As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

Is Following Your Passion a Luxury?

The concept of turning your passion into a vocation, making a living doing something you love, easily generates two opposing viewpoints. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a privileged upbringing, but it depends on the perspective. I had the freedom to explore a variety to activities to help nurture my mind, soul and body. As a kid, I explored computer programming, music performance, acting, summer camp, karate, Little League baseball, and even tennis lessons. This alone is enough to make people less fortunate scoff at the futility of my time while growing up. I could have lived in a developing country where kids have no choice but work so their families could survive day-to-day.

In an effort to develop artists, one recurring theme always present in my activities was the idea that life provided endless opportunities. There was no need to be resigned to an unsatisfying job, working for money rather than soul satisfaction. With enough education and practice, everyone would have a chance to find a way to earn money doing something with passion, an activity that was more than just “work.”

To characterize the two perspective, one would say that everyone, at least those with sufficient resources, can find a way to sustain a family while pursuing a passion completely. The other perspective takes the position that following a passion is a luxury and most people would be better off finding a job that pays the bills right away and looking for passion elsewhere, like with hobbies or family.

I wrote about pursuing my passion six years ago. I mentioned that I was stuck in a rut and was still trying to determine what my “dream job” would be. I went on to spend five more years working for a corporation in a job I had little interest. At the time, I didn’t really consider shizennougyou a business. I didn’t consider it my passion, either. I never desired to be a writer or a publisher, but an interesting theme running through the last twenty years of my life has been building communities, particularly online, and that is a bigger passion for me than writing.

With a less personal approach, I suggested starting the decade off right by doing something you love.

I wouldn’t have been able to pursue shizennougyou if I wasn’t already meeting my baser needs. I started this website after I had already started moving in the right financial direction, with a new income at a corporate job ready to help me pay off my debt and save for the future. If I had been struggling to find affordable shelter and scrounging for food, I’d have greater concerns than finding a web server.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsWhen considering the idea of following a passion, particularly if that passion doesn’t naturally coincide with a potentially high-paying career like mathematics or engineering, I find that Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an appropriate metaphor. Following your passion is related most to the top of the pyramid, self-actualization. All the issues pertaining to the levels below self-actualization must be met before a quest to reach one’s full potential can be moderately successful. Because of these pre-requisites, paving one’s own way to create a successful life that doesn’t rely on typical social structures (like corporations) is rare.

Once physiological needs like food, water, and shelter are met, the next needs pertain to safety: having sufficient finances, job security, and health security. A good portion of the middle class doesn’t really get past this stage of needs. Living paycheck-to-paycheck keeps the lower middle class unfulfilled. The upper middle class may not have money that could be used in an emergency other than the wealth locked in the value of their primary residence, or those who do have emergency funds would not be able to live off savings for a year to pursue a financially risky endeavor. The working class relies on employers and rarely sets out to build their own business, again due to risk.

To get past this second stage, you need to be in a position where worrying about finances is unnecessary. When there is little concern about whether you can afford to fail, you have the opportunity to try different approaches to life-sustaining pursuits of your passion.

In my work with non-profit organizations, I noticed that many people involved with activities were not in a financial situation where they needed to worry about finance. If the organization failed to provide a paycheck one week due to the company’s negative cash flow, they didn’t start a riot. If you’re “independently wealthy” the paycheck from one week to another is not the main concern, and you have the ability to take some risk in order to spend the bulk of your waking life working with your passion. If you’ve retired from your former career and just looking for a good way to spend the last few decades of your life doing something meaningful, and if you’re done raising a family and paying for a house, you have the flexibility to work for little or volunteer without concern about moving up the corporate ladder. If your spouse brings in the money and you’re only working to keep yourself from going insane alone in the house, your options are wide open.

When I was working for the non-profit, I was in a significantly different financial position, and this was a message I had some difficulty getting through to the executives. Then again, why should I receive preferential treatment of any sort when the rest of the employees were happy with the poor financial situation within the company. In the end, I made some sacrifices in my living situation and other expenses to make things work a little better, but I was also sacrificing my future financial stability. My following a passion early on in my career, I was skipping over the more basic needs like a safe living environment and financial security while seeking higher-order fulfillment. It didn’t work out so well for me.

