Passion About Your Work Is Hard Work

Apropos of my post a few weeks back about people thinking creativity as a lightning strike gift rather than a process of work over time is a piece on Harvard Business Review blog site in which the author, Cal Newport, makes a similar observation about the idea one should follow their passion when looking for a job.

Newport notes that following ones passion has become common career advice and includes a Google N-Gram charting the explosive rise of the phrase in print use during the 2000s.

“Why is this a problem? This simple phrase, “follow your passion,” turns out to be surprisingly pernicious…The verb “follow” implies that you start by identifying a passion and then match this preexisting calling to a job. Because the passion precedes the job, it stands to reason that you should love your work from the very first day.

It’s this final implication that causes damage. When I studied people who love what they do for a living, I found that in most cases their passion developed slowly, often over unexpected and complicated paths. It’s rare, for example, to find someone who loves their career before they’ve become very good at it — expertise generates many different engaging traits, such as respect, impact, autonomy — and the process of becoming good can be frustrating and take years.

The early stages of a fantastic career might not feel fantastic at all, a reality that clashes with the fantasy world implied by the advice to “follow your passion” — an alternate universe where there’s a perfect job waiting for you, one that you’ll love right away once you discover it. It shouldn’t be surprising that members of Generation Y demand a lot from their working life right away and are frequently disappointed about what they experience instead.”

The arts career path has long had a “paying your dues” period of near slavery labor for low or no pay internship followed by successfully transitioning to a near poverty level pay. I joke, but only because I don’t want to confuse the poor treatment many entry level people are subject to with the genuine need to actually go through an unsatisfying process of improving your abilities.

The dream of being discovered and making it big is what causes many to pursue a career in the arts. The fact that there are some who can make it big with no apparent effort is something of a plague on the arts industry.

Still for many people, this dues paying process gives people a realistic view of what is expected in the arts career path and they choose to leave it.

Pursuing an arts career with its abysmal pay can be something of a blessing in disguise as part of the dues paying process. The fact we have the stereotype of the actor who waits tables shows that many creative types are picking up other skills in the process of pursuing the dream.

Of course, the benefit of this all hinges on heeding the advice of our grandparents to do everything we do well. It is easy to fall into the practice of not taking a job seriously figuring your effort doesn’t matter since you will be gone soon enough. Then when you revise your career plans, you may suddenly find that as a result of your inattentiveness no one will credit you as having paid some dues.

One of my first jobs was doing yard work which involved everything from mowing and weeding to mucking out horse stalls and polishing brass and bronze pots. I don’t think it directly prepared me for a job in the arts, (though I did end up driving a farm tractor a lot the rural arts center I worked at), it probably instilled a work ethic, taught me about a lot uncommon practices like beekeeping and gave me many problem solving abilities. (Like the time I set fire to the…erm, well I have said too much already.)

Cal Newport calls for career advice to reference the inevitable sour period before you feel inspired by your work.

In some respects, I think the arts are blessed with the stereotype of the wait staff who wants to act. Even though no one believes they will ever have to work in a restaurant to support themselves, that waiter is in our collective unconscious and can’t be exorcised. Part of us always knows that possibility exists. Some may even be motivated to pursue excellence to ensure it doesn’t happen to them.

Still more discussion of that metaphorical waiter needs to happen to make people aware that the pursuit of their passion may not come easily or as directly as they imagine.

Many performing artists would acknowledge their awareness that the pursuit doesn’t come easily since many of them start working hard at eight or nine years old. The problem is that “practice hard to be a success” has been used to motivate them for all those years and it is not a foregone conclusion, especially in relation to orchestras these days.

Arts and culture industries needs to emphasize the fact that the path to success may not be as direct as it has been represented to encourage people to think about and be open to alternative routes.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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