Why I Never Advise You To Follow Your Passion

In the personal note of the Art Biz Insider a couple of weeks ago, I made a passing mention and remark about one of the presentations at the World Domination Summit in early July. I wrote:

Cal Newport debunked the “follow your passion” directive (yay!).

Jeff Richards, Web of Life

©Jeff Richards, Web of Life #3. Sewing thread and paint on fiberboard, 48 x 48 inches. Used with permission.

This caught the attention of Jeff Richards, who responded with a kind request that I expand on my “yay!” and these observations (excerpted):

 . . . It’s my experience that this debunking usually is the stance of cynics who would rather we all become factory robots, or some version of a limited life that they themselves have accepted and now fear the challenge to their own submission to limitation. . . .

Most artists I know, and certainly myself, would have thrown in the towel long ago if we weren’t “following our passion”. . . .

Before I published my take, I asked you what you thought about the snippet of advice to follow your passion. Lots of you commented on this post. You had beautiful insights! You also asked me for my thoughts. Here goes.

3 Things I Know To Be True About Passionate Interests

1. Something changes deep inside many people when they start asking for money for what they’re passionate about.

This isn’t the case for everyone, but you can’t help but look at your passion differently when you must make a business out of something that used to be fun. It’s no longer just a passion. It’s work – and darned-hard work at that.

Some people can stomach it and others can’t.

If you’re one of those who can’t, you will no longer enjoy what you were once passionate about once you start trying to sell it.

2. Most of us have multiple passions.

Have you ever tried to explain to an artist that they need to focus and create a signature body of work? You’re often met with, “But I like to do so many things!”

You can’t tell an artist to pick the one passion and get on with it. They must work through the process on their own and discover the answers.

I’m passionate about art, Colorado (more on that below), bodies of water, gardening, cats, cooking, entertaining, history, and hiking. I’d drive myself batty if I were to try to please all of these parts of me in a single profession. I honor them outside of a business environment.

3. You can’t make a living from passion alone.

“Follow your passion and the money will come” is another way this piece of advice is often framed. As if you’ll get rich just because you’re doing what you love.

Okay, you might get it to work for you, but it’s not nearly that simple.

You have to do the work that you love and lots of stuff you don’t love: bookkeeping, marketing, making small talk at art openings, giving presentations, packing, shipping, and record-keeping. You might not be willing to do everything else required to make a living from your passion.

I Fell Into My Passion

Near the end of his email to me (mentioned at top), Jeff Richards wrote: “It also strikes me from observation that you are indeed following your passion with your business.”

Mckenna Hallett left a similar comment on the blog: “Alyson is the quintessential example of someone who has a deep and passionate desire to help others as well as support the art world – SHE put the two together and…voila! So glad she follows her passion.”

Both of these comments are, I believe, intended as complimentary and I appreciate them. But they don’t take into account that I came to be passionate about my work. No one ever advised me to follow my passion. And I never sat down and thought about what I was passionate about. I never considered: “What am I passionate about and how can I make a go of it?”

Yes, I have a master’s degree in art history because I loved my courses, but as a student, I had no idea what I was going to do with those degrees. In the early days of the MA program, I thought I’d like to teach, but I certainly wasn’t passionate about the idea.

In the closing days of writing my thesis, I started talking to different people in the arts (administrators and museum folks). I would have taken almost any job in the arts. I didn’t follow any particular passion except for working within the art world. If someone had told me at that point to follow my passion, I might have slapped them.

I didn’t know what my passion was. I was frustrated! I needed time to find my place in the world.

I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon museum work and ended up enjoying it for ten years.

I came upon my current line of work not because I was dissatisfied with my museum work, but because I was unhappy with where I was living (geography). I do what I do today because I was passionate about living in Colorado. I moved here to build a life, but I didn’t know what that would look like.

So, yes, in a sense I followed one of my passions, which was Colorado. I didn’t set out to start Art Biz Coach. It only evolved because I worked every day trying to build an art consulting business and listened to artists who were in need of guidance.

Today I am passionate about helping creatives build their businesses, not because I set out to do this work, but only because I paid attention to a need, tested my aptitude, and worked hard every day. I grew to be passionate about what I do.

As Cal Newport said in his presentation, and will undoubtedly expand on in his forthcoming book, “The longer someone has a position, the more he sees it as a calling.” In other words, we become passionate about some things.

I fell into my passion and embraced it. I didn’t follow it.

My Advice

If “Follow Your Passion” works for you, heed the call! I’m not going to tell you not to follow your passion.

