This is from a talk I gave recently to an honor society… Reposted here by request. xoxo
What it Means to Love What You Do
I am here to give you a speech, at a time in your life that is full of speeches. In fact, you’ve probably already sat through quite a few of what I will henceforth refer to as “That Speech.” “That Speech,” as you may have noticed, often revolves around a similar set of themes: “something something passion,” “something something do what you love,” “something something oh the places you’ll go.”
“That Speech” often emphasizes how important it is to love what you do. It might quote Steve Jobs, who very helpfully reminds us, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Impractically, “That Speech” may eschew practicality, perhaps quoting Maya Angelou, who says, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” The two in this impractical one-two punch may come from Stephen King, who said ““Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it … I have written because it fulfilled me … I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
(PS: I got all of these quotes from a Thought Catalog piece, which should tell you something.)
“That Speech” sets up a very neat equation: p (for passion) multiplied by w (for work) equals h (for happiness). It’s simple, guys! Do what you love! For your career! And you’ll be happy!
That’s it. I’m done. You can all go home now.
I’m just kidding. I don’t believe any of that. And neither should you.
This is not “That Speech.” For those of you who know me, or know my work, you may already know my philosophy: embrace the joy, even as you acknowledge the pain. My characters like to see the glass as half full, even as they recognize it’s probably half empty. In my own life I attempt to live with passion at the same time that I grapple with the idea that life is ruled, ultimately, by chaos.
So what is this speech? I’m here, after all, to induct you into an honor society. To applaud your good works, your efforts, your innate intelligence, and your dedication to our English language and all of its modalities. You are also college students, our students, jumping through the hoops we’ve set up so that you might enter adulthood armed and ready for the combat of life.
This is where it gets deep. And maybe a little depressing. And where it veers away from “That Speech.” For today I’m going to talk to you about passion. About what it really means to “do what you love.” And it’s going to be the real deal, not the Seuss version. Because that’s how I roll.
Love has been on my mind a lot, lately, as I’m attempting to write a contemporary romance. Because I’m one of you, a nerd, I’ve been researching what love is really, according to scientists, and philosophers, and other “experts.” As I’ve been reading these books, however, I knew I was going to have to write this speech. Quickly, certain parallels became obvious: the books I’ve been reading may be about romantic love, but the lessons they impart aren’t limited to this realm.
This struck me while I was reading a fabulous book by Dr. Mari Ruti, an expert in Kristevan psychoanalytic theory with a background in sociology and comparative literature. Ruti wrote a book called The Case for Falling in Love, in which, paradoxically, she claims love is anything but nice, or easy, or gentle. In fact, early on in the second half of the book, she warns, “So I’m thinking that love might actually be one of the least effective ways of gaining happiness.”
At this point I paused in reading and I thought about this speech. I thought about what we tell students, all the time, about “doing what they love.” And I thought about my own life, as, admittedly, one of the privileged few who not only got to do what she loves, but gets to do it in two realms, simultaneously, as a professor and as a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones…right?
I am! I love my life. I get to teach rad things to great students like you, many of whom genuinely bring me joy. I get to write books that other people read, books full of me, books that bring me a sense of fecundity and peace that I don’t want to examine too closely because it’s admittedly kinda weird.
Indeed, if I were giving you “That Speech,” I would stop talking right now. I would tell you that my narrative starts with me having a passion (books) and then making a career out of that passion (teaching and writing) and that now I am happy (full stop).
But I’ve already warned you. This is not “That Speech.” I’m not saying I’m not happy…I am hugely content with my life. I’m proud of my accomplishments. I don’t want to be anywhere else right now, which I know makes me incredibly lucky. My glass really is pretty darn full, which is nothing to sniff at.
That said, there’s another narrative “That Speech” doesn’t often acknowledge. It’s the narrative that’s full of rejection, of compromises, and of sacrifices. It’s the narrative that is full of insecurities, of fears, and of opportunities lost for every opportunity gained. It’s the true narrative of “successful” people, and it’s not all wine and roses. But it’s also the narrative that, despite where you may think this speech is going, I hope to help you understand and to embrace.
Returning to Ruti’s quote about love, the whole second half of her book is about how love is not the version popular culture sells. She’s talking about romantic love, of course, and we understand that version well if we’ve ever read a romance or seen a rom-com: boy and girl meet, boy and girl go through various struggles to be together; boy and girl succeed; boy and girl live happily ever after. At the same time, we can easily see how this narrative is often endorsed in our ideas of career: boy or girl meets passion; boy or girl pursues passion despite the odds; boy or girl succeeds in passion and makes it his or her career; boy or girl is happy. The end.
