Is the “Follow Your Passion” Advice Full of Crap?


Is the “Follow Your Passion” Advice Full of Crap?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In 2012, when the world was theoretically about to end as per the Mayans, I googled the best film schools in the world that took me to NYU Tisch Asia’s page and I was like a child in a chocolate factory. Wide-eyed and excited by the prospect of studying filmmaking, before buildings came melting down like in the film 2012, I sold the “following my passion” dream to my family à la 3 Idiots, and they bought it. Without much drama.

So there I was, leaving my stable job as a credit operations manager at a corporate bank behind, taking a loan, renting a room in an unknown city, going back to school, learning to adjust the white balance on a camera, and lifting heavy film equipment around on sets. All along being clueless about how I was going to make a living out of it. On some days, I assisted senior students as a “runner” which involved finding the right shade of foundation for an actress I had never met and guarding the crew’s bags in a corner, standing in the heat for hours. At the end of the course, while I learnt the basics of filmmaking, I also realised that it involves more than just dreaming big. It’s far from glamorous; it involves hard labour that can overwhelm and frustrate you and even leave you broke and depressed. Doesn’t sound like brand new information, right? We still choose to ignore these red flags when we are too carried away by our passions, assuming we will just figure things along the way. How hard could it be?

I had done the “cool thing” that many millennials and Gen Z fantasize about – not being tied down to a regular job, because what kind of sad people do that? Sure, it gives you stability, but like many Disney movies have taught us, what is life without an adventure?

It’s been nine years since I said goodbye to corporate life to chase my passion. While I am a writer with some interesting stories to tell my grand-nieces, a friend who stuck to that same dull job at the bank, has bought a two-storey house in London. She chills on weekends and goes on expensive vacations, and in the words of my mother, “her future seems secure”. Meanwhile, I have just about learnt to monetise my passion and make enough to sustain myself. It has come at the cost of turning something that simply brought me joy to something that comes with crazy deadlines and constant rejection, with no fixed work hours and barely any security. Of course, there are days when I am thrilled by the prospect of seeing my pages turn into an actual film, but when I hear celebs and people with power peddle the “follow your passion” and “do what you love” bullshit, I wish they would also tell dreamers like me that it’s not rainbows and butterflies. Many, at least in the world of films, are either from privileged and influential families or have toiled hard for years before they even got noticed or have been gifted with exceptional talent. The rest just become part of a rat race, where sometimes the only advantage seems like you don’t have to get started at 9 am.

What value is your art if it does not help you pay your bills after all?

Yet, there are many more today who don’t want to become doctors, engineers, and bankers. In the last few years, engineering courses have seen lower enrolment rates in India, a welcome sign as unconventional career options are becoming more acceptable. Meanwhile, the content industry has boomed, offering more viable opportunities, especially since the entry of streaming giants like Netflix. Offices of woke creative agencies are full of IIT dropouts, slogging it out for a basic stipend and their share of fame, and while it all fun and fulfilling at first, it is only later that many realise that this is not a life they can sustain for long.

When the romanticised facade of coolness fades, many are often left with an uncertain future, a broken spirit, and skills that may not even be useful. In the next ten years, as per the World Economic Forum, what’s going to be the most in demand is technical and scientific expertise, followed by emotional and cognitive skills. So while the world will of course need artists, it will also need people to do “dull” jobs and take up political science or economics for example, that can make more difference to our lives than writing a “Every SoBo girl in a relationship ever” listicle video or crafting a social media strategy for an uber-cool vegan brand.

It’s not like all dreams die a slow painful death. Often, the people you least expect strike gold. And it is imperative that we take some risks to do what we love, but here’s an advice that I wish someone had given me: “Don’t follow your dreams, follow your efforts!” as once suggested by American billionaire Mark Cuban. The key then is about finding something we are good at, and pursuing that, which may or may not be our passion. One may be passionate about music but may not be good at composing. Biswa Kalyan Rath has become a popular comedian not just because he loves comedy, but because he is actually good at it and has over the years honed his art. “If you put in enough time, and you get really good, I will give you a little secret: Nobody quits anything they are good at because it is fun to be good. It is fun to be one of the best,” he says.

The rest just become part of a rat race, where sometimes the only advantage seems like you don’t have to get started at 9 am.

In fact, a study by Psychologists from Stanford and Yale had reiterated that those who are stuck with this notion of pursuing their one singular passion, tend to have a fixed mindset and are less curious and motivated than those who learn to develop an interest along the way into something they may not essentially be their passion.

Even if you become the best at what you are passionate about, you may not know how to market yourself. What value is your art if it does not help you pay your bills after all? Remember Vincent van Gogh could only sell one painting in his lifetime, died poor, and became famous only after his death. So to anyone drafting a resignation mail to send their bosses so they can “pursue their passion”, remember that while the grass is greener on the other side, the grass on your side is not necessarily dry. Especially in times like the pandemic, the grass you are standing on might be more valuable than ever.

In the last one year, as uncertainty braces us, I’ve thought to myself more often that I’d like, “What if I hadn’t quit my banking job in such haste…” And while making films still remains my passion, the chase has turned into a slow walk.