pink rose and petals

It’s an age-old story: Boy meets passion, boy follows passion, passion turns out to be a mirage and/or actually a big pain in the ass, despite how rosy it may have seemed from a safe distance.

(And, ladies? You’re just as susceptible to this as men. Don’t think I’m giving you a pass.)

Let’s Talk About You

So. You’re in love with a thing. Let’s say it’s coffee, books, design, code or solving interesting problems. You decide to open up a café to follow your passion for coffee. Or a used book shop, because you’re passionate about books. Or, because you’re passionate about solving interesting problems through code or visuals, you hang out your shingle as a freelance developer or designer.

Six months to a year later, and guess what?

Turns out that you hate running a café (or book store, or…). Turns out that running a café is as much about the coffee as raising a child is about snuggles. Yes, the coffee happens – and so do snuggles – but what really makes up the typical day is very little sleep and lots and lots of poop.

And who has a passion for poop?

A Perfect Example, in the Flesh

The small cafe connects to the fantasy of throwing a perpetual dinner party, and it cuts deeper–all the way to Barbie tea sets–than any other capitalist urge. To a couple in the throes of the cafe dream, money is almost an afterthought. Which is good, because they’re going to lose a lot of it…

Guess what, dear dreamers? The psychological gap between working in a cafe because it’s fun and romantic and doing the exact same thing because you have to is enormous. Within weeks, Lily and I – previously ensconced in an enviably stress-free marriage – were at each other’s throats.

Bitter Brew: I opened a charming neighborhood coffee shop. Then it destroyed my life.

Another well-meaning passion-follower falls victim to The Cute Little Café Syndrome. The Cute Little Café Syndrome will never die – it’s too damned appealing. It’s romance, it’s magical princes, it’s Happily Ever After with a side order of delicious Vienna roast and the absolute best croissants.

It’s Follow Your Passion.

And it’s hardly limited to real-life, actual cafés. The Cute Little Café Syndrome applies to any situation where you blindly follow your passion… and it leads you to a pit of despair (or at least, a pit of debt).

Battling the Cute Little Café Syndrome

Don’t want to find yourself chewed up & spat out by The Cute Little Café Syndrome?

There’s only one thing for it: abandon meatless aphorisms like “Follow Your Passion!” and take stock of reality.

In reality…

  • Turning your beloved, refreshing hobby into a job can kill it.
  • Doing something you love for yourself isn’t the same as doing it for others.
  • You can love something and not know the slightest thing about it.
  • You can love something and not be good at it.
  • You might not know what Your Passion™ is, at least not with enough fiery motivation to get you going.
  • You may believe you’re passionate about a subject but it’s likely your true deep-down-fulfillment passion is about actions, connections, or environment.
  • Or, your logical conclusion is that you should engage in actions when your passion is really a subject.
  • The Poop Factor is ever-present: most of what goes into running a real business is very different than what you fantasize about.
  • Finally…some things just aren’t money-making propositions. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love them.

So. Does all this mean your working life is doomed to be dull and loveless? That you should go bet on “a sure thing” that you don’t enjoy?

Not at all.

Smokey Robinson Has the Answer

There’s nothing wrong with passion. Passion is a good thing. A good thing you nevertheless need to approach with your eyes open. Take a page out of Smokey Robinson’s book:

Try to get yourself a bargain, son. Don’t be sold on the very first one. Pretty girls come a dime a dozen. Try to find one who’s gonna give you true loving. Before you take a girl and say I do, now. Make sure she’s in love with you, now. Make sure that her love is true, now. I hate to see you feeling sad and blue, now. My momma told me, you better shop around!

Yep. Shop around. Eyes open. Don’t take your passion and assume that its ultimate manifestation, the thing you should do, the thing to follow, is the very first idea that pops into your mind.

Don’t assume that just because you love coffee, you should open a café.

Or because you love books and cozy reading nooks, a book store.

Or because you love photography, a tool for amateur photographers.

Or because you love programming, a software dev shop.

Or because you love design, a freelance design co.

These are obvious top-of-mind ideas. And heck, you might end up loving them. But the likelihood is that you won’t.

After all: would you rather use your passion, or sell it?

Ask Yourself…

Would you still feel passionate when you were struggling to pay the bills and hire wait staff? Or struggling to deal with the clients that inevitably come with solving interesting problems on a freelance basis? Or what about handling customers who are cheapskates and not even particularly tech-savvy?

If you want to run a successful café – and enjoy it – you need to love a lot more than coffee. You’ve also gotta get some kind of pleasure, even grim satisfaction, out of the daily grind. (Ha ha.) Which means, of course, interacting with customers, hiring & managing wait staff, handling the day-to-day necessities like ordering supplies, cleaning, paying rent, marketing your butt off, and dealing with customers who want to squat on your valuable tables all day for just $2 of brew.

Likewise, if you love slinging code, but hate interacting with people who don’t understand you immediately, then you’re going to be miserable doing training or providing support of any kind. If you love creating dramatic illustrations of people and places, but chafe at people who tell you what to do, being a freelance illustrator is going to rub you raw.

And everyone’s heard the story of the guy or gal who quit the rat race, retreated to a cabin in the woods to write a novel… and proceeded to go absolutely bonkers from loneliness, without even a single chapter to show for it.

That’s what Following Your Passion can do to you.

The Solution: 6 Steps

So what’s the alternative? Go to law school? No. (Not unless you’d love being a lawyer. Which means, by the way, a lot more than enjoying reading about torts and arguing.)

What you really need is to:

  • Figure out what your passion(s) really are – process? environment? action? subject? connections?
  • Ask yourself all the different ways you could work that passion into different kinds of businesses – less obvious than coffee –> café
  • Add in the Poop Factor for your fantasies – all those daily things we never imagine when we’re fantasizing, you’ve got to confront them head-on – in advance
  • Imagine selling it, or dealing with clients, or a certain type of customer – and be honest how you’d feel about that all day long
  • Honestly appraise the potential for sustainable income – by studying other people/businesses doing the same kind of thing, and comparing it to how much you want to live comfortably
  • Take your best shot from all of the above

It’s true that this won’t all fit in a three-word slogan as eminently tweetable as “Follow your passion”. But how about this? Practice open-eyed passion. Or, as Smokey would say: You better shop around.

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