You just won’t hear me offering those words as quick-and-easy business advice, which is often how they appear in print.

Here’s my alternative version, which I hope serves you:

Follow your passion if you know exactly what that is. But understand everything that’s involved in trying to make a profession of it.

Be willing to work your butt off and be prepared to do things you don’t love because they support your passion.

If you don’t know your calling, it’s okay! Keep working. Work hard. Work on projects you like and have aptitude for. You’ll eventually find your passion. If you’re like me, it’s nothing like what you could have imagined.

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42 comments to Why I Never Advise You To Follow Your Passion

  • Russel Trojan

    Very well said. I’ve never been a “follow your passion” kinda guy, and it was good to see some of my own thoughts in your words. And, after reading this, I was oddly “uninspired”, which to my way of thinking was a good thing. I was, however, pragmatically motivated to pay attention to details. Rather than being drawn into some activity, I was reminded that I have work to do. Thanks.

  • Lisa Bailey

    Thank you for this. I have often been so frustrated with trying to find the “particular” passion that I am supposed to be following that I end up going in circles. I have come to really dislike the word…or the directive to “find your passion.” The business of art and design and teaching are all passions…but passions that take work, organization, and planning which are sometimes seen as negatives versus the more “positive” work of creating. Now, thanks to your article, I am off to be passionate about organizing invoices with a goal of also finding time to create…passionately.

  • Right on as always, Alyson! I couldn’t agree with you more. “Follow your passion” is too simplistic when building a career or making a living. For artists, it just plays into the stereotype of artists being flaky, impractical, and way “out there”, doing their own thing with little regard to the daily necessities of life. Artists need to be well grounded, practical and pragmatic Before pursuing their passions.

    • Karen: It’s interesting that you associated this directive with the artist stereotypes. I hadn’t considered that since I hear it from so many other professions. I’d say what I said here to anyone – artist or not. Don’t you agree?

      • Yes I do agree, Alyson. But I’ve known and know of artists who have bought into that stereotype themselves which is where I was coming from. “Follow your passion” seems to me to be part of the stereotype if that’s the only mantra for being an artist. It seems to be saying use only your right brain and never mind that pesky, boring left brain stuff.

        I hope that clarifies.

  • Amen and amen. I have sometimes felt guilty about a) falling into so many wonderful opportunities that have allowed me to do what I do today, and b) being a totally unapologetic mercenary about “for sale” work. What I’ve never felt guilty about is making a distinction between my mercenary work and my work that I do just because I want to. The older I get, the more passionate I become about all aspects of living the life of an artist, even the not-so-fun aspects!

  • I had a mentor tell me a long time ago, after listening to my whining about my art, that maybe I was good at more than one thing. Maybe I could do more than one thing. Why that was a “ah ha moment” for me I don’t know. I thought if I was creative I had to be an artist and that alone. Needless to say I have worked my entire adult life in either human services or education while working on my art in my spare time. Now my art is becoming more a part of my life and I am challenged with how to do both. I have found for me I need both of my roles. I counsel middle school students and teach art. This role balances me and takes me out of myself. My work with students energizes me and brings fun into my life. If I have too much art time I get too focused on myself and into my own head. I really need the balance of both aspects of my life. Even when I retire from my current position in my school I will continue to work with students as it has also become my passion. It is my way of giving back.

    • Deborah: Thanks for this perspective. It’s so important! Art is informed by so much besides the materials and the subject matter. We need rich lives to enrich our art.

  • As an artist who just recently suffered a rather significant loss of inventory/frames/canopy during a storm in Connecticut, I can testify that following my passion has never included as much hard physical labor as it has this past two weeks. Anyone who doesn’t face the possible catastrophes that can befall even the most pragmatic and cautious person is in for a rude awakening. The operative word here is “resilience”, I think, to follow that wonderful word, “passion.”

    • Janet: I’m so sorry to hear about your loss! Yes, “resilience” is a terrific word to add. I believe I’m going to have to keep track of all the additional words recommended in these comments. Good stuff.

  • very well said. when every I get someone in my booth that says my son or daughter is very good at art and and wants to major in art. I suggest that they major in marketing. Thus they learn the skills that will serve their passion well. The artist will always be there, but it needs disipline. With disipline the passion is more resilent .

  • So basically we evolve into our passions by making choices to do what we are drawn to, experiencing how that works, etc. Terrific stuff, Alyson, and I am thinking out loud here. I moved to CO needing a change as well, and fortunate circumstances simply allowed me to evolve from there. And at 68 I am following 2 passions, or one passion in 2 ways, perhaps. Is this the passion I envisioned? I never envisioned the future, and I certainly never envisioned being where I am now with my art! The photography career was started for a reason, but has evolved into a passion, which I embrace.

