Want to build a life and career around something you're passionate about? Great! Now how do you feel about intense struggle, repeated failure, and constant change?
To be sure, those are things pretty much all of us are bound to face in our careers, but it's far more likely you'll have a tougher go of it if you're dead set on following your passion. That's why so many advise different approaches to finding work, suggest ways to turn your ho-hum gig into your "dream job", or counsel giving up an a passion career altogether.
But the fact is that some people do follow their passions and find it actually works out. One reason they're a small minority, though, is because we live in a world that glorifies words like "passion" and "purpose" when it comes to life and career choices, but almost completely ignores the pain, failure, and even chaos that tends to precede achieving that. That's a recipe for widespread disappointment.
So we asked five professionals across a range of fields to share the raw, unfiltered truth about struggles they experienced as they set out to follow their passions and, ultimately, pulled it off. Here's what they said.
When Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult and former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, decided to give up her career in corporate law in order to pursue a career on a college campus, she remembers sharing her plans with a highly respected corporate attorney who laughed in her face and called college administrators "mindless bureaucrats."
"That conversation was over 20 years ago," Lythcott-Haims recounts, "and yet I still remember it––being ridiculed when you finally have the guts to say what you want to do with your life isn’t something you easily forget. It takes tremendous courage to pursue your dreams, regardless of what others think or say."
Elizabeth Meyer, funeral director and author of the upcoming book Good Mourning, recalls a similar experience, joking that she "risked social suicide by opting to work in the funeral industry. People are comfortable when conforming to a norm, and I pushed all those around me to accept something different."
In short, expect haters. Before you can even think about taking practical steps toward a passion career, you need to make sure you can handle doubt and dismissal. Sometimes skeptics will offer some useful words of caution, but other times, you'll need to ignore them completely in order to make progress in the direction of your dreams.
Despite whatever the latest self-help guru is selling you on social media, the reality is that building a successful life and career around your most deeply held passions is going to be challenging. You're almost certainly in for some suffering.
Casey Gerald, founder and CEO of MBAsXAmerica and TED speaker cautions that people who want to pursue their passion need to have a high tolerance for pretty painful setbacks:
One of the things that bothers me about the conversations that people have about following your dreams . . . is that often the people who are saying it are people who don’t have much at stake—they don’t have to worry much about bills, or they have connections, or trust funds, etc. But the reality is that life is really freaking hard . . . and in many ways, the world conspires to fight against you. I wish we had a healthier dialogue about suffering, so that people who are suffering don’t feel like it’s the end.
Emotional pain and anguish are par for the course when it comes to following your dreams. Nevertheless, you can prepare yourself by building a strong support network, saving money, and—as Gerald emphasizes—learning to live cheaply right from the get-go.
No matter what your circumstances, changing course in your life and career is risky. You’re giving up what feels safe and familiar in order to go after something that may be no more than a vague idea in the back of your mind.
Adam Braun, who left his corporate career to found the international nonprofit Pencils of Promise, counsels people to approach risks in the same way that you’d approach building a great team: "Hire slowly and fire quickly." In other words, take the time and energy to plan well and make thoughtful choices, but if something isn't working, don’t be afraid to pull the plug and move on to the next option.
Aspen Institute fellow Cathy Casserly, who’s made several career pivots between nonprofit and corporate leadership roles, says that taking these types of risks is easier when you judge your next steps based on how close they’ll bring you to your ultimate goals: "My choices have always been based on the [organization’s] mission and whether I’m able to meaningfully contribute to that mission."
As these five people who've followed their passions are quick to emphasize, whether you’re looking to change your job, switch fields, pursue a nontraditional career, or launch your own venture, building a life and career around your passion is a lofty but not impossible goal—one that too many of us tend to mischaracterize and subsequently fail to achieve.
Getting it right means starting with an honest assessment of your objectives, drive, and willingness to make some tough choices. But if you do pursue your dream, you'll know what to expect and may find yourself better prepared to deal with challenges when they happen than most. And that might determine whether you succeed.
Anne Loehr is a sought-after keynote speaker, writer, consultant, and trainer. She helps leaders in large organizations connect their everyday decisions today to the workplace of tomorrow. Danielle Harlan, PhD, is founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential and the author of the forthcoming book The New Alpha: Join the Rising Movement of Influencers and Changemakers Who are Redefining Leadership. Follow them on Twitter at @anneloehr and @danielleharlan.