What Ruti explores, however, is the idea that love is not going to make you happy. This is also an idea often talked about on Thought Catalog, so I’m probably not blowing anyone’s mind here. But the way she talks about what love does to us, and for us, is where I want to linger; what I want us to explore. It’s about the idea that we should pursue our passions in the same way we approach love, knowing that we will get hurt. Indeed, to take it a step further, Ruti argues that it is only in actively embracing the idea that ultimately all love must fail, that we can truly, genuinely pursue passion.
Ruti goes on to say of love, “The catch-22 of love is that it has the power to make us happier than pretty much anything else in the world, but whenever we step into it, we risk unfathomable unhappiness.” In your own experience, you probably know how this works in the realm of romance. The real life version of our love lives is, sadly, very different from the cinematic version, including such varieties as “boy or girl meets object of sudden, intense attraction; object of intense attraction remains completely disinterested; boy or girl takes it on the chin, goes home, and eats a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. Life goes on.” But what I’m here to warn you of today is that this scenario also is the norm for our non-romantic loves. What we most want, what we most think we need to be happy, is often the thing that is hardest for us to achieve. It is the thing that, in striving to reach it, makes us most unhappy. And it is the thing that, if we do reach it, keeps us on our toes.
I quoted Steve Jobs earlier. Again, that was a Thought Catalog quote, taken entirely out of context by a listicle. Like all such listicles, it’s the short-short version; the pithy version; the version that fits on a fortune cookie, with a fortune-cookie message. It’s a quotation that pops up all over the place, and yet people knew there had to be more than the listicle Steve Jobs, which is why his biography was so anticipated. And in that biography, people learned that Steve Jobs, success story, was also Steve Jobs, lack-of-success story. For every major triumph was preceded by dozens of setbacks, even failures. They read how things like his personal life were incredibly complicated because of his career success, but also, and this is important, because of his passion for that career.
The lives of people like Jobs intimate how passion is not a limitless resource. Neither is it wholly constructive, nor is it necessarily “good.” Pursuing a passion often means sacrificing other, perhaps less prioritized by us but not necessarily less important for us, passions. But most importantly, pursuing a passion sets you up to lose that which you care about most, constantly. If we want to do what we love, we must come to terms with the idea that what we love might not always love us back. Or, as Ruti writes of romantic love: “[T]here is no way to love without exposing ourselves to the possibility of pain; there is no way to turn passion into something safe and controlled.” Here’s what this speech is actually about: about how everything we know, deep down, about romantic love, is also true about vocational passion. Love, in all its forms, hurts like hell.
This is also where “That Speech” breaks down, taking that earlier equation of “passion multiplied by work equals happiness” with it. In my own life, I have had far more failures than I’ve had successes. There were universities to which I wasn’t accepted. There were scholarships that I did not win. There were agents who sent me letters telling me I was completely off base with my manuscript. There were editors who politely declined to buy my book. There were reviewers who hated everything, except maybe the font, about what I wrote. There were friends who got mad at my (actually occasional) success. There were lovers I left behind to move for a job. There were critics who said I was unfeminist, and to whom I couldn’t respond because of the nature of non-discourse in the blogosphere. There were proposals for new books that I failed to sell. Right now, I go to my critique group every week with work I hope they’ll love and instead my dear friend and brilliant mentor, Nancy Martin, who used to write romance, gets that dreaded “Wellllllll” face and tells me all the things I really, totally, absolutely got wrong.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you in all honestly that almost every day I get stuff wrong. Almost every day I fail at something. Almost every day I give something up because I have to do something else. Almost every day I disappoint someone because I can’t be two places at once. Almost every day, I have to tell someone “no” even as someone else tells me “no.” Almost every day I wonder at least once whether it’s all worth it.
The only days I don’t have any of that are the very rare days when I don’t engage. When I’ve hit my wall and I don’t check my email at all. I don’t do anything for either career. I don’t even talk to friends. I totally check out and just read all day, take a bath, and go to bed early.
On those days, I don’t fail at anything. I also don’t get anything done, and as important as those very rare days of doing nothing are to my mental health, the thought of living every day like that makes my teeth itch.
I should say it’s because it is all worth it. And it is, at least for those moments that it is worth it: those rare moments when a reward suddenly appears, like a treasure chest in a video game. There are a lot of moments, however, when it genuinely feels not worth it. But, asks the fortune cookie, what are our other options?
Actually, despite what “That Speech” will tell you, you do have other options. You can decide your passion isn’t worth the pain. That’s not the worst decision to make, either. In fact, there are times that I’m pretty sure giving up on passion and retreating to a safer position is actually far more sensible and probably more enjoyable. You may not get the highs of true success in that which matters most to you, but neither do you suffer the lows. And there’s nothing actually morally wrong with choosing comfortable stasis over passion, despite what Thought Catalog tells us.
