Ration Your Passion

This video of Charles Murray has made the rounds on the interweb over the last few days, mostly because of his admission that he was “fooled” by the rhetoric of Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign.

It’s worth listening to in whole, but check out what he says in the last few minutes (starting at about 3:30):

That used to be a central American tenet, that all you needed to do to be equal of every other American was to take care of your family and work hard, and what you worked at and how much money you made was irrelevant…

People were respected for holding a job, a menial job, and taking care of their family, and people who didn’t do that were stigmatized like crazy.

That used to be the basis of American equality, and it no longer is.

The person holding down a menial job can be taunted and teased…

This is not an inner-city phenomenon. This is one of those things that’s in the white working class. You know, “It’s beneath your dignity to be working at McDonald’s,” like that…

That is stripping from a large number of Americans what should be their birthright, and that birthright is, “I’m as good as anybody in this country if I do a few simple things.”

Evidence for the increasing disconnect between those who control the “big” ideas and those who implement them, as well as the ramifications of this divide, can be found in Murray’s Coming Apart.

Very much related is Mike “Dirty Jobs” Rowe’s acclaimed “TED Talk” (actually, the related “Entertainment Gathering”) from 2008:

What would happen if we challenged some of these sacred cows?

“Follow your passion.” We’ve been talking about this for the last 36 hours. Follow your passion. What could possibly be wrong with that?

It’s probably the worst advice I ever got. “Follow your dreams and go broke,” right?

That’s all I heard growing up. I didn’t know what to do with my life, but I was told if you follow your passion, it’s going to work out.

I could give you 30 examples right now. Bob Combs, the pig farmer in Las Vegas, who collects the uneaten scraps of food from the casinos and feeds them to his swine. Why? Because there is so much protein in the stuff we don’t eat, his pigs grow twice the normal speed, and he is one rich pig farmer, and he is good for the environment, and he smells like Hell, but God bless him! He’s making a great living. You ask him, “Did you follow your passion?” He’d laugh at you. The guy’s worth–he just got offered, like, sixty million dollars for his farm and he turned it down, outside of Vegas. He didn’t follow his passion. He stepped back, watched where everybody was going, and he went the other way.

I hear that story over and over and over.

We’ve declared War on Work. As a society. All of us.

It’s a civil war. It’s a cold war, really. We didn’t set out to do it. We didn’t twist our mustache in some Machiavellian way, but we’ve done it.

And we have waged this war on at least four fronts.

Certainly in Hollywood. The way we portray working people on TV? It’s laughable. If he’s a plumber, he’s 300 pounds and he’s got a butt crack. Admit it. You’ve seen it all the time. That’s what plumbers look like, right? We turn them into heroes, or we turn them into punch lines. That’s what TV does…

We’ve waged this war on Madison Avenue. So many commercials come out there, in way of a message, what’s really being said? “Your life will be better if you work a little less, if you didn’t have to work so hard, if you can come home a little earlier, if you could retire a little faster, or if you could punch out a little sooner.” It’s all in there, over and over, again and again.

Washington? I can’t even begin to talk about the deals and policies in place that affect the bottom-line reality of the available jobs, because I don’t really know. I just know that’s a front in this war.

And right here, guys, in Silicon Valley. How many people have an iPhone on them right now? How many people have their Blackberrys? We’re plugged in, we’re connected. I would never suggest for a second that something bad has come out of the tech revolution…but I would suggest that innovation without imitation is a complete waste of time. Nobody celebrates imitation the way “Dirty Jobs” guys know it has to be done: your iPhone without those people making the same interface, the same circuitry, the same board, over and over. That’s what makes it equally as possible as the genius that goes inside of it. We’ve got this new toolbox. Our tools today don’t look like shovels and picks. They look like the stuff we walk around with.

So the collective effect of all of that has been the marginalization of lots and lots of jobs.

And I realized, probably too late in this game…the most important thing to know, and to come face-to-face with, is the fact that I got it wrong about a lot of things…I got a lot wrong…

The thing to do is talk about a PR campaign for “work.” Manual labor. Skilled labor. Somebody needs to be out there talking about the forgotten benefits…

The jobs we hope to make, the jobs we hope to create, aren’t going to stick unless they’re jobs people want.

(Rowe’s background on the talk is found here.)

Related to these both is the terrific Scott Adams op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. It’s worth reading in full, but this is the best bit:

But the most dangerous case of all is when successful people directly give advice. For example, you often hear them say that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right?

Here’s the counterargument: When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don’t want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He’s in business for the wrong reason.

My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over 30 years, said that the best loan customer is someone who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.

For most people, it’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion. I’ve been involved in several dozen business ventures over the course of my life, and each one made me excited at the start. You might even call it passion.

The ones that didn’t work out—and that would be most of them—slowly drained my passion as they failed. The few that worked became more exciting as they succeeded. For example, when I invested in a restaurant with an operating partner, my passion was sky high. And on day one, when there was a line of customers down the block, I was even more passionate. In later years, as the business got pummeled, my passion evolved into frustration and annoyance.

On the other hand, Dilbert started out as just one of many get-rich schemes I was willing to try. When it started to look as if it might be a success, my passion for cartooning increased because I realized it could be my golden ticket. In hindsight, it looks as if the projects that I was most passionate about were also the ones that worked. But objectively, my passion level moved with my success. Success caused passion more than passion caused success.

So forget about passion. And while you’re at it, forget about goals, too.

Amen, brothers.

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