What is it like to follow your passion?

I gave a talk on following your passion at PressNomics 6. This is the companion article that I wrote for it.

Most of us dream of following our passion. We want to do things that we’re enthusiastic about every day. We hope that, by doing that, we’ll bring eternal happiness to our lives.

But is that how happiness really works? And what is it like to try to follow your passion that way? Can it even lead to success?

I’ve dedicated the last few years of my life to “following my passion”. It’s been an eye-opening journey full of interesting choices. It did bring me happiness, but it definitely came at a cost.

College was a life-changing experience

Like a lot of millenial stories, mine starts in college. College was a really unique experience for me. I studied out of town, which might be normal for some, but not that common in French Canada. (Montreal has four universities, and two of them are world-class.)

This meant that, when I left for college in 2002, all my friends stayed in Montreal. I was going to be all alone. On top of that, I was going to an English school for the first time in my life. (I’d done school in French up until then.)

It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt at the time, but I’m pretty sure I was quite scared about being thrust in such an unknown environment. This might seem unusual considering who I am today. But that’s just a statement to how life-changing college was for me.

In fact, the person I was when I entered college would be unrecognizable to almost anyone who knows me today. I was a pretty typical shy nerd who had trouble with social situations. I definitely preferred playing video games and watching anime to going out and socializing. (I still love video games and get addicted to them especially World of Warcraft.)

When I graduated four years later, I felt like a new person. I followed it up with my first backpacking trip. Backpacking felt a lot like my transformative experience in college. I met a lot of new people who I felt helped me grow as a person.

This period of my life really set my expectations for how the rest of my life would play out. I thought that I’d continue this journey of personal growth as I entered the workforce. Well, I was in for quite a surprise!

Life after college was not

My first steps into adulthood weren’t too different from anyone else. I managed to land a job as application analyst for the now-defunct Heenan Blaikie Canadian law firm. This wasn’t the job I’d expected to get as a computer engineer coming out of college.

That said, it did feel like a massive opportunity at the time. Typically, you’d need a few years of work experience to even land a job like that. I was quite nervous that I’d screw it up!

Well, the good news is that I didn’t! But the bad news was that, by my second year, I’d become quite bored with this job. That’s because I learned a lot during the first year, but then it slowed down in the second.

This was a very troubling situation for me. I’d expected work to be a continuation of what I’d experienced in college. It wasn’t. Work didn’t offer me the same challenge, and learning opportunities as my computer engineering program did.

This was going to be a recurring trend over the next few years. I’d get a new job and then get bored with it within a year or so. And it was always because I’d stopped learning at a rate that I found acceptable.

As this is going on, I was also beginning to experience my new social life as an adult. This was also a sharp contrast from social life in college. Everyone’s focus was on dating with the goal of moving in, getting married, buying a house and having kids. (An expression for this is called “riding the relationship escalator“.)

This focus on settling down wasn’t what I wanted out of my social life. I wanted to meet all sorts of different people, learn from them and keep growing as a person. I didn’t want to settle and stagnate.

Defining success for myself

Now, let me say that there’s nothing wrong with settling down. If you want to get married, have kids and own a house or condo, that’s great. But they’re not things that I care about.

And that’s why, if it wasn’t obvious at this point, I was going through a quarter-life crisis. (And I probably still am if I’m honest.) What do you do when what society expects of you and what you want out of life are so opposed to one another? When what society views as success means nothing to you?

Well, that’s been a lot of the journey following my passion. To follow your passion, you have to be able to define what success means to you. If, for you, success means owning a Porsche, then following your passion won’t look quite the same as it does for me.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with that! But what it means is that you have to spend time introspecting. You have to figure out what success will look like for you.

What did that look like for me?

There’s a good chance this will require experimentation. (Unless you’re fortunate and figure it out on the first try!) I like to joke that there’s probably an alternate universe where I got an MBA degree from Harvard. That’s because I did apply to the program and, at that time, that’s what I saw as a hallmark of a successful career.

I was also on track to become a director of technology at the same time. I’d already been a team lead, a business analyst and a project manager at this agency. This was just the next thing for me to aim for on the traditional career path that we equate to success.

But while I loved interacting with co-workers and clients, I also missed writing code. Coding was the thing I was really passionate about. I’d been doing it since I was a kid and, even at the law firm, I went back to coding to build in-house tools.

This career path issue with programmers is better known now. But, at the time, it wasn’t discussed much and that’s what all successful programmers that I saw did. (For example, one of my friends at the time got hired from programmer to director of technology at another company.) That said, this didn’t feel like success to me.

To me, that was the positive outcome of applying for an MBA and doing the management career track at this agency. I realized that I was playing society’s game. And all that I was doing was trying to achieve things that would make me successful by society’s standards and not my own. So I decided not to play and quit my job at the agency.

