Follow your bliss. Chase your dreams. Pursue your passion. Three ways of framing a single enjoinder, and one promoted to children and adults as a rule for avoiding servitude and securing joy.
What’s unstated is what comes between the rule and the joy, for no one thinks that simply from adopting a rule they can transform their ennui into euphoria. “I’m following my dream,” as a statement, explains something about how you’re living. But it leaves much unsaid.
The rule has come in for much criticism, in so far as it is presented as career advice. Passions change, it is argued, and therefore make unstable foundations for lifetime endeavours. The mere pursuit of a passion does not provide, on its own, food or shelter. Bliss does not imply talent. To pursue a dream successfully is inevitably to make a job of it.
Follow the money
The critic’s alternative is always a form of follow the money. We’re brought up to want wealth, and we see wealth in the way that accountants see wealth. Rather than pursue what you love, and hope that you can make it pay, why not pursue what pays, and hope to love spending the money.
Passion proponents have a response: if in your working life you chase what attracts you, enough money is almost certain to follow.
Critics see in enough low self-esteem, in almost a chasm of unhedged risk, and in follow a failure to face the truth that when matters.
I embarked upon a dream-chase when those were less fashionable, dropping out of university and preparing a lifelong experiment.
Little to lose
The experiment was informed by a book I had borrowed years earlier, when still at school. It claimed that a determined individual could forge a career in whichever field pleased him.
I set up the experiment mainly from desperation, for jobs were scarce at that time and my prospects as a lethargic former student were bleak.
I hadn’t chosen lassitude. It was just that my will to study had been overmatched, and by my wish to do almost anything else.
I had been reading classic novels, bequeathed to my household by a former resident who had majored in literature. I found it enlivening to propose to myself that I might write for a living. I felt as though I had little to lose.
Life as an experiment
The ambition seemed toweringly tall. I was too old to apprentice myself at a newspaper, and anyway those slots were scarce. My abandoned degree had been in engineering. I might never write a novel worth reading.
Framing my quest as an experiment soothed me. The hypothesis advanced by my borrowed book may have been optimistic, but I had not been gulled by it: this was a test.
I resolved to get by with small sources of income that weren’t very distracting. A call-centre job. Unemployment relief.
I would submit articles to the magazines that I read, most of which celebrated the riding of motorcycles. I would teach myself to touch-type, and I would write some short fiction.
Two results from the early years of my testing stand out in memory.
A key difference
First, I learned quickly that the mere visualising of the dream I was chasing did not get me far.
Just as the passion-critics propose, my resistance to studying became resistance to writing.
But as passion proponents mainly omit to emphasise, my pursuing a passion nevertheless made a difference.
At university, I had experienced my resistance as impregnable: a brick wall.
My experimenting led to my tearing down that brick wall.
I submitted articles. I learned to type. I wrote some short fiction.
Double my earnings
Second, within five years I had joined the staff of a small magazine.
The indelible detail from my being offered the job was the salary proffered. I had been living on unemployment relief for more than a year, and would have accepted the role even unpaid.
Two hundred and seventy dollars a week. In 1984, that quadrupled my income. And it was double my biggest earnings from a full-time job previously, labouring at a factory that produced oats for porridge.
The job was six days a week – for on Sundays I would type up the free classified ads.
It was confronting to see my prolific editor turn out a 2000-word article in a morning, and follow it with a 1500-word piece that afternoon.
Passion critics are right to say that the likely result of your following bliss is hard work.
If I could have worked hard in some other field, and much sooner, would I have done better? Arguably, I would have done better financially.
But my wage at the magazine was enough for a while, and in time I saw much bigger numbers.
I cannot recall envying my better paid friends who had entered professions. Even those who showed talent and passion for those professions.
Freedom and joy
Did I free myself from servitude and secure joy?
Well, claims for the benefits of following your bliss are inflated. There is a lot more to joy than your work. Deciding to indulge my enthusiasms did not much relieve the depression that I lived with for decades.
On the other side, I haven’t spent much of my working life clock-watching. Or rather, I have – but I’ve been watching to see how much refining I could apply to my work while still filing on deadline.
Servitude? In most places today that’s a metaphor, and I have avoided it. Every day in the office developed my skillset, and these were skills that I wanted to master. Mostly, work has been fun.
And have my passions changed? As it happens, they haven’t. And in hindsight I might have defined them more narrowly. To propose that I would write for a living was not, after all, so ambitious. I could have been more specific about what I would work on.