living. I decided to find work that was more meaningful to me, that contributed to society in some way.

I wasn’t going to suddenly become an artist, of course (I didn’t have the talent or the interest).  But I wanted to join and support the art world by moving into arts management.  I used my computer skills to do several volunteer IT projects for arts organizations, and I joined the board of a dance company.  These activities enriched my life, allowing me to meet people with very different views, interests, and lifestyles from the business people that I spent every workday with.

Inspired by them, I investigated what a career in the arts might look like. I spoke to people in the field to learn how art organizations work, and how I could find my place in one.  Contrary to what I expected, these conversations ended up convincing me that in fact I wanted to stay in IT and in the business world after all.

Why? Working in the arts would mean working just as hard or harder while making much less money.  More important, while the end goal might be more meaningful, the day-to-day activities would not be so rewarding to me.  I saw myself becoming a fundraiser, whether full-time or as an inevitable part of any other role I could take.  I just couldn’t imagine a life dedicated to getting more people to give more and more money.   This was not what I thought pursuing my passion for the arts would look like, and ultimately I didn’t think I would be very happy.

Instead, I chose to continue working at something that I enjoyed and was good at (but certainly not passionate about) – while making enough money to give more to the organizations I care about.  I re-confirmed and found peace with the path I started on, of doing something that I like well enough and finding opportunities outside of work to do the things I love.  Knowing that I had now made a conscious decision to do something rather than just going down a path because it was easy and practical helped me find the things I like about what I do.  It certainly helped that my next job was exciting. It opened new vistas within my chosen career: new areas of IT, new industries, new methods of managing projects, and larger-scale projects.

Since then, what I love doing and am passionate about has grown, deepened, and changed over time.  The arts are no longer quite as central in my life as other interests have grown. Somehow, despite the work pressure I often feel, I have found the time for the things that are important to me.

There are also many things that I like about what I do.  Through my work, I’ve learned, and continue to learn, a lot about technology, about how organizations succeed, how the world works, who I am, how I can change, and more.  I’ve enjoyed working with many bright people. I’ve discovered that I have a talent for mentoring, an activity I find deeply rewarding. I’ve been continually challenged.  And, in my own small way, I’ve helped to open doors for women by doing things and reaching levels of responsibility that only a small percentage of the women of my generation did.

Today, I am at the stage where my friends are starting to retire.  They ask me whether I wouldn’t rather be a lady of leisure.  The answer: No way, no how!  I still like what I do well enough and want to continue to stay engaged with people and challenges and learning on a day-to-day basis.  I especially appreciate the opportunity to meet and work with people of all ages.

So, if I may give a bit of advice: For those of you who have a passion you want to follow, more power to you!  But for those of you who don’t have a specific passion, or who think following your passion will require too much sacrifice to be worth it, or who don’t think you have the talent to succeed at your passion, or who simply don’t want to follow your passion for whatever reason, don’t worry about it. Just find something you like doing, a job you are happy to go to most days.  And find time for whatever it is that you are passionate about.


Image: Le bonheur de vivre (“The Joy of Life”) by Henri Matisse (1906)

One Comment

  1. Meredith Watts

    This is similar to the advice my friend Susan Tuohy gives young artists who are interviewing with her for jobs in the Scene Shop at the Opera or Ballet. Think about whether you are going to enjoy the activity. Many times, a job painting at the Opera Shop means covering a huge slab of plywood with a particular shade of gray. If you don’t want to do house painting, look for some other job.

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