The Value of Following Passion in a Jobless World

Despite the economy, 2011 graduates shouldn't abandon enthusiasm. Their deep, serious desires might be what saves them.


As the high school and college graduates of 2011 head out into the world (or back to their parents' homes, as the case may be), one could forgive them for feeling a bit confused. On the one hand, they've just been told at commencement exercises that the world is theirs to make and shape, that they should follow their dreams and passions, and that they are our hope for the future. On the other hand, they've also been told that the job market is dismal, that they'd better get serious about picking a place to live and a field where they can find a job, and that they'd better not set their expectations too high.

Don Peck, deputy managing editor at The Atlantic, wrote a piece earlier this year listing the obstacles facing graduates in poor economic times and cautioning them about taking time in their early- and mid-twenties to explore instead of getting serious about a career. "The window for getting onto a good track, arguably, is narrower than it used to be," he said.

New York Times columnist David Brooks went further than that. In a column last week, he argued that finding your passion and pursuing your dreams was something of a narcissistic endeavor, anyway.

"College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities," Brooks wrote. "But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to." Brooks also cautioned against what he called the "misleading mantra" of "expressive individualism" that encourages graduates to "find their passion and then pursue their dreams."

If I were a 22-year-old reading all this, the whole notion of adulthood would seem like a prison sentence worth trying to avoid. But more importantly, the entire premise upon which all this advice is based is false.

Passion, despite how often we use the term to tout company commitment or extol romantic excitement, is often misunderstood or confused with other motivations. Many people view dreams and passion exactly as Brooks painted it: as a hopelessly idealistic, selfish, or irresponsible choice that is diametrically opposed to commitment to others, responsibility, security, or success. But I have spent the past year and a half researching a book about passion and people who follow passionate paths in life, and nothing I've found backs up that premise or belief. Indeed, I would argue that passion is one of the most important elements in any effort to improve a community, build something of value in the world, and even survive tough times or a daunting economy. The fact that it also tends to lead to a sense of fulfillment within an individual is certainly one of its benefits—but it's not the driving force that compels someone down the passion road.

That's not to say that passion doesn't have its costs or risks. Passion is a very complex force that has many faces. But if we're going to throw the word around so much, and either extol graduates to follow it or caution them to steer clear of it, it's worth clarifying some common misconceptions about what passion is ... and isn't.

1. Passion is not the same thing as drive, ambition, greed, lust, or pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. While all of those things are powerful motivators, they operate differently than passion. Ambition, lust, greed, and pleasure are focused on getting external recognition or reward or satisfying one's own fleeting, narcissistic desires. Passion is a far more serious and far deeper motivator that compels one forward through hard work, sacrifice, and sometimes superhuman effort to accomplish a goal one views as important—not because of any external status or reward, but because it matters to the person pursuing it.

2. Passion is not incompatible with commitment and community. People pursuing passionate endeavors often speak of how "fulfilling" they find their work. But fulfillment isn't necessarily selfish. Fulfillment comes from a sense that what one does has a purpose, or generates a sense of meaning in one's life. And purpose and meaning rarely come from a life spent pursuing external rewards of money, status, power, or even hedonistic pleasure. It comes from building something of value, or having impact, or finding richness and art along a life path that has depth and significance.

To be sure, there are those whose passions lead them to make choices whose costs are borne by their family members. But there are also those whose passion leads them to make tremendous individual sacrifices for the sake of those around them. After all, passion, at its core, is an inspirational fire that is lit within a person by a vision of an alternative potential future—something other than what "is," something that, if he or she has the courage to pursue it, could become real. That vision might be personal, as with a romantic relationship or a dream of becoming a successful musician. But it can just as easily be a vision of a wrong righted, a community restored, a child healed, or a new and better piece of technology or scientific knowledge.

What's more, passion is all about commitment. To make a vision of an alternative future possible or real requires a tremendous amount of effort, with no guarantee of success. Passion, therefore, both requires and engenders commitment, almost above all else. Indeed, one of the reasons passion is so important in any transformative endeavor is because it is the element that keeps someone going when others would give up.

"Passion is essential to success," one Silicon Valley entrepreneur told me, "because passion is what leads to perseverance—especially when the dark times come. Anyone can have character when times are good. It's when times get tough that you need passion. Because that's what inspires you to keep going, to persevere. And without perseverance, you can't achieve anything."

3. In other words, passion is not a luxury that needs to be jettisoned in tough economic times. It is the most essential force a person can bring to a challenging job market ... not only because we tend to do our best when we're passionate about what we're doing, but also because passion is what inspires a person to keep pushing to find a way forward, no matter how tough the circumstances.

4. Passion is rarely found in a vacuum. Few people have a fire lit within themselves by sitting alone, staring at their navels. Passion comes most often from exploring and engaging with the world and imagining things that don't yet exist, but that inspire you to wonder, as Robert Kennedy once said ... why not? And beyond that, finding one of those possibilities that lights such a fire inside you that you will persevere through the challenges, effort, and dark nights to try to make it real.

So when we urge graduates to pursue dreams and passions, we are not telling them to satisfy selfish desires and neglect everyone else. We are challenging them to go explore the world and find something so compelling that they will dedicate their best energies to pursuing it. We do this knowing that the passionate roads are far from the easiest paths that they could take in life. Far easier to pursue a "steady" predetermined path or career that they will spend judging their accomplishments in dollars and counting the days until retirement. So why pursue the more challenging roads that are built and inspired by passion? Because that is how you save communities and transform the world. It's also the strongest weapon you can have for surviving tough times and standing out from the crowd.

Psychiatrist Victor Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived four concentration camps in World War II, discovered that those who best survived the camps were the people who had a passionate reason they felt they needed to survive: some unfinished work or commitment to others that compelled them to find a way to stay alive. Someone who "knows the 'why' of [their] existence," Frankl concluded, "will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"

So if we encourage graduates to go in search of something that inspires that kind of commitment and passion within them, it's because on some level, we understand that truth. And we would wish them that strength, that courage, and that ability to imagine and work toward not only a meaningful life but also a better world.