Things To Think About When Your "Passion" Has Become A Thankless Slog...
When a passion project ceases to be one, we need to look at the expectations we have of it - and what we are willing to do for it.
Passion projects can be tricky, not always in finding out what they are (although that is hard enough), but more in the actual execution of them. They require a lot of effort and all too frequently they attract little (if any) reward.
They are invariably thankless tasks. We can find ourselves grafting for weeks, months, years, even, with no external validation or financial gain of any kind.
Before long, what once made us invigorated will make us feel drained; what was previously a passion will become a pain; what fulfilled us will leave us feeling resentful.
What can be done, then, about this inevitable side-effect of sticking with our dreams, when there appears to be no external evidence to convince us it is worth sticking at in the first place?
Passion At Any Cost?
There are three parts to look at here:
Let’s look at the first:
1. What Drives Us Vs What Pays The Bills
There is a key difference between being intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, as much as there is a difference in being intrinsically and extrinsically rewarded.
The first kind — being intrinsically driven — is creating-for-creating-sake, i.e. doing something for the love of it. We do this, regardless of reward.
The second kind — being extrinsically driven — is doing something for what we will get because of it i.e, money, career progression and so on. We do this, because of the reward.
How Passions Can Falter
By definition, passion projects are intrinsically-driven to begin with. There was a point in time when we did this for the joy of it.
But akin to the law of diminishing returns, what once thrilled us about our passion project will inevitably cease to at some point.
Sometimes we can get back to that basic starting point. We can emerge from our dejected state and rediscover what it was that gripped us so much in the first place — and rekindle it.
However, often the reason we can’t do this, is that we fail to notice that a new need has replaced the one that fired us up originally.
And that is invariably about making money.
The Downside Of Thinking Extrinsically
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with desiring money for our efforts, being too driven by financial gain can paradoxically have a demotivating effect.
In a 1971 study, psychologist Edward Deci found that the act of offering an external reward, (i.e. money), to an individual who was already motivated to undertake a task, had the effect of making him less motivated to do it.
When the carrot of money is dangled in front of the eyes of someone who is lost in their passion, blissfully unaware of the world around them, their focus quickly shifts to the money and not the act itself.
In other words, their creative libidos can tank.
Which brings us to point number 2:
2. Do Passion Projects Have To Make Money?
Is it a fallacy to believe we will always be financially compensated for doing what we love? And is it perfectly OK to have passion projects which don’t actually make any money at all?
The answer to the 2nd question is a resounding “yes”. It’s called having a hobby.
The 1st question is a bit trickier to answer.
There are more self-help gurus out there than we care to count who will tell us we can make our dreams come true - and get rich doing it.
Even Joseph Campbell told us to “follow our bliss”.
But did he mean in order to make money? Or did he just mean ‘therein lies the path to happiness’?
Ideally you want to get both but what Campbell wanted to stress was that we should not sacrifice one for the other.
We shouldn’t turn our back on our passion for money. But equally if we don’t get that money, the passion is still worth having:
"There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss."
Are We Being Delusional By Wanting It All?
In Barbara Sher’s opinion, our dreams don’t need to make us money — and in fact few dreams actually do (contrary to what YouTube gurus tell us).
She argues (here) that it is a false narrative we present ourselves when we align passion with money and use the inability to earn an income from a passion project as the reason for not doing it in the first place.
Earning an income and doing something we love are invariably two separate things, no matter how much we want them to be the same, Sher says.
And we are effectively shooting ourselves in the foot if we use the former to deny ourselves the latter.
Because realistically, she says, we are not going to be able to easily support ourselves writing poetry all day long.
Having a day-job and a side-hustle or hobby, then, is the first thing to consider at this juncture.
And if that idea makes us recoil in horror, then we need to look at what we are prepared to do in the name of our passion.
And this leads us to point number 3:
3. What We Are Willing To Do
Mark Manson posted an interesting video recently regarding the issue of what we think we want out of our lives and the reality of actually doing it.
He cites the example of him craving the ideal lifestyle of a surfer (along with the sex appeal that comes with it) but admits that the actual act of learning to surf bores him stupid.
