Mike Rowe, Passion and Pressing On

This week I attended a community meeting with the Board of Education as they attempt to draft a new strategic plan for the system.  We divided up into breakout groups so  the facilitators could better hear from community stakeholders about what we want and expect from our public schools.  It was exactly like you are imagining it. There ARE more exciting ways to spend a weeknight, but the feedback  was important, and while my own input was limited to four words, I learned a lot about our schools and listened to expectations and concerns from my community that I had not felt personally.

One theme that kept recurring was the need to have our children graduate from our institutions not only college ready, but career ready.  To matriculate from school with life and  job skills, not just test scores.  Those concerns reasonated with me, because while I fund accounts dedicated to the pursuit of higher education, and my wife and I have expectations that our daughers attend college one day, I sense something amiss in our continued emphasis on higher education when it comes at such a cost. 

Much of what I have been feeling but not well articulated was captured in some thoughts that Mike Rowe, host of the the popular television show Dirty Jobs, had for one of his fans.  Rowe's foundation and work is currently dedicated to closing the "skills gap" and challenging the belief that a four year degree is the only path to success.  I saw this just a day or two after reviewing an excellent long form story by USA Today on "the new blue collar."

Rowe's response was to a question by one of his fans. The fan was taking issue with Rowe on some advice he had previously given...that someone should not follow their passion.  Below I include the entire correspondence if you are interested in reading it (you should), but there are a couple of points I wanted to comment on.   


You are more than your work

Rowe writes, "When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards."  This is spot on.  He goes on to point out that most of the people he worked with on Dirty Jobs never dreamed of doing what they do, but they came to love it and often prosper. 

I have spoken to countless people either struggling because they are doing a job that they don't feel passion for or who are in dire financial straits because they pursued a passion but couldn't monetize it. (Hint:  You probably shouldn't take on $100,000 student loan debt to earn a master's degree in anthropology.)  Since when does passion have to be a foundation of a career?  

You can be productive to your community, excel in your job and make a wage that supports you and your family, but you do NOT have to be passionate about it nor should you apologize for not feeling that way.  You are more than your work, or at least you should be, and it is okay if you don't have a college degree.  

Rowe's mission is to help our country address the skills gap that is threatening the future of the American economy.  There are lots and lots of jobs that pay very well, but we don't have a workforce either skilled  to do them, or we have job searchers who feel too entitled to take them because that is not where their passion lies.  We need to get over ourselves and start training and educating our workforce of the next 100 years. 

Goals matter but only if they are realistic goals

Rowe continues, "I don’t see a shortage of people who are willing to dream big. I see people struggling because their reach has exceeded their grasp."

I see this as well on the financial side.  Good financial planning is predicated on proper financial goals and proper financial goals have to be realistic. I often work with people who have an unrealisitic expectation for what they can do financially or continue to do something because they have never taken the time to clarify what they are doing to begin with.  

Financially speaking, most of us will not have the resources to go through life without some intentional thought about what we are trying to accomplish.  Rowe said it excellently, "In a world where everyone gets a trophy, encouragement trumps honesty, and realistic expectations go out the window." 

I have had clients get angry with me because I could not tell them what they wanted to hear.  It was as if I had sinned against them for suggesting the dreams they had could not be accomplished without any sacrifice or behavioral modification.  Maybe that is how financial services work on the sales side, where the goal is for the advisor to earn a big commission selling something with the promise that their product be the pancea for all their shortcomings, but I have a duty to tell clients the truth.  And the truth is... our reach does too often exceed our grasp.  

Hang in There.

Hang in There.

Pressing on with or without Passion

Rowe's final salvo is that "passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by."  I love this.  Life is beautiful, wonderful and mysterious.  It is also a hard grind, too often tedious and unjust.  You have to press on regardless of whether or not passion accompanies you.

I understand that many of you would rather be doing something else, but you feel trapped because of the money.  I'd rather fish all day and play poker all night, but I would go hungry and broke before the week was out.