    Thanks for your great advice, comments, guidance, insights and peeks into your own life. Super work and exceptionally useful.

  • Adriana Vidal

    Alyson –

    When I read your post the other day I had no idea how to respond to it so I didn’t even comment. I have many passions – my art, my friends, my family, my cats, travelling, reading, gardening, I am even passionate about my “regular” job – and that was what was always tough for me. I couldn’t pick just one passion. I have friends who are artists who live, eat, and breathe art – everything inspires them. I’m not that way and I always thought that meant that I would never be successful as an artist. Then one day I realized I am already – I’ve sold a ton of work over the course of my life even though I’ve never made a 100% living at it. I’m not still not positive I really want to – although I am trying to have it take less of a backseat to my work in technology. Finding that balance is what is important to me but even that has been a process – maybe next year I’ll have a different answer altogether!

  • Thank you for this dose of sanity! I, too, moved to Colorado for the geography, and to pursue my love of hiking, and create a life from that. I also have many passions, and making art is one of them, but I notice that I don’t wake up each day wanting to pursue them all simultaneously. Still, I need to engage with them on a regular basis to feel balanced and whole. And I agree that passion can be cultivated with attitude, focus and positive self-talk. The other word that is often missing from the “follow your passion” mantra is dedication. Dedication will get you through the slow periods, the difficult chores, etc.

  • hearing that statement from Cal Newport just recently and now your 3 reasons is like a breath of fresh air. I have always been interested in art but not necessarily in being an artist until i went to college and my art professors all encouraged me to be an artist, so i switched majors, altho they never explained exactly how to be a successful artist.

    real success has always eluded me for all the reasons you stated above and i am finally getting clarity on it because of these discussions. I am just as passionate about helping animals find homes (and I have helped tons of animals) but never once thought of it as a viable business/career just because i am passionate about it…i really think the same is true with my art! i am super passionate about it and really good at it but maybe it’s not suppose to be a career for me! (that’s taken me almost 30 years to figure out!!!)

    • Kathryn: I’m glad you’re open to the possibility that it isn’t intended as a career for you. Too many artists think they should make a go of it, when they really shouldn’t. And it’s not because they don’t have talent. It’s because of #1: They can’t stomach what is required.

  • Great explanation and I especially loved this quote from your article – “Be willing to work your butt off and be prepared to do things you don’t love because they support your passion.”

    That sums it up perfectly!

  • I love this post, Alyson! Especially the point that we can choose to become passionate about what we do. Because I am a mother to four children and my current body of work features children and childhood, many people said at my recent exhibition ‘you must LOVE children!’ That took me by surprise at first, as I have never described myself as someone who loves children. Thinking about it made me realises that this is something which has grown on me, or which you could say, I have BECOME passionate about.

  • Thanks for these words of wisdom and reality. Even though I have been supporting myself with my art these last 24 years, the current economic condition is causing me to take a hard look at how I’ve structured the business side of making art, and how I can do some of it differently. It is definitely not the case that the same game plan will continue to work.
    As I like to tell aspiring “full time artists” -just because you love it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t work.

  • A woman walks in a woodworker’s shop and falls in love with a chair. She sees the price of $100 and asks how much for three more. When told the next three are $200 each she asks why. The answer comes back, “The first one was fun to make.”

  • The advice to “follow your passion” to me is simply a way of saying “don’t go into a profession just because your parents want you to.” I can imagine little worse than working doggedly at something I loathe or that offers nothing in the way of reward other than a (possibly low) paycheck. At least not in this country! It’s all different when your choices are starvation or labor.

    Of course we can have more than one passion and I have no qualms about asking for money in doing work that I’m passionate about. The same seems true for scientists in my experience. I’ve yet to meet an astronomer (my other field) who was not in some way passionate about his work (research, teaching, or another aspect). My sister is passionate about education – she is a reading specialist. You see? Passion isn’t just for artists.

  • Alyson, this post has given me new clarity. I live in a state of inner torment because my career has taken on many forms… Making me wonder which one I should focus on. I have passion for writing, teaching, painting, and helping others, but I can’t possibly do all at the same time, obviously.

    So I’ve focused on one or more of the above items ‘for a time’, and do them serially.

