The curious growing disdain for passion

Here we are again on the subject of passion in your workplace and life, which I wrote about last here when we discussed whether one of the reasons so many people are broke is because they made the mistake of following their passion.

Passion, it would seem, is so yesterday and the latest to say so is Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe, who delivered his “commencement speech” to Prager University, which isn’t really a university at all; it’s a website run by Dennis Prager, a conservative who stresses “America and her unique Judeo-Christian traditions.”

The growing chorus against passion increasingly seems like the logical follow-up to the campaign against education in the form of anti-intellectualism and “elitism.”

In the video this week, Rowe joins the odd collection of people who talk a good game when it comes to American “values.” He discourages big dreams and urges us to think small. That, apparently, is the new American way. And it’ll fill the jobs that businesses haven’t been able to fill.

It’s a new spin on an old bromide: Just be happy you have a job, especially if you’re not happy with your job.

Rowe says people should follow opportunity, not passion.

“When people follow their passion,” he says, “they miss out on opportunities they didn’t even know existed.”

Let’s step back.

Remember this speech from the 2012 commencement at Wellesley High School in which David McCullough Jr., told the kids that they’re not special?

But recall the point of McCullough’s speech.

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.

Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.

Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.

Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

Let me reintroduce you to the Wright Brothers, their story wonderfully told by McCullough Jr.’s father in his best-selling book.

They made a decent living making and selling bikes. But a bicycle shop wasn’t their passion. Flying was their passion, which is odd because nobody knew how to do it and almost nobody saw the value of trying. But they tried anyway, and failed, and tried some more. That was their dream. And one day they flew a plane for a few yards.

Caution. David McCullough uses the “P Word” while calling it — you’ll want to sit down for this, Prager disciples — “a profoundly American story.” Is that American story still possible in America?

Because they followed their passion, Mike Rowe now has a way to quickly get to the next paying gig to lecture glibly that you shouldn’t follow yours.

  • Justin McKinney

    I used to really enjoy Mike Rowe when he hosted “Dirty Jobs”. Now I am saddened by his current occupation – conservative shill.

    • >>conservative shill.<<

      It's his passion.

    • Jerry

      It is the dirtiest of jobs

    • jon

      I still like him more than so many conservative shills.

      I mean I don’t think he is going to tell a judge that he can’t be a judge because he is Latino, nor do I think he is going to tell us to disband public schools and let the free market educate children… But I do think he takes an occasionally reasonable message too far at times…

  • Mike

    So since his passion of being a craftsman, like his grandfather, didn’t pan out everyone else should give up on even trying their own? That speech is embarrassing…

  • Gary F

    Prager University is terrific. I recommend it all the time.

    I think Mike Rowe should have said to follow opportunity first, so you can get your feet under you, become self sufficient, then follow your passion. Like the Wright Brothers did.

    • My graduation speech would be much shorter. “Go do what you want. Find out things for yourself. Your parents generation is as screwed up as their parents ad they’re not as smart as they want you to think they are. They’ve been winging it.”

      • tboom

        My speech would be “You’re young, you’ve got time to make mistakes. In your 20’s and most of your 30’s make work fun and don’t be afraid to walk away and try new things, this will lead you to something you care passionately about. But by the time you hit 40 you better have things figured out or you’re doomed – no pressure”.

        • Kassie

          Naw, I’m 39 and realize I’m still going to make mistakes and I’m totally ok with it. I definitely don’t have things figured out and I’m not doomed. The older you get the more you realize that lots of people don’t have it together.

  • Ben

    What if your passion isn’t readily recognizable? Asking for a friend.

  • PaulJ

    A passion is something you’re willing to suffer for; a lot of people suffer at work because they have a passion to support their family.

  • Ben Chorn

    I think the point Mike Rowe is getting at is one I’ve had with many of my friends… we need to stop telling kids they can do anything they want. Sure, some kids are capable of becoming doctors, lawyers, astronauts… but the reality of, well, reality is that many kids aren’t.

    To me, the issue is that kids are told they can do anything, go anywhere, and don’t worry about the cost. It’s one of the reasons so many millennials face student debt (not all, but some). I’ve seen friends go to a $30,000/year tuition school to earn an education degree. I’ve watched people get degrees in Art, not because they were good at it, but because it’s what they wanted to do. Now they are stuck looking for work, 4 years wasted on a degree they can’t use.

    My advice has been similar to Mike Rowe’s- be smart and make your passion your hobby. Sure I could quit my job and join the professional bass fishing industry, but I would lose all my money doing so. It’s much more sensible to go fishing on the weekends with a stable job during the week.

