Passion, Profit, and the Pursuit of Happiness

About a year ago, I did a quick audit of my blog post topics and found a theme, one in addition to the obvious introversion and entrepreneurship threads. When I looked at my thoughts on comfort zones, Nike ad slogans, exhortations to fake it ’til you make it, and other time tested truisms, my thoughts often followed a similar course: to be a contrarian.

Passion Profit Pursuit of Happiness When you think about it, the proclamation that we introverts can be successful leaders, speakers, networkers, sales people, and entrepreneurs also flies in the face of conventional wisdom, the one that says that it’s the most extroverted among us that have the highest chance for success. We are, of course, debunking that particular myth, but I suspect there will be ample opportunity to challenge it for quite some time.

What’s the value in taking the contrarian point of view? It’s not about being difficult or disagreeing just for the fun of it. For my part, it helps to clarify my thinking, beliefs, and values. Instead of accepting whatever the cliché or conventional wisdom is, I like to ask a few questions that also work in so many coaching situations: is that true? Is that the full story? Is that my story? And ultimately I might come to the question, what are different ways to interpret that wisdom?

In the process of reflecting, I might come to agree with whatever the statement is. But at least I’ve put it through its paces and made it work for its truth. I don’t just go along to get along; I am intentional.

As one of my coaching colleagues put it, it helps me to live by design, not by default.

There are a few consistent pieces of conventional wisdom that have popped up a lot in the past few years, ones that I’ve dissected enough to have a certain amount of clarity about them. I’m sharing one them in this post. I chose it because it’s come up in several conversations in recent weeks. I see it frequently being shared without any commentary except for maybe a brief “Yes!” or “This.” You might agree with my perspective, you might disagree, or you might not know what you think quite yet. Whatever your response, I invite you to do a deep dive on your own feelings about it and gain clarity for yourself.

You also might read or listen to what I offer here and think I’m being a Debbie Downer, throwing a wet blanket on a dream. That’s not my intention. My intention is to provide a catalyst for your reflection. I want to create space for you to notice if and where attachment might be contributing to feeling stuck, frustrated, or impatient.

So what is this oft-quoted piece of advice that adorns thousands of motivational posters, Twitter and Facebook posts, and graduation gifts?

It’s “Follow your bliss,” brought to us by Joseph Campbell. The Joseph Campbell Foundation says that Campbell was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience. His philosophy is often summarized by his phrase: ‘Follow your bliss.’”

Here’s the context that surrounds that phrase. It was part of Bill Moyers’ interview for The Power of Myth series:

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of… being helped by hidden hands?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time – namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

The Foundation site goes on to clarify the statement, saying “Yet it is important to note that following one’s bliss, as Campbell saw it, isn’t merely a matter of doing whatever you like, and certainly not doing simply as you are told. It is a matter of identifying that pursuit which you are truly passionate about and attempting to give yourself absolutely to it. In so doing, you will find your fullest potential and serve your community to the greatest possible extent.”

First, let me share what I love about this statement. I’ve found it to be true: when I am in tune with what brings me joy, contentment, and peace, I feel a sense of flow and connection. I don’t interpret “bliss” to mean ecstatic happiness, where everything is rainbows and unicorns. It’s more about that place where I feel grounded and most alive, most true. In that place, I meet people who reflect that bliss, and they open doors. Or at least, I finally see those people who have always been there but on the edges, and I finally open the doors that have always been available to me but outside of my limited perception.

I’d go so far as to say that following your bliss is part of the meaning of life. We are given this one opportunity to fully explore, embrace, and share whatever gifts, curiosities, and longings we possess. If we don’t follow them and try to manifest them, then we risk a life half-lived. We deprive others of experiencing who we are at our core.

“Then what’s the problem?”, you might be wondering. “If you think ‘follow your bliss’ is so awesome, what’s your beef?”

Let me start with my own experience. I love photography. I love taking photos and learning techniques to capture a moment in a more compelling way. For me, it’s about creating not just a memory that I can enjoy, but a piece of art others can appreciate. When I have a camera in my hands, everything else drops away. And I’ve been told I have a good eye. A few people have even paid me for my photos, and that brings me great joy. It’s not so much the money that makes me happy. It’s the fact that my images have pleased someone else enough that they want them for their own.

I’ve had various ideas over the years for turning my passion into a business. But I always stop myself. I think about what it would mean to be a full-time photographer. My learning curve. The equipment. The fierce competition. The pressure. Sometimes I go back and look at my images from the first year I got a new, more professional camera, and I marvel at how much freer I was before I knew what I was doing. I was thinking less, experimenting more, and breaking rules I didn’t know existed.

Now I go out, and I’m conscious of the rules. I think too much. I try too hard. I put pressure on myself, and it’s not as much fun. It’s only when I relax and invite myself to forget what I know that I have fun again. I slip back into a state of flow and emerge with new energy. If I were to try to make my photography hobby into a formal business, I seriously wonder if my passion would be replaced with pressure.

And that brings me to my beef: in short, it’s that we too often believe “follow your bliss” means “monetize your bliss.”

