In Pursuit of a Passion, a Dream, Or a Fantasy – A Reality Check

The inspirational slogan, “Follow your dream” has been around for a long time, adopted by many well-meaning organizations such as a charitable foundation in support of children with Down’s syndrome. In everything from television commercials to religious sermons, we are earnestly urged to pursue our dreams. More recently, we have been encouraged to following our passion, and probably for good reasons. If you Google search the term “passion”, you’ll find 211,000,000 keyword links to everything from pornography to Steve Jobs and Jesus Christ. If you Google “follow your passion”, you’ll find sites that extol the many benefits as well as sites that question the wisdom of it. The problem is, as a British friend of mine so aptly noted, we might be a little confused as to whether we’re following our passion or our dream or our fantasy.

After my British friend, David, had lived in the United States for a few years, I asked him what he perceived as the single greatest difference between “Brits” and “Yanks”. He thought for a moment and said in his heavy British accent, “You Americans are just a tad sloppy with your use of words.” I asked him to explain. He said, “Well, for example you often interchange words such as fantasy, dream, and passion as if they had the same meaning. The words may be related, but they are not synonyms.” He was right, and since hearing his observation, I’ve given this matter quite a bit of my own personal vigilance (For you linguistically sloppy Yanks, vigilance is the condition of being watchful.). Now, I’m neither a linguist nor an English professor, but a close observation of American mass media reveals our casual corruption of English word usage. At least some of our “sloppiness” might well be attributed to our “pop culture” vernaculars common in mass media advertising gimmicks. And most of us are relentlessly exposed and conditioned to this corruption, so much so that we take it for granted as “proper”.

In our mass-media-market-driven-culture, single words are redefined and given superlative meaning to imply superior product value. For several years, Nissan built an entire campaign around the word awesome. Obsession and Euphoria became synonymous with Calvin Klein. Think became a synonym for IBM. For two years we’ve seen a series of Apple ads that cleverly exploit the long-standing feud between the geek-oriented PC “thinkers” and the cool “creative types” that have a passion for Macs. (Or could it be a fantasy for Macs? Or maybe we dream about our Macs? Whatever!) Since IBM originally coined the acronym PC for personal computer, all other computers that use the IBM operating system are also referred to as PCs. Might we then reason then that all PCs Think? And if so, what do Macs do? Hmm. Maybe they feel?

The point is that as we are bombarded with commercial reasoning and the media’s use of words and slogans urging us to pursue a passion, follow a dream, or make a fantasy come true, it’s no surprise that we might just be a little confused and a little sloppy with our native language. No wonder that we might interchange passion, dream, and fantasy.

The problem is this: Real passion is quite different from a dream or a fantasy. The manner in which we pursue a true passion is based on first-hand experience and knowledge, not a dream or a fantasy.

A Dream Scenario: I asked a twenty-five-year-old what was his passion in life. He said that since a very young boy, he had dreamed of being a professional water skier. I assumed that his dream was also a perceived passion that came from some considerable first-hand experience that began from a very young age. Certainly, this young man had spent many joyous hours making high-speed turns around slalom marker-buoys behind a Ski Nautique or a Tige’ or a Master Craft.

I asked, “Who’s your favorite professional water skier?”
He replied, “I don’t know any.”
“Do you prefer a certain brand of water ski or tow boat?”
“I don’t know what they are.”
I then asked, “Surely, you must have started water skiing at a very young age?”
He replied, “Well, no.”
To say the least, I was surprised at how little real experience he had with his “passion”.
I asked, “Well, how long have been water skiing?”
He said, “Oh! I’ve never been on a water ski.”
I paused to ponder his apparent naiveté.
As kindly as I could, I asked, “Well, how do you know that you have this passion to be a professional water skier?”
He answered, “Oh! Well, it just looks like it might be really cool and a lot of fun.”

My client had no “passion” for water skiing. He had a dream. A fantasy. Had he pursued his dream with the motivation, persistence, and dedication consistent with the passion of a real would-be-professional, he might rather accurately have called his dream a passion. But his dream was not based on real first-hand experience. He actually had no concept or feel for what real water skiing required.

A true passion is discovered, honed, and proven in real experience.

Had my want-to-be-water skier a true passion for water skiing, by the age of twenty-four years he would have had a long history with the sport. He would have understood every joy and every sacrifice associated with the sport. His passion would have been founded in an in-depth knowledge with a realistic perspective of its benefits and hazards.

Scenario #2: Many years ago, one of my students declared her passion for package design, primarily because it was the one design class in which she most excelled. Her “dream career” was to work as a designer for the leading package designer in San Francisco.

After graduating, she moved to San Francisco and worked for several different small design firms as a junior-level corporate identity and editorial designer. After a few years of dedicated hard work, she had built a professional portfolio worthy of an appointment with her “dream” package design firm. Much to her delight, she was hired. But her dream soon felt more like a nightmare.

The “dream team” stuck her in a back corner as a junior-level designer. None of her assigned work capitalized on her best creative talents. For most of a year, she was limited to refining and “cleaning-up” someone else’s concept, never her own. By contract, she was not allowed to do any freelance work to keep her creative problem solving skills honed and energized. She was not allowed the slightest contact with any of the clients of the projects she worked on. All of the projects were kept highly guarded secrets, and she was not allowed to put any of her work in her own portfolio. She was like a musician in a large orchestra performing someone else’s music on someone else’s instrument in a concert hall with no audience. She received no more recognition than a paycheck.

After a year, she left her “dream job” with nothing in her portfolio to show for it. Her dream had been bathed in the harsh light of real experience. And reality turned out to be nothing like her dream. Her perceived passion for package design vanished. She moved on to pursue other interests, and discovered a real passion in the wine industry.

A true passion is evidenced by extraordinary self-motivation – perhaps an obsessive compulsion – that never requires a forced self-discipline.

Had my want-to-be-water skier a true passion for water skiing, no one would have had to stand behind him encouraging him to “get our there on the water” everyday. If the best water were at the crack of down, every morning he would have been at the pier just before sunrise. He would have been on the water even when it was too cold or too windy or too rough for most others. He would have been on the water even when he was tired, stiff, and sore. A hard fall or a disappointing run through the slalom course would never have had him sitting on the dock. A lack of finances would never have kept him out of the water. He would have found a way to finance his passion at the denial of a nicer place to live, a new car, a cool wardrobe, or the most beautiful girlfriend. What others might have considered sacrifices, he would have considered insignificant to his passion.

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