This is the reality vs the fantasy.
As Manson explains in his video, we frequently look to the lives of others and think that’s what we want but we don’t actually want to do what it takes to be like them.
This isn’t a flaw in us, it’s a sign that something isn’t for us.
The Lives Of Others
I like the idea of the lifestyle of an Instagram influencer who floats around the world looking glamorous and living in Bali off the back of multiple 6-figure sponsorship deals.
The problem is, I don’t want my life documented in photographs for all to see. It’s that simple.
The same goes for what we are willing to do in the name of our passion projects.
If we are frustrated at the lack of success we are experiencing but are unwilling to do what it takes to make it successful, we will hit a brick wall.
If we detest basic functions like marketing, promotion or networking, for example — or we don’t like the idea of actually running a business — then we need to ask ourselves a few basic questions.
So, here is the idiot's guide to some basic — and brutal — questions we need to ask ourselves when we are feeling resentful and frustrated over our lack of success.
The answers we get at this point might tell us if our frustrations are anchored in delusion, denial or procrastination.
While passion projects can begin as things that ecstatically allow us to escape reality, at some point, particularly if our needs change, we will need to face reality.
If we don’t do this, we risk sabotaging an area of our lives which can bring us unbridled joy, simply by viewing it through a distorted lens.
The Upside Of Not Chasing Rainbows
The magic of zero expectations and the happiness it can bring
I would argue that the number one killer of creativity (and happiness, in general, for that matter) is the need for brilliance.
It‘s paralyzing. It‘s also depressing, as it is steeped in — and is rocket fuel for — feelings of gross inadequacy.
If we didn’t feel inadequate already, then piling ridiculous expectations on ourselves for something we haven’t even done yet (or have/own/become) is a guaranteed way to get there.
When we aim disproportionately too high, the Ugly Sister of Inadequacy — the Critical Inner Voice — is then, by default, given free reign to well and truly put the boot in.
It relishes this as an opportunity to remind us in a myriad of ways just how much of a ridiculous failure we really are. “We’re never going to get there”, it whispers, “So, why bother?”
This is not to say we shouldn’t aim high in life, by the way. But there are times when it helps to scale it back a bit.
The Joy Of Zero Expectations
Having zero expectations is a joy in itself — regardless of what comes of it (which is literally the point).
There is so much pressure in life to be “this”, look like “that” and live an Instagram-worthy life. It’s flat-out miraculous to find a place in this world where we can be completely free of any expectations.
And that is why creating-without-expectation is so incredibly healthy. It is creativity for creativity’s sake, giving us that one sacred place, free of obligation, where we can just be.
Finding Our True Voices
Dropping our expectations, or our ambition, every now and again can also free us from hive-like thinking, which is vital if we are to act in a way that is unique to each and every one of us.
Often our goals (and ultimately our identities) our influenced largely by people we see in the world who have already “made it”.
We want to be like them, we think they have found the perfect formula, which, if followed to the letter will make us as “happy” and “successful” as they are.
Before we realise it, we have modeled our ideas and lives on them.
So, if we want to be a successful blogger, for example, we might obediently look at what other successful bloggers have done and think — “there’s the formula — they’ve got it right”.
So, we just do what they do. We operate on the assumption that if we follow their rules, implement their procedures, reach out to the same kinds of people, then bingo — we’ll be like them and we’ll have the kinds of lives they have.
And while that might actually work in some cases, we need to ask ourselves if this is it what we actually want for ourselves?
Is there a certain degree of emptiness in this approach? Are we denying ourselves the ability to chart our own paths?
As Joseph Campbell once said:
“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”
Charting Our Own Paths
Paradoxically, embracing a lack of ambition and significantly lowering our expectations are what allows us to find out what our path actually looks like.
Here are some ways it helps:
We can sideline procrastination and actually get started on something new (rather than just fantasize about it), because it doesn’t really matter. The pressure is off.
(As Mel Robbins argues here, excessively ambitious plans can be the very thing that prevents us from actually starting a new project, because of the inordinate pressure it puts on us.)