But the trade off is stasis. In rejecting the idea of rejection, of failure, of pain, we also throw out the possibility of true joy, of genuine creation, and of the unicorn, that happiness with a horn, which is actual bliss. Not only that, but we cannot, in my favorite Nietzscheism, become what we are. In remaining static, our clay remains lumpen. We remain untested; unformed. Ruti writes:
In a deep sense, passion is meant for the resilient—for those who know that they’ll find their way back onto solid ground no matter how badly they fall. It’s meant for those who are confident that love’s disappointments won’t ravage them beyond repair. And it’s meant for those who recognize that sometimes a massive love followed by a massive failure is more glorious than a timidly lived success.
Ruti sees glory in the attempt, in the pursuit of passion, even if it means failure. Not because of what remains external to us (a relationship, or a book, or a career), but because of what it does to us, to our internal being. She writes of playing safe, “Doing so might spare us some grief, but it would also deprive us of important occasions for actualizing our deepest human potential. It would make it too easy for us to stay shallow and inattentive.”
But now I’m starting to sound like a fortune cookie. What, after all, is the concrete benefit to pursuing passion, especially when shallow and inattentive isn’t the worst thing in the world?
I wish I could answer that question. I wish I could give you a list, maybe a listicle, even, with the Top Ten Concrete Reasons Pursuing Your Passions is Awesomesauce. But I can’t.
That said, no one can, for anything in life. The internet is lying to you, by making the world a place of neatly bulleted lists. The only reason to attempt to live your passions is because you have to. Because you’re that person, cursed with that curious combination of drive and masochism, who may or may not achieve enough success that people forget all the failures when they narrate your life from the outside. In other words, you’re that person who takes more joy in the process than the outcome, which is what it truly means to love something.
A lot of people tell me they love writing when what they really mean is that they want to be a successfully published novelist. These are not the same things, although they sound similar enough to the novice. One is about process; the other is about the outcome. If you genuinely love something, you love the process. All of it. Even the parts you actually hate. Even those parts that are unloveable become loveable because they’re a part of this process you can’t help but do; because they get you to the next part that you truly love again.
If you love the process, the failures still hurt. They can even still be devastating…at least for a while. Then the process rears its head again, looking for attention, and you can’t help but reach out trembling fingers to stroke its fickle head. Success, meanwhile, feels great…for a little while. Until the process morphs into a new shape, and suddenly it’s not enough to have written that last book, or that last journal article, or taught that last class or led that last seminar. Suddenly your last success looks a little cheap, a little easy…there’s a flashy new success on the horizon, all dewy eyed and flaxen haired and you want to take that success to dinner and get it into bed very, very badly.
When you elevate the process over the outcome, that’s when you know you truly have passion, god help you. Nietzsche put it as only Nietzsche could:
Success has always been the greatest liar – and the “work” itself is a success; the great statesman, the conqueror, the discoverer is disguised by his creations, often beyond recognition; the “work,” whether of the artist or the philosopher, invents the man who has created it, who is supposed to have create it; “great men,” as they are venerated, are subsequent pieces of wretched minor fiction
For Nietzsche, both power and success are objects of scorn: it is the work that is remembered and that creates its author, in retrospect, rather than the author creating the work. In this way, to Nietzsche, success was dangerous. His example was Wagner, who Became Wagner, and therefore couldn’t actually be Wagner anymore. I think our current version of this sort of success is the artist who “sells out” and becomes “corporate.” But I could go on all day about Nietzsche, and he’s not the point. The point is that even if we are successful, that carries with it a whole new raft of burdens, along with more room for even greater failures, risks, adventures, etc. There is no happily ever after.
But don’t worry, I am aware that “There is no happily every after” would be the worst place imaginable to end a speech like this one. I know I should end in a way that makes you all want to fist bump. So I will mimic the internet, and I will give you a list. The Top Five Concrete Things I Can Actually Say To You With Some Assurance:
- They Don’t Call it The Passion for Nothing
Just like Jesus discovered, the passion kinda sucks. Having passion means you put yourself out there. Entering the boxing ring means you’re going to get punched; trying something you love means you’re going to get punched in the heart. Which leads me to number two…
- Question Everything, Including Yourself
I want all of you to have a cynical streak, but not too cynical as that’s as annoying as blithe ignorance. Just don’t forget to extend that cynicism to yourself and ask yourself the really hard questions, including do you actually love what you say you love? We’ve all read or seen that romance where the heroine or hero only really loves someone because that person is shiny and expensive. Ask yourself the same thing about what you think you’re passionate about: do you really love the process, or do you actually just want the outcome? Taken from my earlier example, are you one of those people who just wants be a published author, but doesn’t actually like to write? Spoiler alert, those people never actually succeed. So if you are confusing process with product, you’d be wise to take a step back and reprioritize.
