Note: This is the second in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. The posts are new material, not excerpted from the book, and some, such as this one, are written in a (much) drier style. Each will be tied to one or more of the book’s chapters, in this case “Living the Dream” and “Hotel California.”
Most of us think of passion in positive terms–love on steroids, if you will. Regardless of whether your passion is ignited by a lover, a pre-Civil War farmhouse or the prospect of brewing rare varieties of beer in your basement, a zillion books, seminars and websites are available to advise you on following it, and many of them all but promise that doing what you love will translate to loving what you do.
Pursuing your passion is widely understood as a prescription for happiness and fulfillment. When you’re building furniture as an avocation, outside of the work that provides your livelihood, it’s easy to maintain this understanding of passion. Feel uninspired? Run into a problem? Put the work away for a few days. Take the leap from spare- to full-time practitioner, and the realities associated with doing something day in and day out (stretches of mind-numbing monotony, minefields of bureaucracy, the occasional deranged customer, the need to negotiate between perfectionism and defaulting on your mortgage), not to mention ensuring you get paid enough to cover the multitude of expenses beyond what you need to support yourself, tend to dampen the ardor. Hence the occasional warning about trying to make a living from work you love, lest you lose your passion. See this article forwarded to me by Russell Gale, or this essay by Vic Tesolin.
The problem is, the popular understanding of passion is seriously flawed. The word passion comes from a Latin verb that means to suffer, undergo, experience, endure.* While love is central to passion, passion is no easy kind of love. When we’re passionate about something, we’re driven.** We serve our passion by dealing with the trying circumstances and sometimes-maddening fallout that come in its train, every bit as much as by enjoying the satisfactions generated by our pursuit.
Doing what you love for a living demands that you cultivate a larger understanding of loving what you do–one that will accommodate the headaches, stress, sporadic income, psychological contortions required by some clients, occasional doldrums and sleepless nights that can come with being self-employed. When you think about it, this is no different from the deeply committed love that grounds a long marriage, which may involve stretches of monotony, moments of doubt, tending to a sick spouse (or parent, or child) and the occasional hour (or [come on, let’s be honest] more) of utter exasperation. As Tesolin puts it,
So let’s say you decide you’ve had enough of professional woodworking and look for another line of work. If you get hired, congratulations; you can enjoy a regular paycheck and the freedom to enjoy woodworking in your hours outside of the job. For many people I know, that’s an enviable situation, the best of both worlds.
being a pro woodworker means you are a slave to the grind. I’ve been there and it isn’t always pretty. It’s not often you get to do the kind of work that you want, and many times you are left begging to be paid for the work you complete – not to mention all of the other drudgery like bookkeeping, accounting, website upkeep and marketing.
But what if circumstances keep you in the game? What if you apply for other work, and even get interviews, only to hear that you were a serious contender but they didn’t hire you because (a) they thought you wouldn’t want to work for an employer after running your own business for so long, (b) you’re “over qualified” or (c) they were sure you’d miss the work about which you’d been so passionate, so you’d leave the new position and go back? This is what happened to me on multiple occasions when I tried to escape from earning a living as a woodworker. I needed an income so I went back to what I knew. I soon realized I would have to find a way to make peace with my work. Passion, in the truest sense, to the rescue. This is what Making Things Work is largely about.
Grappling with this work in the most existential ways has not resulted in me losing my passion, but in learning what a deeper form of passion entails.
So go ahead and do what you love. But please make sure you open your eyes before diving in.
*The same Latin word gives rise to our word passive, as in the passive versus active voice. The word “suffer” is another goldmine. From the Latin sub and ferre, it means to carry from below, i.e. to bear or endure–not the image that popular culture encourages us to associate with love.
**Note, again, the passive implication of this grammatical form.