    I don’t think the point is that all passion should be stymied, but that those with the skills to succeed should (know your limitations).

    • Gary F

      Well said. Self sufficiency is not taught by parents or society today. It’s sad.

    • What did kids do before adults decided we’d dictate to them how big they should dream?

      • Anna

        They invented their own entertainment as in building a pretend bazooka out of discarded PVC pipe, building a snow fort or creating a bike trail through the leaves in the backyard.

        They had to think for themselves and use their imaginations.

        Gee! What a novel idea!

      • DavidG

        Hasn’t that always been the case to some extent? How many kids took over the family business, or even just followed a parent into a field, not because they particularly wanted to, but because it was expected of them from an early age?

    • John Climber

      It’s a great stretch to hear this merely as “be happy with the job you got”.

    • Jay T. Berken

      No, I think Mike Rowe is giving us a bunch of dumb down ‘pull yourselves up by your bootstraps’ and get to work talk. We have be hearing the same c&^p since the ’80s. Everyone knows we need craftspeople, but even his own words said that he wasn’t a good carpenter, so he went to college. We need to get out of this mindset that our kids’ kids are lazy, this is the world we live in, and if we listen to this and not be smart about it, we will fall more behind while working at menial jobs like service jobs at Walmart and McDonalds.

      • Mike Rowe met a guy who likes to work in a dirty job and from that he decided he had it all figured out. I love his stuff. But he often uses straw man arguments.

        Some people like dirty jobs; some people don’t. So what?

        • Jay T. Berken

          I worked in maintenance at a pickle factory for two summers. The people working on the lines and with the brine tanks I have a lot of respect for. Although it was one of the best jobs I had to learn some trades, it was nice to get back to school.

          One of the most vivid memories I do have working in my current job at the utility. 10 years ago there was a large job of a high school, county roads and a 420 unit housing project was being constructed on a horse range. There was a stream going through the middle of the project whic was diverted into a 42″ pipe. Before the pipe was connected, there was a washout from a large rainstorm and buried the pipe in sediment. They had to get a man to dig out about 30′-40′ into the pipe with a wheelbarrow and shovel. Yes he was paid, but going in/out that pipe hunched over must have killed his back. I didn’t see him complain the couple times I saw him.

  • Anna

    I think the “lower your expectations” movement is a direct reaction and opposition to giving every kid in the tournament a trophy for “participation.” Let’s not make anyone feel bad, folks.

    I think back to the recent blog post about the young man not being allowed to wear his National Honor Society stole to walk for his diploma. The administration didn’t want the other students to “feel bad.”

    Heaven forbid we damage their precious self esteem.

    Had the Wright brothers bought into this mode of thinking we would still be crossing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via steamship and cruise liners.

    News flash: Failure is a part of life and refusing to admit failure only leads to more of it. ( A current political demagogue comes to mind here.).

    There is nothing wrong with having passion or a dream. Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s finding what inspires you to keep trying (and sometimes failing) that is the real challenge.

    • Tim

      My understanding (which may not be correct) is that the Wrights were able to develop and build their planes because of the money they made from their bicycle business, at least until things, er, started to take off. The knowledge they gained from the it helped too. It wasn’t really an either/or thing.

      • Hmccullough didn’t say. They certainly had skills and tools. Not a lot of money in the airplane business back then.

      • PaulJ

        Plus, the older Wright was obsessive (suffered for his art).

    • Dan

      You’re projecting about their reasoning — they did allow honor students to wear special stoles, why would they do that if their goal was what you stated?
      Their stated reasoning was that they didn’t allow pins, stoles, etc for any outside clubs or organizations, which is what the NHS is.

      Participation trophies have been around since the 70’s, they gave them out when I was a kid. You think kids didn’t notice the difference between a little plaque and big winner’s trophies? Pretty sure they only gave them out until like age 7. You know the skill level difference between a championship and last place basketball team of 6-year-olds? lol. Yet some people moan about this endlessly. AFAIK, you’re still free to lower your own kids’ self esteem as much as you’d like.

      • Anna

        When the 9/11 attacks occurred, my son was a freshman in high school. He was also a member of the Boy Scouts.

        His principal asked the Boy Scouts to wear their uniforms to school a day or so after the attacks to show support to those affected by the catastrophe and as a remembrance of those who died.

        There were 50 boys in his troop. Only two wore their uniforms to school that day—my son and a friend of his who was also in the Boy Scouts.