While it’s good to persuade young students to follow their passion — and this is a great topic for motivational speakers for adults as well — it’s more important to look at any particular individual before condoning leaving reason behind to search out a living following a passion. For some, the risk of financial failure could be a good motivational tool for bringing about success while following a passion, but for others, it’s nothing more than false hope and results in a delay in building a solid financial foundation.

Abraham Maslow

Updated September 27, 2011 and originally published September 26, 2011.

About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of shizennougyou. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Interesting question and article. I do think that following your passion can be a luxury for many /most people. You do certainly need to put food on the table and pay the bills before you go running off to fulfill your “passion”. People also need realistic expectations on how following a passion might work. It would be nice if everyone could make a nice living doing the things they love most but its just not very practical.

Reply to this comment

avatar 2 Anonymous

Additional thought… I don’t want to be a downer or a cynic. I think its great if you can find a passion in your life and make a living off it. But first things first, pay the bills… then pursue your dreams. I do also think people need to be realistic about following passions or they are just setting themselves up for failures. We can’t all be platinum selling rock stars for example.

Reply to this comment

avatar 3 Anonymous

Very balanced exploration of the topic that reaches I think the right conclusion. Passion first puts the pyramid on its tip and maintaining that position is quite the balancing act.

Reply to this comment

avatar 4 Donna Freedman

I agree that the freedom to pursue a dream is a fairly privileged position, even if the pursuer is not from a wealthy background.
If you have the chance to do so I’d say “Run with it!” Take care of business first, obviously, i.e., make sure your have a way of meeting basic needs. That doesn’t necessarily mean having a 9-to-5 job and a mortgage. Artists are famous for finding ways to get by: living with multiple roommates (or couch-surfing), adopting the freegan lifestyle, shopping thrift stores, having rent parties, creating their own entertainment.
Such things are acceptable if freely chosen. If you have a partner and/or a child, it might be too much to ask that everyone march to your drummer.
Vincent Van Gogh starved, at times quite literally, and was never a success in his lifetime. Not comfortable or fun, especially if you’ve brought children into the world. That said, would we consider his life a failure because he spent so much of it impoverished?

Reply to this comment

avatar 5 shellye

“Freegan lifestyle”…Love that term! :-) But what is a ‘rent party’?

Reply to this comment

avatar 6 Donna Freedman

When you’re broke, your friends hold a party and charge a small admission fee. There’s food, music and fun.

Reply to this comment

avatar 7 Anonymous

Great article. I think that for many people the dream is, and will remain that- a dream. Fact is, if everyone did what they loved, they wouldn’t call it work.

Reply to this comment

avatar 8 Anonymous

I followed my passion when I entered teaching after 30+ years in the business world. Is it perfect? No! When I was an entrepreneur, I love the independence, but disliked other parts of the business. I encouraged my children to find a career they enjoy because they will spend many years doing it. They did find their passion, but it is not perfect, but a lot better than just a job!

Reply to this comment

avatar 9 Anonymous

It’s definitely a luxury because of math.

Most people don’t graduate in the top 5% of their class, and got to the top schools in the nation. As a result, their choices are limited.

But, if they were the best student from the best school, they would have numerous more choices to pursue their passions.

The falsehood is when you market the passion to people who don’t deserve it. That’s when you can make a lot of money and break a lot of hopes.


Reply to this comment

avatar 10 Anonymous

I agree that it is a luxury to pursue your passion, but “deserve it”?

First, there is far more to this than being a great student at a top school. I was in the top 1% of my class at an excellent high school, went on to an excellent liberal arts school, where I graduated in fewer than four years magna cum laude (so, no, probably not the top 5% there, but I did well), and I attained a master’s degree from an institution with a lot of local, though not national, respect in my area of study. My option to pursue my passion was limited not by my academic achievements but by my decision to marry a guy who is bright and educated but probably limited in his earning potential. He has ADHD, which can be a career challenge, and was raised in a family that is not oriented toward high achievement. It’s a choice I made, but it means that I have to be the primary wage earner, rather than pursuing a riskier passion. I also graduated during an economic downturn, which can be an enormous financial setback. So, academics are important but hardly everything.