On “Finding your passion”

I want to hit pause on talking about “defining success” for a moment to talk about finding your passion. Everyone is always looking for their passion and wondering how they can find it. Much like defining success, this is a question that only you can answer.

The reality is that most of us have things that we’re passionate about already! We have things that we do and love when we’re not working. Maybe we want to dance or travel or spend time with our kids or build ships in a bottle. (Or all the above!) I don’t know what it is and it doesn’t matter as long as it makes you happy.

And, to me, that’s what it means to find your passion. It isn’t necessarily about finding the one thing that you can do forever. It’s just about being able to do the things that make you happy in the present.

But that’s the essence of what was going on with me at the time that I quit my agency job. I was just looking to do things that made it so that I woke up happy and fulfilled most days. That’s it.

That’s why that realization that coding was what I was passionate about was so important. I’d been doing it since I was a kid and it was always something I gravitated back towards. I’d never woken up unhappy knowing I’d have to spend some time coding that day.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that was the essence of finding your passion. I was simply trying to figure out how to live my life without feeling miserable. It just happened that both things were related to each other.

Wanting to make a dent in the universe

With this covered, we can go back to the experimentation story. So, as this was all going on at the agency, I became focused on being in charge of my own life. That’s because I’d read the “The 4-hour workweek” as well as some other classic startup culture books.

These books had a significant influence on me at the time. I wanted to make a dent in the universe on my own terms. That meant doing a startup and creating a company with an amazing culture like Google. Once I’d done that, I’d be free to do cool things like Tony Hsieh in “Delivering Happiness“.

This kickstarted a new phase of experimentation around this idea that success was about making a dent in the universe. This might also be where I still am today. I’ve learned a lot about what that type of success means to me along the way. Much of it I’ve been sharing in year in review posts.

Doing a fitness startup

I started off by doing a health startup for personal trainers. I love the field of fitness research. I figured why not combine coding with something else that I’m passionate about.

I also felt I’d be able to make my dent in the universe that way. I’d help people learn to exercise consistently with the help of their personal trainer. This would help people live a healthier life and be a benefit to society.

But as I worked on this startup idea, I realized that the people I surrounded myself with mattered a lot to me. So, while I loved fitness research, I didn’t like the fitness industry nor its people that much. It was a lot of people trying to sell you snake oil and just a lot of toxicity.

Nor did I like the startup scene and its people either. There was this prevailing “fake it until you make it” attitude. Everyone was just boasting on how well they were doing. No one talked about their struggles. It didn’t feel real.

On top of that, I started to feel like a startup wasn’t the right vehicle for what I wanted to do. After all, I was trying to find a way to be in charge of my own life. But a startup was the opposite of that. It was all about raising money which turned into a sitting on a timebomb.

Moving on to bootstrapping

Around that time, I learned about bootstrapping from Amy Hoy. This seemed a much better fit for how I wanted to live my life. I still got to start a business, but I got to make money on my own terms. I wasn’t beholden to investors.

So I shifted my attention to trying to do that, and it’s still where I am today. I tried building an error management platform for WordPress. This wasn’t such a successful endeavour as you can read in my 2015 year in review.

But that got me more involved with the WordPress community, which is full of great people. I started writing a lot of WordPress technical articles and then speaking at a lot of WordCamps. Finally this year, I came out with a self-published book which did $16,000 in sales.

I still don’t have a bootstrapped business or sustainable way to live on my own terms. And that’s ok! But this gets to importance of being able to define success for yourself.

Do I feel successful today?

Would you feel successful if all you had to show after seven years of experimentation was a book that made $16,000? This question gets right at the core of why you need to define success for yourself. You can’t honestly answer it if you haven’t done it.

So, for me, the answer is yes. (It would be a bit weird if it wasn’t!) But that’s because I feel like I’m progressing towards the larger success goals that I’d set for myself. I also feel that I’ve made progress living on my own terms in this world that often feels foreign to me.

This feeling of progress that comes from having defined success for yourself is also important. It’s not always enough to have something that we’re passionate about, and that makes us happy. We also need something that’ll build and sustain your self-esteem as we’re experimenting.

As you saw with my journey, trying to live a life following your passion isn’t always a straightforward journey. (In fact, I think it won’t be for most of us.) But your definition of success can act as your guiding star. It’ll help guide you towards a sustainable way to live that life.

Living sustainably

This idea of a sustainable way to live is the last thing that I want to discuss. So far, we’ve talked a lot about things that you had to figure out. What’s your passion? What makes you happy? How do you define success?

We haven’t talked a lot about how you can make that life a reality. Sustainability is a good way to describe how you can achieve this. Sustainability means that you have to find a way to balance your life.