        My son’s comment? “I guess the other guys were too “cool” to wear theirs.”

        My son was also accepted by the Coast Guard Academy. You don’t get in there with a fancy letter from a U.S. Senator or Congressman. You get in based on your personal attributes and academic merits which includes extracurricular and community service activities.

        He is now a successful composites engineer and will be married this summer to wonderful young lady who is a middle school math teacher.

        You’re barking up the wrong tree about self esteem issues.

        That dog won’t hunt.

        • Dan

          So you think kids having self esteem is good rather than of worthy of derision? Great, me too.

  • Jay T. Berken

    So…this guy should have told the young Mike Rowe to buck up and keep at carpentry. I do not think he knows what he is talking about.

    • Jay T. Berken

      Also, the fantasy of all these trades jobs that out there is bunk. We had an influx of tradespeople in the earlier 2000s of plumbers, electricians and carpenters until 2008. After the 2008 housing bust, they had to find another job. Mike Rowe doesn’t give the people the respect of finding where the work is, insulting.

  • Dan
    • They couldn’t even get the link right.

      • Dan

        Lol, I know, right? You’d have to click on “has written”. You’d expect better basic HTML from a tech publication

  • Jeff

    I think these movements are based on the reality of our education system and the debt that results from “doing whatever you want” when selecting a major/college/length of time it takes to “find yourself”. You can have a passion all you want but be sure you can pay your bills, the Wright Brothers are a perfect example, they had the bike shop to pay the bills and that allowed them pursue their passion of flight…every dime they earned that didn’t pay their bills for their families went into their side project of flight. Do whatever drives you but in some cases that passion will be something you do outside of your day job…don’t forget you have bills to pay, don’t forget about the consequences of changing your major 6 times and don’t think you’re going to be able to pay back your $100k in student debt if your degree is less than marketable. This is part of the reason so many millennials are living at home with their parents, that passion may not pay the bills so get a day job and enjoy your passion in your spare time…your passion shouldn’t result in leeching off those around you.

    • Jay T. Berken

      “I think these movements are based on the reality of our education system
      and the debt that results from “doing whatever you want” when selecting
      a major/college/length of time it takes to “find yourself”.”

      How about have our representatives do their job and pass bills that will help cut the burden of student debt, so people are allowed, like our parents, to “find yourself”.

      • Jeff

        It’s not the responsibility of government to pay for your higher education…there should be more reasonable options but demanding more money from tax payers to keep throwing it down a rat hole isn’t the solution.

        • Jay T. Berken

          Where did you get your electrical engineering degree? How much debt did you have when you left college?

          • Jeff

            I went to the University of Minnesota and I had $16,000 in student loans… during my time in school tuition increased 37% (over 4 years). That was around 5-10 times faster than inflation.

          • Jay T. Berken

            Consider yourself fortunate that you graduated before/amidst the Pawlenty years U of M cuts which helped raised the above inflation tuition. I work with an electrical engineer grad from five years age whom also graduated at the largely public funded U of Minnesota with $60,000 in debt.

          • Jeff

            Pawlenty took office when I was in college…I took a look at my college costs and they were around $45k total, including room and board during my freshman year…my parents contributed what the FAFSA forms said they should contribute based on their income.

  • Thomas Mercier

    I’m all for the Brave New World model of education and career orientation.

  • lindblomeagles

    During the movie entitled “Keeping the Faith,” starring Ed Norton, Ben Stiller, and Jenna Elfman, Eli Wallach, whose character is a senior priest at a New York City Catholic Church, tells Ed Norton who can’t decide to stay a priest or date his childhood sweetheart, “You can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be . . . because it is all the same challenge . . . it is a choice that you keep making again and again. I’ve been a priest for over 40 years, and I fell in love at least once every decade.” This quote is germane to the blog about passion. If you don’t follow your passion, you still will have challenges approaching Mike Rowe’s “small steps,” and those challenges may be more insurmountable than the ones you would have faced following your own passion. Nothing in life is guaranteed, and I do mean nothing. You don’t know how successful you will be following your passion or ignoring them. All you have is commitment to whichever path you take, and the faith to get through the challenges that come along the way. Spoiler alert! Edward Norton continues his career in the Catholic Church, his passion, while his girlfriend, Jenna Elfman, falls in love with his friend, Ben Stiller. Nothing is guaranteed. All each of has is faith.

  • GWFirstinFlight

    Gustave Whitehead, true inventor of the world’s first successful aeroplane and a German immigrant living in CT, showed even more passion for his work. His success, while rarely recognized, paved the way for newcomers, such as the Wrights. To read the true story of early aviation, take a look at “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight”, and on Amazon.