- Embrace Failure
I said something about masochism early on and I wasn’t kidding. If you really want to embrace your passion, you have to embrace failure. You have to want it; to love it; to seek it out. You have to go into that boxing ring not only expecting to get punched, but anticipating cultivating every bruise so you can look back at the footage and see where you went wrong. You have to love the process so much that even its grittiest, most painful parts give you a weird sort of pleasure. Think Fifty Shades of Passion and embrace the knowledge you will fail.
- Understand Success
The flip side of embracing failure means understanding success. There is no such thing as “success” in the same way there’s no such thing as “happily ever after.” External factors impose themselves (jobs are lost; editors are fired; fans lose interest). Internal factors also play a role. Passion may wane altogether for what you’re doing. Suddenly you may realize your career is great but you’re missing out on something important in another part of your life. Or, more likely, if you’re a truly passionate person there’s always a shinier idea on the horizon, and to reach it you have to cross a new minefield of failure. Is there ever any protection? No, but there’s Voltaire.
- Cultivate Your Garden
Voltaire’s Candide tells us “We must cultivate our garden,” a rejection of more optimistic philosophies current to his time in favor of acknowledging everything that can go wrong in the world while still imparting a little practical advice. The fact is, all we have is our garden. We can attempt to make that garden big or small and we can give it as much variety as we choose. From a practical standpoint, however, if you try to build a giant garden full of only one expensive crop in search of a profitable harvest, you’re risking a cataclysmic failure. I would suggest the biggest garden isn’t always the most fruitful, and I would stress the importance of finding a few passions to cultivate, including a passion for yourself: for self-care, for self-improvement, and for self-knowledge, or at least as much as we can have of that.
And here’s the final piece of real advice I can give you, and I don’t even want to call it advice. I guess it’s what I’ve realized about my own life, looking back. Keeping in mind that I don’t have all the answers, in fact I barely have any answers, and that I’ve already told you the vast majority of my career experiences can be seen as failures, I look back at my life and the one thing I’m genuinely glad of is that, for the most part, I have lessons rather than regrets. What I mean is that, when I look back, I’ve learned a ton of lessons from all my failures, and so, as long as we don’t include sartorial choices involving overalls in the 90s, I have very few genuine regrets.
That’s what I want for each of you. That’s what I actually think defines success. Success doesn’t mean reaching a certain apex in terms of job title, or salary, or book contract, or anything like that. For me, it means looking back on my life and seeing that I learned a lot and made the best of what I had to work with. In my case, it meant pursuing my passions. Did this always make me happy? Absolutely not. Sometimes it made me miserable. But I always had the process, which meant I could learn and attempt to move forward. Sometimes I was halted in my tracks: no Rhodes Scholarship for me. But I could look at who did win, think through why I didn’t (I was vastly underqualified) and reassess where I was and what I wanted, using that failure as a touchstone. It meant being honest with myself, being vulnerable, and being open to change and growth, which can feel horrible at the time.
And that’s what you have to look forward to if you pursue your passions: the pain of growth spurts and lots of failure. But you also have the other things, the things that are usually the subject of speeches like this, and that, if we’re lucky, become part of a life lived for passion. In Goethe’s Faust, Faust’s wager with Mephistopheles is that, in his highest moment, he’ll lose his soul. Well, “highest moment” is a common English translation; in the German, it’s augenblick, or eye-blink. Our highest moments, as Goethe warns, are just that: over in the blink of an eye. That doesn’t mean, however, that those eye blinks aren’t so glorious they’re worth a man’s soul. If we’re lucky, during our pursuit of passion we get those eye blinks: moments of bliss, of true happiness, be they of pride, of insight, of epiphany, of acknowledgement that a struggle has been mounted and won. And sometimes, just sometimes, we create something beautiful, or important, or worthy, or helpful.
Nietzsche, of course, speaks of this knife’s-edge walk between failure and success best: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” So take this, going forward, each of you: passion is a barbed thing, and apt to draw blood. Understand that failure can lead to lessons worth more than success, which is a fickle mistress anyway. Know that you must love the process as much as the product, or the pursuit of a passion may not be worth all the pain. And learn to cultivate your own garden. Life is a game, full of arbitrary rules, played with forces that are as apt to tip over your entire board as they are to give you a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s how we play at life despite this knowledge that defines us and I, for one, would rather play with passion. Thank you.