Saturday, September 14, 2013

Passion and Perseverance

I have come to accept that I am a more impassioned person than the national average. When I care about something, I really care. When I want to know something, I research it for a couple hours and check out a couple of books too (got to have multiple sources!). When there's an issue that I get behind, there's no way you won't hear me talk about it. When I feel, I feel strongly, and I wear my convictions on my sleeve. I am also a passionate believer that being passionate about things can be a good thing.

Passionate isn't the same as opinionated, though I certainly have a lot of those too. Passionate doesn't mean getting angry or upset at people all the time either, or at least it doesn't have to. Passionate means that you feel strongly about what you think and believe. The dictionary lists it alongside ardent, fervent, enthusiastic, and earnest. Passion has to do with your internal emotional state. What you do with it--your actions--can be a broad spectrum of things.

I want to believe everyone has something they're passionate about. It seems impossible to be human and not have something some purpose born upon your heart that you feel strongly about. I feel so passionate about writing and enjoy it so much, even when it's hard, that I have a hard time doing anything else as a vocation. How can I stock shelves when there are stories to be written?

Some people say to get a job at what you're passionate about; some people say don't. Some people say to study your passion in school; others say don't. And there's all this talk about whether being passionate helps you persevere or only makes the inevitable burnout more disappointing. So do you do something you love, something you only like, or something you feel ambivalent about? Which is it?

Can you do what you love and persevere when there are less lovely and more arduous sides to it--the publishing side of writing a book; the paperwork side of working construction; the cooking vs. people-izing sides of running a restaurant? Or does your passion make you more likely to quit before you reach the end because you were really only passionate about one part of the process?

Winners aren't quitters. Isn't that right? The people who get to the top are the people who never quit. They never gave up. But they never gave in, either. They never said, "Alright, I have a well-paying job with reasonable chance of moving up the company; I'll do this instead of finding something where I have a true vision and desire to move it forward." The people at the very, very top of our society got there because they had the desire to accomplish it at all costs and they worked very hard to make it happen.

There are other people who aren't at the top, but they lead middle-class lives and they like what they do and feel content with their work. They go home feeling accomplished. They have frustrations and the work is hard but it's also exciting because it's what they love to do.

The people who went for a job with opportunities or a burgeoning market or which fit their experience, instead of one they were passionate about, lived middle-class lives too. They went through ups and downs, pursued their hobbies, and had mid-life crises. They are happy too.

This blog isn't by any means about giving tips to success or focusing on material accomplishments, and I'm not starting now. Both these people can be happy and both of them can persevere. I expect that the people who took the non-passion route did it for the sake of a different passion: they took a job that gave them more time with their family, or a job that kept them in the same area as their parents, or a job that paid enough for the hobbies that they're passionate about. People can be our passion. Family can be our passion. It's perfectly acceptable to take a job that funds our passions rather than one we're passionate about, as long as you have the wherewithal to remember what you'r working for when you hate your job.

But I'm more interested in what happens to the people who go out on a limb and try doing what they love. For a lot of people, this can be hard, because what we love may be something that's hard to break into, doesn't have a huge market, or involves a lot of effort and work that you have to do yourself. While regular work can be hard because you're not emotionally attached, passion-work is hard because you ARE emotionally attached to it. If you're an agent publishing someone's book, a rejection from a publishing company is frustrating because you're trying to publish it; for the author, it cuts a little inside knowing someone didn't want what you brought into the world and crafted with your own hands. It gets personal.

But doing something you have a passion to do means you'll keep doing it even when it's tough--even when you don't want to. I've never stopped writing for the past 13 years, even when I had writer's block. I just changed genres and started something else. And when I want to be reading a book or taking a stroll, ideas keep popping into my head--scenes for my book, characters to bring up later in the series, topics for my blog. Even though I haven't won many contests, I keep submitting my work because my passion for writing gives me hope that one day it'll pay off, and it gives me the desire to do the work even when it's not very lucrative or successful. And the thing about persevering is that chances are that eventually you'll find a niche and be able to be successful in the professional sense of the word.

But the thing about doing what you love is that you redefine success in terms of fulfillment instead of prestige. In the end, I think that's more what life's about. Sure, we have to deal with money matters in the real world. But doing what you love and paying the bills don't have to be mutually exclusive. As the main character in one my favorite shows likes to say, "I gave you a job, Mr. Reese. I never said it would be easy."

But that gets us to the strange thing about passion. You'd think a passionate person is inflexible. But when you're passionate about something, you often have to be very flexible about all the other details. I want to write, but I have to be flexible about what I'm writing and who I'm writing for. It's not always what I expect. I've written just about every type of piece and style out there by now, I imagine. Flexibility about my passion has shown me new areas of writing that I love to do and expanded what I'm passionate about--better defined for me where my passion and I are going in the future.

Furthermore, just because passion helps us persevere doesn't mean that passionate people won't quit. "Winners aren't quitters" isn't exactly true. Passion-following people quit things all the time, especially while they're still fleshing out just what exactly it is that they are passionate about. In some ways, passionate people are the ones who quit the most often. They hop around from job to job or place to place when normal people stay with the job and the town they don't like. People following their passion take risks. They aren't persevering at a job, they're persevering towards a goal.

It's okay to be the kind of person who perseveres at the job. You become known for your consistency, you become really good at what you do, and your life is pretty stable. But it's also okay to be the kind of person who quits the job to persevere at something else. Most of the happy people out there who I know wore a lot of hats before finding the one they liked.

I have felt guilty at times in my life when a job went so against the grain for me that I had to quit. Nannying was one such job. I felt like a terrible failure when, after two months of taking care of an apathetic 1-year-old, I was worn out and over it. I don't like quitting. My whole life, society has been telling me that quitting means failing. I didn't want to admit that I'm not the kind of person who can sit and play with toddlers for 10 hours. But there's nothing wrong in admitting it. I quit and moved on to find a job that could help me fund my passion, which I also quit when I once again found myself over-tired and over it.

You could call me restless or you could call me purposeful. But either way, I was a quitter. I was a quitter so that I can be a winner according to my own standards: by being a full-time writer, which is both harder and easier than the jobs I had before. Sometimes you have to quit so that you can persevere at something else.

My dad is that kind of quitter-winner. He worked for twenty years in the software industry before having a premature mid-life crisis in his thirties. He took night classes for awhile. And then he quit his job and went back to school full-time. He really liked physics, so that's what he majored in. He got his degree in the physics of stars, but by doing so discovered that that's not quite his passion. So he was flexible and tried a different aspect of physics: the earth. He got his PhD and now he works with rocks instead of rock-heads.

I think he likes it a lot better. I'm not sure if it's his absolute passion, but he likes it a lot better than software. I think even he's not sure if this is his passion, either, because it turns out that he is really good at writing too and really enjoys it (just like the rest of the family). That's the thing about finding your passion; you just keep trying things until you find one you really like. You have to quit things along the way and be flexible with yourself so that you can persevere at finding and doing what you like. You have to be willing to be poor sometimes and to work really hard sometimes. All good things involve sacrifice.

Eventually, you find that one thing that motivates you to keep pursuing it and working and wondering. It's like when you get married: you find someone who you want to keep getting to know for the rest of your life. There may be other such people out there. Or you can always choose to invest in, pursue, and marry someone even if they don't attract you initially. (That's why it's impossible to marry the wrong person, but possible to be the wrong person to marry.) But you date or court or friend-group-date whatever until you find someone who you're passionate about and you marry them. And then you persevere and keep discovering and being flexible for the rest of your life.