Forget your passion; try doing something good instead


Remember Narcissus, who according to Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection? I was thinking about him the other day, along with the psychological condition that bears his name (narcissism, but you already knew that).  I was thinking about Narcissus the other day while I watched a TED talk on the topic of “finding your passion”.  The speaker was a self-proclaimed member of “Generation Y” (which, without bothering to look up the exact demographic, seems to encompass people who are presently in their twenties).  She spoke boldly, forcefully, and proudly about how members of her generation want to pursue their passions, and won’t settle for less than a career or vocation that brings them complete fulfillment.  She ended the talk with a vow that no matter what she herself ended up doing with her career (she was a fourth year university student) she would do something that inspired her passions.

Honestly, I found it nauseating.

The whole thing struck me as absurdly shallow, facile, and, well, narcissistic.  Below is a picture of a group of migrant workers in Qatar, most of whom hail from impoverished countries and work for months at a time at what can only be described as wage slavery.  They live in cramped, crowded dormitories, often with poor sanitation, and their working conditions are deplorable.  If you are interested in learning more, you can read this superb article from The Economist.
Imagine walking up to these workers and encouraging them to “pursue their passion.”  They would probably look at you like you were out of your mind.  Perhaps one of them would be kind enough to point out to you that “pursuing your passion” is kind of like air conditioning: a rare luxury that is only open to members of wealthy, industrialized countries.  Most people have to live in the real world.

Having said that, I don’t think there is anything inherently disagreeable about pursuing one’s passion, if one’s passion is to, say, help migrant workers in Qatar fight for labor rights.  But what if a person’s passion is to sell tobacco? Imagine a grade twelve student who says, “All my life I have dreamed of working for a tobacco company and doing everything I can to increase sales of cigarettes to minors.  Passion, here I come!” (If this sounds like an absurd example, I would politely point out that *someone* has to be thinking this way for the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry to stay afloat).
tobacco executive

I imagine that most parents and teachers would be horrified by this young man’s pronouncement.  Obviously, “passion” isn’t enough.  I would humbly suggest that we encourage young people to think less about their “passion” and more about doing something of value, something that will, in some small way, make the world a better place.  This need not be the cure for cancer; it could be as simple as a person who works in a retail store and every day tries to treat his or her colleagues with dignity, kindness, and respect.

The problem is that most people, being human beings, will tend to think of their own wants and needs first (“passion”) and only second, if at all, about doing good in the world.  This is where teachers can play such a vital role.  Ideally, one’s passion would involve doing good.  But if it doesn’t, teachers should encourage students to follow the road less travelled.