What would make me, as an excellent student, more “deserving” to pursue my passion than someone else? I’m not a better person because I’m smart and had a family that could send me to good schools. I’m just fortunate in that respect.

I do think, however, that we shouldn’t lie to folks and say, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Most of us will just feel lucky to have a job we can tolerate, and perhaps we will have to do our best to pursue our passion on a part-time basis outside of work hours.

Reply to this comment

avatar 11 Anonymous

Well said. Nobody deserves anything, and I’m glad you realize that just because you did well in school that you don’t feel entitled to anything.

The author of this post had to stick with a job he didn’t enjoy for years because of the choices he made and then decided to change. It’s all about taking ownership of one’s life and not carrying an entitlement attitude.

Reply to this comment

avatar 12 Anonymous

Thanks for the explanation! I understand and agree.

Reply to this comment

avatar 13 shellye

Great article and great comments. I quit the corporate world 3 1/2 years ago to pursue my passion – freelance graphic design. But my business model and plan weren’t really rock-solid and I found myself back in the workforce after 18 months because Obama started tinkering with the healthcare system and I was looking at a major increase in monthly premiums combined with a daughter heading off to college. Those two things made working for someone else much more attractive than they were previously.

I still envy people who can pursue their passions and successfully pay their bills…. :-)

Reply to this comment

avatar 14 Anonymous

Interesting article. I do feel blessed that I live in the country that I do and during the times that I have.

I look at following a passion a little differently, as I first started my journey when I was 24 or 26 with a solid foundation in prior work experience and education. I received 2 degrees from a State University and planned my course of study so that I would have a wide choice of employment upon graduation. So when I stated to actively follow my passion [I discovered it in the last year of school], I already had a full time job that paid the bills and then some, as well as providing mobility. I drove a desk, but had to spend a great deal of my time in the field doing my job with no real set hours. I had selected that “career/job” for those benefits.

My passion? Growing plants. So I started a Business in an area of high value Agriculture. A niche no one else was exploiting. It was small to begin with, but what was earned was plowed back into the Business with more plants, equipment and buildings. I hired employees that could work for me and I paid them well and with benefits. They were the type who had a excellent work ethic and would get the job done when I was not around.

I was able to use transferable skills from my job, learned at company expense for training and apply those to my business. Eventually I was able to leverage my regular job into that of part time, and eventually transition from it to full time in my business.

It took about 10 years and I put in a lot of hours and weekends. Many of my friends and peers in the business I am in, had to start the same way I did, small and with another job to support them.

Was I privileged? Probably to some extent in that I had the ability to go to College. As a teenager and the first couple of years of College I had decent jobs that provided experience that I would later use in my business. Because of my grades, I was one of the few paid undergraduate teaching assistants in a course that later provided helpful experience in my business. So with that and summer jobs I was able to pay my own way and graduated with very little in loans.

In many ways some of my journey was planned. Yet as I look back many opportunities happened purely by serendipity. And some by hard work and networking with others in my Industry.

Reply to this comment

avatar 15 Ceecee

Hasn’t this idea spawned the phrase “don’t quit your day job?” Sometimes you have to do both to test the waters.

Reply to this comment

avatar 16 Anonymous

My own life has, thus far, certainly been a lot more about getting good jobs that pay for those things for which I am responsible. Still, it’s hard not to daydream about what might have been (or, even, what might still be). I remain fairly content in my decision to get the good job, as a lot of my actor friends are on much more precarious financial footings.

I think your analysis of Maslow’s hierarchy is interesting, and a standpoint from which I had not directly considered. This is a great, thoughtful post.

Reply to this comment

avatar 17 Anonymous

Following a passion in life is fundamental to two or more of the three most important aspects of a fulfilling existence. Those being, wealth, happiness, and health. Passion drives creativity, growth, excitement, all positive experiences that enhance what we do and feel. To deny passion is to bring on the negatives, and the opposite occurs.