Acknowledging my privileges

Before I go any further, I think it’s important for us to discuss privileges. We’re not all born equal, and some of us have more advantages going through life than others. And some of those advantages are more beneficial when you’re trying to live a sustainable way following your passion.

I think you should know what kind of advantages I had trying to live sustainably. There’s a good chance that you’ll have to face challenges that I haven’t had to. And the other way around as well.

American sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the state of having privilege as being “like running with the wind at your back”, unaware of invisible sustenance, support and propulsion.

The reason I bring up this quote is that there’s no question I’m unaware of all the privileges that I have. I’ve done my best to try to think of the ones relevant to this journey. I’ve also tried to break them down somewhat.

First, there are privileges I was born with:

  • I am a white man.
  • I am Canadian. (Sorry!)
  • I was born into an upper middle class family.

By being a Canadian citizen, I have access to some things that others might not. Some of those are:

  • Free healthcare.
  • Cheap education.
  • Great passport.

But I was also born into an upper middle class family, this allowed me to:

  • Go to some of the best schools in Canada.
  • Get my education without any student debt. (Best gift my parents ever gave me.)
  • [Have some other privilege I’m unaware of]

There are few things I lucked into like:

  • Not having any serious health condition.
  • Living in one of the cheapest rental markets in North America.
  • Picking a profession in the knowledge industry.

This last one is important because, by being a programmer, I have a lot of unique privileges like:

  • Getting paid very well.
  • Having the possibility of working remotely.
  • Being able to choose how many hours I work each month.

So this covers what all the privileges or advantages I could think of. Like I said earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me that I forgot some that I’m unaware of. We all tend to take these things for granted, and I’m no exception here.

Making tradeoffs

The reason I bring up privileges is that, to live a sustainable life, you need to be able to make tradeoffs. And, depending on your privileges, it might be easier to make these tradeoffs and live sustainably than someone else. That said, regardless of your privileges, having to make tradeoffs tends to be hard for most of us.

In fact, this is probably the hardest part of following your passion. It’s not easy to tell ourselves that we can’t have something. But to follow your passion, you have to be willing to make tradeoffs and say no to things.

This is also why your definition of success is so critical. If you have an idea of what success looks like for you, you can make some of these tradeoffs more easily. For example, I don’t really care about how much I make as long as I make enough to survive, which is very little. (I made a bit less than $24,000 USD last year and broke even.)

But again, this wouldn’t be possible without my privileges either. So it’s important not to forget about them and not get caught up in the survivorship bias. I’m sure others have tried and failed because they ran into a problem that I didn’t run into.

At the same time, I definitely made choices that are quite unique regardless of my privilege. For example, I lived in a living room for three years when I was surviving on less than $1000/month. I think it’s a great example of the level of thriftiness that I was willing to go through to follow my passion.

It’s also a good example of how not defining success for yourself can affect your self-esteem. When I lived that way, I was super embarrassed about it. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t afford to do anything. That’s why I never took any pictures of it, and I regret it today.

Striving for balance

Downsizing our lives is something that most of us are capable of doing. You don’t have to go to the same extremes that I’ve gone through. The goal is just to find some form of balance so that you can find a way to follow your passion.

To me, this is where most people fail at following their passion. If your life isn’t balanced, it becomes quite hard, if not impossible, to follow your passion. You have no room to breathe. You can’t deal with setbacks or whatever else life throws at you.

The most obvious thing that we have to balance is money. If we’re broke and living from paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to do anything else. Money is something constantly hanging over our head. It consumes a lot of our energy and affects our ability to think.

But there are other ways to live an unbalanced life. For example, you can be a workaholic. You have all the money and things that you need, but you’re working all the time. You can’t find a way to follow your passion if you don’t have any time to spare.

Time and money are some of the most obvious examples of things to balance. And, in a way, it always goes back to those two things. But to get to a point to balance them, you often have to balance out other aspects of your life.

And this isn’t just something that you’ll have to do once. You’ll have to keep doing it over and over even as life throws wrenches at you. That’s how you’ll get to keep following your passion.

And that’s been my journey so far

So this is the essence of what following my passion has been for me so far. To me, the idea of following your passion is a bit of misnomer. Like I said about finding your passion, it’s been a lot more about doing the things that make me happy in the present.

And a key aspect of being happy in the present is feeling like you’re successful. But each of us has a different definition of success. I can’t tell you what yours is. You need to figure it out yourself.

And then, once you have an idea what success is for you, you have to try to find a way to do the things that make you happy. That means that you have to balance your life so that you can do them. And keep balancing it afterwards so that you keep doing them as well.

Photo Credit: Ian Schneider