We can take risks when we are in this state as we are not trying to prove anything to anyone. As a result, we are far more likely to try something new, or take a new approach — and do something that’s more like us.
3. Creative Block
Being a bit crap allows us to avoid creative blocks. We can actually leverage it as a technique when we need to.
(Tim Ferriss testifies to this approach with his “Two Crappy Pages” tip.)
Following our natural inclination to do something, regardless of the outcome, can be a gateway to discovering what really matters to us. This is what will bring us greater meaning and a sense of purpose in the long run.
5. Intrinsic Motivation
By creating something for the simple joy of doing it, we get a taste for what it feels like to be intrinsically motivated. There are no expectations on us, no-one is asking us (or paying us, even) to do this — we are acting autonomously, which in turns gives us:
We gain a sense of agency from doing something we are not obligated to do. We gain a feeling of control over part of our lives, that we might not otherwise have in other areas, which is vital to our health and well-being.
7. Flow/The Zone
Being intrinsically driven and autonomously led are vital ingredients for entering that elusive — and highly sought-after — flow state. Doing what we genuinely like to do — without expectation — is far more likely to get us in the zone than killing ourselves with unreasonable expectations and following cookie-cutter methods to get what we think we should have.
8. Eureka Moments
Ideas come when we are not trying — when we have switched off. Dropping the expectations, easing up on ourselves and literally going with the flow is then far more likely to lead to those breakthrough moments. And this, ironically, will likely take us to that magical place we had, at last, stopped chasing after.
A Question From Future You: "Are You Being Honest With Yourself?"
We need to ask ourselves this question - and more than once -
or crisis might force us to down the line
It's not unusual to run on auto-pilot, particularly when life is hectic: the diary is packed, the to-do list is brimming, the days are full.
What is unusual (and beats being busy every time) is to take a step back - as frequently as we can - and reassess; to look at what we are doing and ask ourselves: "Am I being true to myself?"
This kind of question is a catch-all for an infinite number of variations:
"Is this who I am?"
"Is this what I want?".
"Am I heading in the right direction?"
"Did I mean what I just said?"
"Do I really think that?"
"Is this person right for me?"
"Is this job/career really what I am about?"
And so on. And, as with all of them, we will, at times dislike the answers we get.
And that's a key reason why we don't ask ourselves these types of questions in the first place.
Or, we simply don't think to.
The thing is, if we keep dodging them, they will eventually present themselves to us in a way that we cannot escape.
This is what a mid-life crisis is all about.
It's about having these very questions thrust starkly in front of us at a time when we feel they must be answered.
It's when we begin to accept a truth about something (or many things) that we have, perhaps, always known deep inside but ignored.
And that dereliction of duty has given us a life that isn't the one we actually want.
It becomes a crisis because by the time life forces us to confront this, it comes with a sense of urgency inevitably due to the age at which we are made to face it.
Changes, then, have to be made - and fast.
Paying The Price
This is when marriages fail, when careers implode and when nervous breakdowns come knocking.
It is anything but pleasant.
And it is anything but the hedonistic red sports-car-driving caricature of mid-life that is so often painted for us.
What's worse is that while it will take just minutes to undo a life that has been built over decades, it might very well take years to get to the New Life - and to get there in one piece.
Inevitably, by the time we do get there, a big part of us will have wished that we had listened to that voice inside our heads so many years earlier when it was whispering, "this person isn't right for you", or "your career is killing you".
While this form of radical self-honesty might seem a bit extreme, it doesn't always have to reach existential levels. And we don't have to wait for a crisis to make changes.
There are subtle ways we can tap into this "knowing" right at this very minute, before it reaches such a dramatic point that it is forced to become a wake-up call.
It is called congruence.
Congruence (and its opposite, incongruence) is a concept that was coined by a psychologist by the name of Carl Rogers, which Jordan Peterson delves into in each of the videos below.
Being congruent basically means aligning body, mind and spirit. It's when our beliefs, values and desires line up with our actions.
By its nature, it requires being in touch with what we really think, what we really stand for, what we really want, who we really want to be etc.
It means recognizing the little voice in our head and actually listening to it.