 Don't get me wrong, I love my job.  Working alongside my clients is more gratifying that I could ever write, but I didn't grow up dreaming about being a financial advisor.  I had an interest in finances, but for the first 30 years of my life, it would have never cracked the top ten things I'd want to do.  

I needed a job.  I created a business. I pressed on through some financially difficult times.  I'd still rather read a good novel or a comic than another book about IRA distributions, but the longer I do this, the more I notice that passions are fickle, they change and evolve and sometimes they even follow you and when that happens it is sweet. Maybe in doing that job you don't "love", you discover it  provides you the security you need to do those things you do love.  You know, that is not a bad place to be.  

I hope you do love your job; I do mine, but if you don't it is okay.  Do it well, give it your all, and accept that there is no shame in working to live rather than living to work.  Press on, my friend, press on.

Mike Rowe
Off The Wall

Stephen Adams, Auburn, AL

”Hi, Mike. Let me begin by saying that I love what you and your foundation are attempting to do. However, I’m confused by your directive to NOT “follow your passion.” I think it can be safely argued that if no one followed their passion, companies like Apple, Microsoft, Dow, and many more wouldn’t exist. If no one follows their passion, who innovates? Who founds companies that provide jobs for the outstanding workers that your foundation aims to help?”

Hi Stephen

A few years ago, I did a special called “The Dirty Truth.” In it, I challenged the conventional wisdom of popular platitudes by offering “dirtier,” more individualistic alternatives. For my inspiration, I looked to those hackneyed bromides that hang on the walls of corporate America. The ones that extoll passersby to live up to their potential by “dreaming bigger,” “working smarter,” and being a better “team player.” In that context, I first saw “Follow Your Passion” displayed in the conference room of a telemarketing firm that employed me thirty years ago. The words appeared next to an image of a rainbow, arcing gently over a waterfall and disappearing into a field of butterflies. Thinking of it now still makes me throw up in my mouth.

Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though it’s wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will. Does that mean you shouldn’t pursue a thing you’re passionate about?” Of course not. The question is, for how long, and to what end?

When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society - I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.”

Every time I watch The Oscars, I cringe when some famous movie star - trophy in hand - starts to deconstruct the secret to happiness. It’s always the same thing, and I can never hit “mute” fast enough to escape the inevitable cliches. “Don’t give up on your dreams kids, no matter what.” “Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have what it takes.” And of course, “Always follow your passion!”

Today, we have millions looking for work, and millions of good jobs unfilled because people are simply not passionate about pursuing those particular opportunities. Do we really need Lady GaGa telling our kids that happiness and success can be theirs if only they follow their passion?

There are many examples - including those you mention - of passionate people with big dreams who stayed the course, worked hard, overcame adversity, and changed the world though sheer pluck and determination. We love stories that begin with a dream, and culminate when that dream comes true. And to your question, we would surely be worse off without the likes of Bill Gates and Thomas Edison and all the other innovators and Captains of Industry. But from my perspective, I don’t see a shortage of people who are willing to dream big. I see people struggling because their reach has exceeded their grasp.

I’m fascinated by the beginning of American Idol. Every year, thousands of aspiring pop-stars show up with great expectations, only to learn that they don’t have anything close to the skills they thought they did. What’s amazing to me, isn’t their lack of talent - it’s their lack of awareness, and the resulting shock of being rejected. How is it that so many people are so blind to their own limitations? How did these peope get the impression they could sing in the first place? Then again, is their incredulity really so different than the surprise of a college graduate who learns on his first interview that his double major in Medieval Studies and French Literature doesn’t guarantee him the job he expected? In a world where everyone gets a trophy, encouragement trumps honesty, and realistic expectations go out the window.

When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfathers footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.

One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing. It felt contradictory to everything I knew about persistence, and the importance of “staying the course.” It felt like quitting. But here’s the “dirty truth,” Stephen. “Staying the course” only makes sense if you’re headed in a sensible direction. Because passion and persistence - while most often associated with success - are also essential ingredients of futility.

That’s why I would never advise anyone to “follow their passion” until I understand who they are, what they want, and why they want it. Even then, I’d be cautious. Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

Carry On
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