    Your words of wisdom here have given me new insight, in that, I don’t have to find out which one I love the best. I’ve wasted years trying to answer this question about my main passion. Maybe it’s not the important question; instead, I’ll move forward in whatever makes sense for now and see where it me. I enjoy it all.
    Thanks so much!

  • I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this discussion and your personal views as well as all the artists who have contributed. It’s helped me to burst the bubble of yet another myth about art and artists.

    For years I’ve beaten myself up because I don’t have this burning desire to create every day nor have I felt the passion to create in a very long time, even of my favorite subject; horses. How can I call myself an artist without either of these, I tell myself, and that makes it easier to just not bother to go into the studio. After all, I’m not a REAL artist anyway.

    Now that I have a new perspective on passion for art, it will be easier for me to reconcile my personal feelings toward my art and stop obsessing about whether or not I have the right to call myself a professional artist. Maybe it’s just okay to be a hobbyist for now while I get myself back on track and THEN see how I feel and what happens.

    Thank you so much, Alyson, for stimulating this discussion.

  • Eileen

    Wow! I feel like someone just turned on the light. Reading all of the comments about art, artists, and “passion” has really struck a nerve(lots of them). I painted all my life, just for fun, while doing the things I had to do to live. When I retired I started painting to sell. That’s when all the “passion” started going out of art for me. In place of passion I have confusion, frustration, sadness and a sense of rejection. I have art, what I need is clarity, organization and direction.

  • Roger K. Lawrence

    As a young industrial electronics engineer my first awareness of passion with my work occured in a photograpy studio. I had created a new motor speed control and packaged it in a dark gray box with an aluminum front cover. Knob & switches on the front. Boring you say? I kept telling the photographer how I wanted the product to look in the photograph. The photographer upset me when he said not to get so excited. He said “This is only a photograph”! The photo of the product appeared on the front cover of my instruction manual. I thought I had created the Mona Lisa. I have felt sorry for that photographer ever since. I never went back to him. If you get up every day and dread another day in the studio. Do something else. Your work will convey to the viewer how you really feel about what you are doing. A successful gallery owner told me not to bring her paintings created to sell. She said “Bring to the gallery work that I feel really passionate about”. Thanks Alyson for this topic.

  • Ansel Adams said: “Art/Photography is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

    That about sums it up.

  • [...] love how art business coach Alyson B. Stanfield wrote in a recent blog post that she never advises artists to simply ‘following your passion’. She pointed out that [...]

  • Hi Alyson, thank you for an excellent article. I agree that that advice has been bandied about far too loosely. It’s a starting point located in the right brain and the heart, and one needs the whole brain, heart, body and soul to successfully turn a passion into a business. One of the things I’ve always liked about it, is the idea that the passion for something can provide energy to carry us through all the other activities that may be required to support the passion as a biz. I also like your point of staying open and trying new things for they may become passions. That has been the case for me doing body art at events the last 10 years. What started out as a side source of income that seemed fun, turned into the most incredible journey that changed my whole artistic style, became the main source of income in my business, totally leveraged my time and income, expanded me as a person and artist in countless ways. I notice also that it’s a confluence of many passions (art, design, creating experiences for people, holding a good energetic space for people, joy, sharing joy, costuming, use of my Intuitive abilities, medicinal plants [henna, jagua,] etc.) Noticing these points of intersection among greatest numbers of my passions and coming into a deep understanding of the common thread & gift I offer no matter what I’m doing, has enabled me to finally get into Step #2 with peace and wholeness.
    Yes I am an artist who successfully does many things, and yes there are only 24 hours in a day. I understand in my left brain that in order to be productive and move forward more effectively, I must focus on a few at a time. Yet my right brain continually joyfully bubbles over. Focus brings grief which then blocks everything. Passion functions best as a healthy guide and dance partner through this process.
    Thank you for your excellent work Alyson!

  • If you only work when you’re inspired or feeling passionate you won’t be the artist walking the walk.
    no one says to a tax lawyer, you must really be passionate about taxes or the law
    or no one says to a grocery store manager you must be passionate about food. someone could be blissfully happy or miserable in either of those professions. in art we seem to discuss this passion thing endlessly
    as though artists are always loving each and every minute …or they are deceptive. If someone finds out we use rulers or t squares somehow the mystery is reduced and people are disappointed.

    Watching a pro golfer play on TV in a major tournament might make someone say “doesn’t he have the life?” But what about what he goes through to be there. (any athlete)
    and how he plays in bad weather, always traveling and the not so glamourous sides. Its human nature to think somewhere someone has it all…. learn the piano in 5 days etc. there are no shortcuts!