Happy 2016! I hope what follows is of use to you in this time of reflection and resolution.
There are only two things in life worth pursuing. Ideally a binary focus makes life easier to navigate.
At this point I am going to assume that you have already read my post on contentment because what follows is based on the foundation of the ‘you’ outlined in it. Here is the link. Check it out or don’t. Truly your choice.
With this foundation of how we can choose to balance our lives between pleasure, knowledge, and achievement, we are each left with questions of what pleasures, what knowledge, what achievements should we pursue? Fortunately I have the answer, which I’m sure is correct. I am as sure as Ken Olson was when he asserted at the 1977 World Future Society meeting that “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” And the answer is so simple it only has two parts.
Part 1: We must pursue the discovery of our passions (mine include soccer, computer science, Star Wars, and good chili).
Part 2: When we know our passions and we must pursue them.
Simple right? The conscious reader likely noticed that I have not come any closer to answering the ‘what’ questions I laid out. I merely gave you the word passion and told you to find those ‘whats’ on your own. Not very helpful on my part. The real question is how do we find our passion? And if we have multiple passions how do we choose which ones to spend our limited time pursuing? As you likely assumed already, I am going to use fig tree to answer these (shout out to Sylvia Plath).
Let’s assume that each branch of the fig tree is a possible path through life, each driven by its own passion. This makes the fig at the end of each branch the proverbial fruit of that passion. Funny how that worked out. With that in mind, here is the Sylvia Plath quote that this metaphor stems from.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Ah yes, so much more eloquent. Let’s parse it. At each moment in life we can look off into the future and see a great many possibilities, each possibility bearing different figs, some sweeter and others juicier, but each with its own unique flavor. American existentialist John Barth put it best when ruminating on choice.
There’s a great difficulty in making choices if you have any imagination at all. Faced with such a multitude of desirable choices, no one choice seems satisfactory for very long by comparison with the aggregate desirability of all the rest, though compared to any ‘one’ of the others it would not be found inferior.
Reasoning renders us indecisive. Facing even the biggest juiciest fig, we hesitate to choose it, weighing it against the sum of the rest.
We thus wait in indecision. As Plath states, the longer we wait the more of our figs will rot. If we wait long enough, even that big juicy fig right in front of us will rot and fall from the tree. Eventually we are left with a tree bearing no fruit at all. That’s a sad life.
The American Guru
How do we get over this hurdle of apprehension caused by an infinite number of figs (apeirophobia)? How do we just pick one? Let’s listen to one of the great American gurus of our time, Oprah. Oprah once said the following.
You’ve got to follow your passion. You’ve got to figure out what it is you love—who you really are. And have the courage to do that. I believe that the only courage anybody ever needs is the courage to follow your own dreams.
I’ll give it to you; prima facie Oprah seems to be saying exactly what we have already established. Come on Oprah, I expected more. However, she does add something helpful in our quest to pick the right fig, to find that true passion. Oprah says that we need the courage to pursue our passion. If it takes courage to pursue our passion, then it is implied that we are often afraid to pursue it (if not it would not take any courage). This fear is the nugget of wisdom we have been looking for. Finding your passion is as simple as figuring out which fig you fear the most…
So we need to find the scariest fig on the tree. That makes about as much sense as finding the fast car with no wheels, but let’s lean into this idea anyway. Maybe it’s not the fig itself we fear; maybe it’s the pursuit of this forbidden passion fruit. For one, you are constantly pressured by society to stick to the beaten path. People will pressure you to follow these established paths, the safe career, but these paths leads to known results (and between you and me they are not exceptional).
But that’s not the only reason we fear our passion. We fear our passion because we could fail. We could climb the branches of the tree toward the fig of our dreams and fall. But if you are not afraid of failing to reach the fig, that fig is not worth pursuing. It is this fear of failure that means you truly value the passion. This passion is part of your identity. Your pride and your fear make you the perfect person to pursue whatever your passion is. Unlike others who seek to climb towards this fruit only for its flavor (riches, fame, whatever) and fall short from a lack of effort, you will never run out of motivation. They will not pursue it with your ferocity. Patanjali, who some have called the Father Yoga once said that when pursuing our passions:
[Our] consciousness expands in every direction, and [we] find [ourselves] in a new great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties, and talents become alive, and [we] discover [ourselves] to be a greater [people] by far than [we] ever dreamed [ourselves] to be.
A Very Real Concern
So by pursuing our passions we become super(wo)men. Awesome. But how does that pay the bills? This is a very real concern. There is a cost associated with being a part of modern society. There are some who will say that they know their passion, but there is no money in it and thus they cannot pursue it. They have to do something that pays the bills. Time for an appeal to introductory economics, which was my first shot at choosing a major in college. We can use a simple supply-demand argument. For those who are not familiar with SD, the figure below should provide a rudimentary understanding.
Do you think you are unique?
I am going to assume you answered yes to that. As we established earlier your passion is a fundamental aspect of your identity (that conscious temporal continuity that makes us unique). Thus your passion is likely to be something fairly unique as well. Thus as we pursue our passion we pursue our uniqueness. If we choose the established paths through life we abandon our uniqueness. No matter the demand for the established path we choose, the supply is so high that our talents are not sufficiently compensated. So why do we pursue these perceived golden eggs? We each know how unique we are. Harness that. Harness your passion. Regardless of how little demand there is for it, the supply is just as low the more unique it is. Pursuing your passion is like getting your own personal pie in whatever flavor you can imagine instead of sharing a sliver of a centuries old apple pie with every other human on earth following the established path.
I’m really not just trying to blow smoke up anyone’s a**. I just saw a Marriot commercial featuring a guy who runs marathons while juggling. If that guy is getting paid to pursue his passion so can you. Seriously.
I’ll wrap up with a quote from Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford. Hopefully it resonates now.
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. (Don’t watch the figs rot). As with all matters of the heart, you will know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.