So I don’t think it is a question of should a person pursue a passion or not, certainly people should. It is more a question of how does an individual pursue the passion within their life so that boundaries may be pushed, but not pushed over the edge. That is an individual thing that is unique to each and every one of us. The important thing is to recognize how to balance all our needs, individual and family, while embracing our passions.

Reply to this comment

avatar 18 qixx

“Do what you love. Love what you do.” I think finding passion in what you do is more important than doing what you find passion in. You will be happier in life in general if you find ways to enjoy the things you do. If you only did what you enjoy you might not have clean clothes or dishes (i can’t be the only person who does not enjoy cleaning).

Reply to this comment

avatar 19 Anonymous

I like to think there is a middle ground: often folks can figure out creative ways to mix their personal passions in with their corporate day job. E.g., I used to mix in my cartooning hobby w/my corporate job by including my own drawings in presentations and interactions with other employees. I like to think stuff like that made me a better, more effective employee while providing a nice outlet for me and making work more fun. I think there are lots of ways to integrate your passions while still paying the bills, but it certainly takes some effort and creativity.

Reply to this comment

avatar 20 lynn

Let me say, first, that I admire people who have a passion. I don’t have one. There are many things I like to do, but not gung ho on any of them. I like being frugal, perhaps that’s a passion, but more of a competition with myself.

Reply to this comment

avatar 21 Anonymous

I twist balloons for a living. Yes, really.

So many times artists will ask me for advice regarding how to “go full time” with their art. I tell them: work on it part time to build your client base, keep your expenses low, save up a $ cushion for six months of expenses, and learn how to run a business. The last is especially important. If you don’t run the business effectively, you’ll be right back working a day job in no time. I did it the hard, scary way without any savings – and I’m still feeling the pain.

That said, I absolutely love what I do and I’m in total control of how my business grows. I grew my business from simple private parties and hosting restaurant kids nights, to really making a difference in language arts education with school assemblies. I’m still finding new things to be passionate about as my business grows and morphs into something I never expected. I could never do that working for someone else.

It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do but it can also be the most rewarding.

Reply to this comment

avatar 22 Anonymous

I remember when I was coming up to college graduation and was debating on what I would do. Follow my passion or do what people thought I should do. I was blessed to get an opportunity to work while following my passion. The times since graduating has been filled with amazing times of following my passion.

Reply to this comment

avatar 23 Anonymous

A young aspiring actor by chance met veteren British (National Gem) actor Richard Briers and asked him whether he would advise any young actor to follow his passion and get into the acting world. Richard emphatically shook his head and screwed his face up in disagreement, then with a slight change of heart and deep thought, but still a look of unsureness on his face, said; “Get into it because you absolutely have to, because you cant not do it!” I think this illustrates passion perfectly. You cant keep yourself away from a true passion whether its in the back of an old shed on weekends or something you do whenever you have spare time. But the net is all about the promise of turning it into a career, or the buzz word, monetizing it through a blog or whatever. which is fine but most people cant write as interestingly as their passion or have the foggiest about how to take it online and there’s a whole tribe of self appointed “market gurus online” that are happy to take their money in exchange for advice, just dont tell them it doesnt work for everyone. A whole cyber- industry has been created around “turning your passion into profit” and the message denounces any voice that says it’s not always true. While the net is wonderful it is extremely competitive. Any profitable blog is only a page away (of someone else modelling your content and re-selling it) from a slow death. Youtube is a landfill of good and bad tutorials from musicians to craft hobbiests, for free! All fighting each other for attention and subscribers. however it keeps the landscape interesting and keeps raising the bar for who stands highest, and we do like value for money. But back to my point; following your passion and making money from it are two different things. A woodworker who can only churn out 2 boat oars a week or one musical instrument a month is always only gonna be a hobby, even if it’s profitable. We need to get real and test market before we renounce paying the bills thru other means.

Reply to this comment

Leave a Comment

Note: Use your name or a unique handle, not the name of a website or business. No deep links or business URLs are allowed. Spam, including promotional linking to a company website, will be deleted. By submitting your comment you are agreeing to these