The Body's Messages
And as Peterson explains, if we can't hear the voice, our body will also tell us when we are out of step. In his words, acting incongruently will make us feel "weak".
This is not weak, as in the machismo sense - it is in the sense that acting "out of alignment" dis-empowers us, destabilises us internally, puts us on the back foot.
We all know, for example, what it feels like when something feels "off", or not quite right.
We have all had a "bad feeling" about something at some point in our lives or done something and wish we hadn't as it didn't feel like us.
We might agree to an arrangement and a big part of us wishes we hadn't. We might make a decision and feel conflicted about it. We might say something and immediately regret it. We might push forward with a plan but it feels empty. There's no life in it. We aren't all in.
And that's what this is really about - being all in.
Because there is only so long that we can coast along, living a half-life: being in relationships that aren't right for us, working jobs we hate, being friends with people who don't have our backs, failing to connect meaningfully with people who do.
It is a form of self-betrayal which eats away at us each time we say or do something that contradicts our true nature - frequently in such subtle ways we fail to notice it at the time, if we are not paying attention.
Until at some point, much later in life, we are made to.
And when that happens, there won't be a red sports car waiting for us.
It will be something very different, indeed.
Want To Know What "The Shadow" Is All About? Here's An Easy Place To Start
If we want to get to know - and make peace with - the rejected and darker sides of our nature, we need to face up to our hypocrisy
When we talk to the uninitiated about Shadow Psychology: our repressed states, the idea about "integrating" our darker, unacknowledged traits in order to be fully realised "whole" human beings - we can forgive people if they look back at us blankly, unashamedly uninterested.
But mutter the word "hypocrite" in anyone's direction and we will get a decidedly different response.
We are ultimately talking about the same thing. But for anyone who isn't a self-help junkie, who hasn't studied the work of Carl Jung, been independently curious about psychological jargon, or spent time in therapy doing "shadow work", there is no reason why anyone else would even give this idea the time of day.
Hypocrisy, however, is a loaded - and very well understood - term. And it's powerful. It rocks people to their core and shakes their egos when branded in this way (if they actually listen).
There are, arguably, fewer powerful insults we can throw at someone than this one - particularly the more moral and ethical the target considers themselves to be.
It is a gift, in a sense, when we bump into it, as it is perhaps the ideal introduction into the world of Shadow Psychology, which in itself is also perhaps the most important widely ignored discipline that is so vital to our lives and well-being.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
In psychological terms we could call it a kind of Cognitive Dissonance - the basic idea that we say one thing but believe something else or act in a way contrary to what we actually think.
It is the priest proselytizing on purity and abstinence while battling a drink problem or abusing the vulnerable; it is the avidly homophobic politician-in-public who is engaging in a homosexual relationship in private.
In essence, it is when we criticize and condemn people for acting in a way that we in fact are also acting ourselves (frequently unbeknownst to others) - and it can also be us hating on people for things we are not doing but wish we were.
As Jung once famously said:
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Psychology and philosophy vlogger Einzelgänger gives a layman's introduction, below, and as he explains, it is not the fact that we are hypocrites in the first place that is the problem.
It is that we fail to recognize it.
We miss the opportunity to "integrate" these hidden aspects into our conscious selves so we are no longer dominated by misunderstood, unrecognized unconscious forces.
What We Resist...
Our darker urges exist because we resist looking at them.
And our hatred of other people's behaviour stems from the failure - or refusal - to recognize that the things we are villainising lie inside of us too.
Only when we bring these traits to the surface, then, facing them in the cold light of day and admit that we are, also, like that too, can they ever cease to hold power over us.
So how do we do this?
There are many different ways (you can find various techniques here).
One is via "The Work", by Byron Katie.
Katie has a simple "Judge Your Neighbor" exercise (with an explanatory video, below).
The basic idea behind it is also a fundamental lesson in hypocrisy - that whatever it is that is driving us nuts about XXX is generally the very thing we need to own up to ourselves.
And it goes without saying that it's easier to do in some cases than it is in others.
But it is always worth doing.
Take Byron Katie's