  • Mike Worcester

    A little late to the convo here.

    When I first started my college education (wait, does Mr. Rowe think I should have skipped that?), I tried to follow the money. Then I realized that money does not equal happiness. Shocking, I know.

    Then I followed what I knew I’d find enjoyment in and care about (i.e., be passionate about). Here I am nearly twenty-four years later and still enjoying — and am passionate about — my work.

    Does that make me a drain on society? A failure? Or just someone who found their niche and wants to stick with it?

  • Kurt O

    I’ve held off a couple days in posting on this because I’ve often thought about the career vs job thing and passion about work.

    Mike’s American Idol analogy is interesting, and no one can deny that some contestants are truly deluded. But the secret about the really bad people they show is that they end up in front of the judges BECAUSE they are bad and are being set up for mockery. If the judges only saw good and marginal singers the characters they portray (the sweet one, the bad one and the tie breaker) wouldn’t work.

    He’s confusing passion with fantasy and pipe dreams. Passion isn’t about walking into a specific job. It’s about excitement and love for something bigger than just getting a paycheck. Walking into a dream job is fantasy; striving to get there and enjoying the journey is passion. A person may dream about being an astronaut, but they may find something achievable on while trying to fulfill the dream. This is compromise. Maybe they find out they can be an astronomy teacher or something else in their field of choice. Why didn’t Mike Rowe find another way he could be involved in building houses, like being a foreman on the jobsite?

    Here’s my personal story about passion: Friday was my last day of working at the company I spent over 18 years at working as a scientist. 150 people were laid off in one fell swoop. Some of my now former colleagues applied for every internal position at their job grade, regardless of what it was. Their mantra was “Take whatever job you can get to stay in the company”. This is being purely opportunistic.

    I applied for some jobs too, but didn’t really want any of them. What actually I did was buy a $900 computer and spend almost $500 on software so I could work on things I’ve wanted to do but wasn’t able to as part of my job. It’s not just about developing my skills for my next job: I do it because I love it. My goal for my next job is to do something that will pay me to do work in this area, but I’m willing to compromise if I find something close.

    Mike Rowe doesn’t get that punching a time clock and going home from a job you don’t hate isn’t passion. Passion for work is staying up until 2 am working on something that may or may not be related to getting a paycheck from your daytime employer. I doubt the septic tank pumper guy would be “passionate about crap” if he wasn’t getting paid a lot to do it.

    • Tim

      I’m glad you shared your story, and best of luck with your new venture. Many people think that STEM = guaranteed job, and that’s really not the case at all. At best it is only in certain disciplines, for certain periods of time. Programming is hot now, for example, but 11-12 years ago, people were having trouble finding work in that field, and many thought all the jobs had gone offshore and weren’t coming back. But things change over time. Construction was like that too; there’s a lot of demand for workers in that field right now, because after the housing market collapse, many went into other fields and people didn’t think it was an industry with a future.

      The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that having a set road map for one’s life and career isn’t the best way to go about things anyway. Staying flexible and adaptable, as well as being willing to learn new skills, is the way to go.

  • Rich in Duluth

    Rowe’s comments bother me because it is an extreme position. When he said to follow opportunity and not your passion, he’s suggesting that life decisions are all black and white. A less extreme position would be to understand how the world works and do what is necessary to survive in it AND follow your passion. To be a responsible citizen, it’s important to provide for yourself and your family as well as you can, but to find real meaning in life, it’s imperative to pursue your passions, too.

    • jon

      “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” –Obi Wan

      • Les.Tracking

        “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” –Yoda (not Sith)

  • Khatti

    I am enough of a working-class boy so that the emphasis on finding joy and fulfillment in the job has always befuddled me. Desiring to keep the lights on, food in the fridge, and shoes on the feet, that I get. Being bored and feeling the need to do something to occupy yourself, that I get. Being greedy, and finding that filling the bank account is fulfilling in a masturbatory sort of way, that I get. Expecting some sort of profound and vaguely defined fulfillment to come from working for a living, that I don’t get.People who don’t believe in God never-the-less expecting to find him standing by their desk with cake and cookies and a kiss on the forehead.

    I should point out that I’m trying to make a new career as a fiction writer, but even that is often drudgery. and I didn’t expect it to be any other way.

  • Les.Tracking

    I have no problem with people pursuing their passion. However, that doesn’t mean that someone should pay you to pursue it.