It’s not always wise – financially, emotionally, spiritually – to try to monetize our passions. You can love dogs, you can adore knitting, you can think that there’s nothing better than making big pots of soup to share with the neighbors. You might be an awesome writer, singer, artist, yogi, carpenter, or decorator. Those things could all bring you bliss. You might experience that flow that causes you to lose track of time, you’re so absorbed in your task.

And just because you feel that flow, that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be monetized.

It doesn’t have to be a business.

It doesn’t have to be your full-time job.

In fact, doing so may kill the love, or at least, dampen it. What was once a source of fun becomes tainted by pressure (to make money, to compete for business, to be “the best”). You see it as a “have to” instead of a “want to.”

There’s a simple reason why I think we get into trouble. We collapse two different ideas: Follow your bliss, and do what you love and the money will follow. And then we connect that to another popular quote: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” (Unknown).

I circle back to the fact that Campbell never said “make your bliss your life’s work.” The commentary on the quote offers that you should attempt to “give yourself absolutely to it,” but that doesn’t translate into “monetize it.” Yet that’s what we so often automatically do. We think that’s the answer to our work/life balance issues: if only we were passionately in love with our work, we would be happy.

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, we all spend a significant portion of our days working. And if we’re going to spend time and money on our education, training, certifications, and professional development, we’d better darn well like what we do. I’m not saying that we should settle for less-than-satisfying work.

But we make ourselves miserable when we become attached to the idea that our passion also should be our profit. When we go down that road, we not only open up the possibility that our bliss will burn us out. We also end up being chronically dissatisfied with work we’re doing that’s good, that uses our talents and skills. We grow restless and unhappy, believing that “good enough” isn’t good enough. And the more we demonize good-enoughness, the more we romanticize our bliss.

One thing to consider, even if you succeed in monetizing your bliss: there’s a chance that at some point, even it will not live up to your expectations. Part of that is because we buy into the idea that if you love your work, it won’t feel like work. I call baloney! It’s true that when you love it, it’s easier. I am in my happy place when I’m facilitating a powerful coaching session or discussion, or when I’m finding just the right words to express myself. There are times when it’s bliss. And there are times when it’s a slog. There are moments, and even days, when I struggle to stay focused, when I doubt my abilities, when I’d rather take off and go take pictures of dahlias all day. Even work we love can feel like work. That’s important to remember when you consider what it means to give yourself fully to your bliss.

Here’s the bottom line: If you don’t feel an enthusiastic, no-way-to-ignore-it pull towards layering a business model on top of the things you love, then it’s probably best to embrace them as passions. Look at the way you make money as a means, not an end, to your bliss. In that case, your work should facilitate spending more time and energy on your bliss. If it doesn’t, then re-evaluate your choices about work and decide if something needs to change.

Of course, we want the way we make money to have meaning and value and being aligned with our gifts. Seriously explore how your bliss and your work might end up being the same thing. And if it’s possible to monetize your bliss and retain the love affair, then that’s fantastic. That’s an ideal situation.

That said, what you choose to do for a paycheck doesn’t tell the whole story of who you are. It’s one small piece of you. You are so much more than your 9-5 job!

I’m going to throw in one more thought before wrapping up: sometimes it’s not our bliss that leads us to our life’s highest purpose. It’s our sadness. Our anger. Our grief. That’s what I’ve noticed for myself over the past year. I’m aware that my spirit feels pulled towards the hopeless places, asking how hope can be created. It’s a weird tension, because it’s ingrained in us to pay attention to what makes us happy and do more of it. But what about what makes us sad? What if there’s deep meaning to be revealed in that space? What if our happiness comes from walking straight into the very thing that stimulates troubling emotions in us?

I suspect that’s the call followed by a lot of people who work and volunteer for challenging causes, such as those addressing trauma or abuse. Their bliss comes from righting a wrong, or bringing comfort and hope. Pay attention to anything that brings up strong emotion, whether it’s joy or anger. That emotion is information that points you towards your contribution to the world.

If you’ve found yourself in a tug-of-war between your bliss and your reality, you’re not alone! There’s lots to sift through. I hope this post has given you another way to think about the tension.

As you reflect, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is most important that I need to express in the world? (There might be multiple answers to this, but I encourage you to think of no more than two or three)
  • Is that expression something that would serve me best – and serve the world best – as a vocation or avocation? (Where will it do the most good, and where can I be my best in delivering it?)
  • If it’s a vocation, is it best expressed though entrepreneurship or working for another organization?
  • If it’s an avocation, what about my current work situation is supportive of it? What’s not? What choices do I have to make my work more in service to my bliss?
  • When I hear my inner voice saying, “it’s trivial” or “I’m not qualified,” or whatever self-talk that’s keeping me small, who’s telling me that? What story is behind it? (That goes for vocation or avocation!)
  • What would happen if I try something new and it doesn’t work out? (Could I handle it and move on? HINT: yes ;-))

For me, this has been an ongoing inner dialogue that keeps me curious and seeking. I feel I’m closer to following my bliss in a healthy way than I ever have been before. It’s manifesting itself partly through my work, but mostly through the way I spend my leisure time. Perhaps someday the worlds will collide. Maybe I’ll be all bliss, all the time.

What’s more important now is that I release attachment to my bliss showing up in a certain way, especially in a way that feeds my bank balance. There’s a more critical balance to strive for: that of my body, mind, and spirit, all working together to bring joy to my life and joy to others.

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