|William Blake, "The Genius of Shakespeare"|
Find your passion, say 'no' to anything that is a waste of time and keep on going. Focus on what you love. --Rebeca Plantier
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time. --Joseph CampbellI have quite mixed thoughts about this sort of recommendation. On one hand, I had an overweening, intense passion to read and then read and write as a child--fine, I've followed it, made lots of large sacrifices because of it. I gave up achieved tenure and promotion, dropped out of the helpful-to-a-writer academic machine, and in general slept less and had less of what people call fun than others because I wanted to pursue the glimmering goal of art. And I don't regret any of that because I still have a fire to make stories and poems. That's my kind of fun, a deeper and more curious pleasure than most. I'm grateful that I've been able to have so much of it, thanks to my own obsessive nature and a husband who likes to cook.
Did a black swan land on my head as a result of my fire to create? No. Do I expect to hear the whirring of wings at my back? No, not unless it's the whirring of Marvell's "time's wingèd chariot." Yes, that could be what I hear... Would I be glad if a black swan dropped in for a visit? Sure. I love readers, and a work is completed each time it is read.
(Missed the black swan theory? In the words of Wikipedia, "The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight." A theory laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it was picked up and refined for writers by the Grumpy Old Bookman, whose writings on the scalding truth about the role of luck in the writing world had been an inspiration to Taleb. In literary terms, what happens when a book is anointed as lead book by a publisher and then shoved into the public's face is a bit of a black swan. The amazing success that overtook Jo Rowling's Potter books is a gigantic, morbidly-obese black swan. Black swan literary success, then, comes as a surprise, may have a huge effect, and is rationalized by people afterward.)
I know a lot of people who just don't fit that popularized, overly-sweet image of the hero following his bliss. (Here I should note that I have found Campbell's ideas about the hero's journey to be interesting, particularly when I am thinking about stories, which have a lot to say about human life but are not the same. If they were, they would be human life.) Some of the people who don't fit the pattern are people without a passion. And some of them are people who did or do have a passion.
Take the people I know who did not have a passion, who fell into something and became very good at it. I don't think that's a problem. In fact, I think it's great. We don't all have to chase a muse through hollow lands and hilly lands. I believe that becoming very good at something is plain old satisfying. A simple goal of becoming good at something is a better goal for a lot of people. It's not a little goal, either; it's a large, worthy one. The satisfaction that comes from slow accomplishment and a degree of mastery is highly underrated.
Here's a dramatic example: I have a friend who was a successful concert pianist, touring nationally. At some point, he felt that he would never be of the very highest rank, and that he simply didn't like the loneliness of the life. He dropped out and went back to school and eventually became a physician at a teaching hospital, where he is a different, more familiar sort of success and has plenty of people contact that eliminates the solitude of the single life. A smart man, he had been following his bliss and doing quite well in worldly terms. But bliss turned out to be less satisfying than the original advertisement. It didn't fit his life well. So he went through new training and became good at something else, something very different. I admire the strength of mind that made him quit one pursuit and set out on another path--a path that was not his bliss.
The popular "follow your bliss" goal is a sentimental mirage that has harmed others I know, particularly in the arts. The concept is supposed to lead the hero upward to heroic success. It's intended to be more than an internal journey. Anyway, people tend to be unsatisfied by being Hawthorne's secret artist of the beautiful. It's that pesky old human nature, never content! I know people who were unable to handle their lack of worldly success in the whimsical world of the arts, unable to come to terms with the way of the world and accept that there's an awful lot of luck in what happens, and that black swans don't plop down on most people's heads. Even though lack of success diminished and in some cases spoiled their affection for a pursuit, they were unable to change course and find another goal. I'm not sure what the answer would have been for these people, aside from an earlier understanding of the ways of the world (hard in an era that forces self-esteem down children's throats) and a clue that "follow your bliss" is an often-delusional path that may lead to a place that does not satisfy a desire to have one's art be known.
Despite what I've said, I don't happen to think that a life in the arts that isn't rewarded with huge success is a disaster, or even a major problem. And I don't say that because many of the writers and artists I admire for various reasons failed to have the kind of success the world admires and never met up with a black swan until after death, when it was a bit too late to enjoy the sound of those beating wings. I say it in part because I think being a part of the building-up of culture is a noble thing. It's a selfless thing, far away from the "self-esteem" school movement of recent years, far away from the me-focus of "follow your bliss" as it is commonly understood. We ought to admire it, though I don't think we do, at least in this country. Without the lives of the sea's tiniest residents, how can there be great whales? Without mice, how can we have eagles?
Entirely aside from success, the process of making art has its own rewards and pleasures, even if the artist is a Dickinson who knows few others involved in the arts or a Herbert, immured in the countryside, or a Melville, forgotten in old age but still not letting go of the thread of narrative. But what is a problem is this pernicious, me-focused "follow your bliss" myth that trips up so many, in and out of the arts. So don't think about following bliss. Think about becoming good at something . . .