Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Three BIG problems with following your heart

This past week I read a terrific article on FastCompany’s blog entitled, “Do like Steve Jobs did: Don’t follow your passions.” The following quotation summarizes Cal Newport’s central theme:

When you look past the feel-good slogans and go deeper into the details of how passionate people like Steve Jobs really got started, or ask scientists about what actually predicts workplace happiness, the issue becomes much more complicated. You begin to find threads of nuance that, once pulled, unravel the tight certainty of the passion hypothesis, eventually leading to an unsettling recognition: “Follow your passion” might just be terrible advice.

Wow. You mean that my parents, my guidance counselor, and my friends were all wrong? You mean that every Disney film ever made—just follow your heart [insert name: Simba, Ariel, Alladin, etc]—was selling me a lie?

Perhaps, yes.

There are at least three BIG problems we face when we try to apply the principle of “follow your heart.”

1) We do not know ourselves

Or, perhaps worse, we think we know ourselves but we really don’t. The 16-year-old who wants to drop out of high school to tour with her band, the college freshman who wants to be an engineer just like his dad, the 24-year-old who wants to quit his job and travel through Europe with the beautiful girl he just met; how are they to know if those passions are good or not? They can’t. The “follow your heart” mantra often causes us to lock in on one passion too early, before we can figure ourselves out.

My 20-year-old self would never imagine himself living in Bosnia working with college students 15 years later. He did not know himself well enough. He still thought he wanted to be a philosophy professor (when we wasn’t still dreaming about an NBA career). When we lock in on our passions too early we miss the deeper passions yet to be discovered.

2) Our passions are often bad and unfulfilling

Just because we are passionate about something does not automatically make it good and fulfilling. I have a friend who is passionate about bacon. I mean, he really loves bacon. What would happen if he devoted his life to it? Perhaps he would be fortunate and invent something like this and make millions. Most likely, he will gain a few tens of pounds and wind up on the street begging for a quarter so he can get his next, juicy fix. Just because we are passionate about something doesn’t mean that it makes for a fulfilling life.

When I am honest with myself, I notice how self-destructive many of my passions are. My over-developed passion for freedom (i.e. the ability to do whatever I want whenever I want), for example, is detrimental to developing healthy relationships. If I pursued that passion and, say, became independently wealthy, I would be free. But, I would be miserable (in spite of an endless supply of bacon).

Some passions are good for us and some are not.

3) We can’t see the future

As humans, we have very limited vision. We do not know what will happen tomorrow, how are we supposed to have the foresight to know what we will want to do 5 years from now? I am not against 5 year and 10 year plans. However, life has more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan movie (back when he made good movies). In my experience, the future looks vastly different than the present. Again, locking in on our passions too early, can give us tunnel vision and blind us to the fresh turns life has to offer.

So, if we aren’t supposed to simply follow our passions, what should we do?

1) Explore your passions

One of the few college courses Steve Jobs attended was a calligraphy class. Not the most likely training for a future technology entrepreneur. However, that one class produced the unique font typing of Apple and still influences it to this day.

Since we don’t know our passions, we need to explore them. Try many different things. You never know how useful they will be in the future. Resist the urge to focus until you are certain of the path in front of you. You might discover an unknown, hidden passion.

2) Do something

When I was dating and looking for Mrs. Irby, an older friend gave me some great advice: You can’t steer a parked car. In other words, don’t expect to find a wife if you are not asking girls out. His advice applies to others areas of life too.

Don’t expect to find your calling in life from the couch in your living room. Get off your bum, go outside, and do something. Anything. You can’t steer a parked car. You will probably find your purpose and passion while doing something else.

3) Trust someone bigger than yourself

My hope for the future is firmly planted in a powerful Creator God who knows the future even when I don’t. As I walk out my life story, he is weaving my successes and failures into an epic tale. He has implanted passions for me to discover. He has a purpose for me to fulfill and a work for me to do. In those black moments when I am unsure, my future is secure—He sees well in the dark.

What do you think? Should you follow your passions or not? 

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