I recently fought the urge to slug a Canadian economist in the mouth.
Although I’m not generally a violent person, this desire overwhelmed me after only nine minutes of listening to Professor Larry Smith’s TEDxUW talk, “Why you will fail to have a great career.”
Let’s back up to the start of his speech. “If you want a great career, you have to pursue your passion,” Smith declares. This is his great thesis: passion leads to greatness, the definition of a life well lived. But by the two-minute mark, alas, he is confident that “You’re too lazy to do it. It’s too hard. You’re afraid if you look for your passion and don’t find it, you’ll feel like you’re an idiot, so then you make excuses about why you’re not going to look for your passion.”
This accusation riled my defenses—who is he to claim I’m lazy or afraid to pursue my passion? I had half a mind to storm into his office at the University of Waterloo with a foot-high stack of printer paper, the physical manifestation of a year’s writing, and fling it in his face. He’d lose sight of me in a life-size snow-globe of fluttering pages; when they settled around our ankles in a layer of fresh-fallen work, he’d realize he owed me an apology.
Try and tell me I’m not pursuing my passion, I muttered at the screen.
For the next few minutes his taunting played on my psyche, goading me to fiercer declarations of dedication to my writing. I was furiously eager to prove Smith wrong and/or give him that great punch to the jaw.
Here are some of the lines that spurred my assertive fantasies.
“Then, your other excuse is, ‘Yes, there are special people who pursue their passions, but they are geniuses,’” he says. “‘I am not a genius,’ [you think.] ‘When I was five, I thought I was a genius, but my professors have beaten that idea out of my head long since.’ (Laughter)”
I’ll convince myself I’m a genius if that’s what it takes to keep going, I fired back.
“‘Well, I would do this, I would do this, but, but—well, after all, I’m not weird. Everybody knows that people who pursue their passions are […] a little strange. Hmm?”
I’ll be weird if I have to. Just you wait and see. Lemme at him!
Here is the point, nine minutes in, that unraveled my furious need to meet his standards:
But then, there are some of you who, in spite of all these excuses, you will find, you will find your passion. And you’ll still fail. You’re going to fail, because […] you will have invented a new excuse, any excuse to fail to take action, and this excuse, I’ve heard so many times: Yes, I would pursue a great career, but, I value human relationships—(Laughter) more than accomplishment. I want to be a great friend. I want to be a great spouse. I want to be a great parent, and I will not sacrifice them on the altar of great accomplishment.
“I value human relationships,” he sneers, impersonating someone too full of excuses to achieve success. And the audience laughs.
He mocks, he pauses for dramatic effect, and everyone is amused. The laughter and the pause are so significant that the TedX transcriber noted them in the talk’s official transcript.
With a sudden sink, the fierceness pooled out of me.
Yes. I do value human relationships.
I let the talk play out its remaining six minutes, but as it rolled to a close I found that my initial craving to disprove Smith with a mountain of accomplishment had drained. All that was left was a puddle of pity for this man and anyone who bought into the economics of his message.
Because his message seems to be that one’s life has value insofar as one’s career is recognized as great. Since a great career is achieved through the pursuit of passion, everything comes down to that pursuit.
Here’s what I want to remind myself—and Smith—and you: passion is suffering.
This is not so much a poetic declaration as a statement of etymological fact. The word comes from the Latin “passio,” which means “suffer,” or, more specifically in Christian theology, the suffering and death of Christ. Think about that. To have passion is to suffer; it is to devote yourself to a mission so utterly that you consider it your greatest duty to die for it.
I love writing. But there are limits to how much I’ll suffer for it, and I’m certainly not willing to sacrifice my human relationships on its altar. Time with family and friends will always win out over pen and paper.
In his first few minutes, Smith goaded me into such a defensive frenzy that I could think of nothing better than to prove my worth by pouring myself into a single passion. When I stepped back, though, I saw what an exhaustingly lonely life that could become. I’d rather set aside the suffering of a single passion and settle for what he derides as mere interests:
If you don't find the highest expression of your talent, if you settle for “interesting,” what the hell ever that means, do you know what will happen at the end of your long life? Your friends and family will be gathered in the cemetery, and there beside your gravesite will be a tombstone, and inscribed on that tombstone it will say, “Here lies a distinguished engineer, who invented Velcro.” But what that tombstone should have said, in an alternative lifetime, what it should have said if it was your highest expression of talent, was, “Here lies the last Nobel Laureate in Physics, who formulated the Grand Unified Field Theory and demonstrated the practicality of warp drive.” (Laughter) Velcro, indeed! (Laughter) One was a great career. One was a missed opportunity.
First of all, it’s shameful that Smith doesn’t marvel at the simple genius that is Velcro. How can he dismiss George de Mestral’s invention as a failure, evidence of a life lived poorly, a missed opportunity of a career? Smith’s standards for success are remarkably high if he derides even an innovation that revolutionized everything from playground footwear to NASA contraptions.
Secondly, and more importantly—well, let me just address myself directly to the speaker.
Mr. Smith—can I call you Larry?— why are you worried about what your loved ones will see on your gravestone? In pondering how you want to live, can that possibly be your first concern? Wouldn’t you rather enjoy their love during your lifetime than fixate on what they’ll think of your career after you’ve died?
“At the end of your long life,” when you look back over the years, I doubt you’ll judge yourself by your career trajectory. It seems more likely that you’ll regret the energy you wasted worrying about being recognized for hard work, and you’ll wish you’d instead poured your effort into being emotionally honest, connecting with others, and allowing yourself to be, simply, happy.
There are far too many (punchable) mouths like Smith’s scolding us to strive harder and measure up. Their ferocious expectations surround us at high volume, pressuring us into downward spirals of anxiety (violent urges and all). Failure is the assumed default for the majority of us. Success is the ill-defined be-all and end-all of the elite.
But when I catch my breath in a quiet moment, and I listen carefully… underneath, I still hear the soft voices of others like Corita Kent steadily reminding us: “Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.”
Why do we worry our lives away? Really—for what? Who says passion and greatness are what matter most?
Society doesn’t need a slew of solitary workaholics dreaming up their own impressive obituaries. Careers in general, and writing in particular, exist not to validate our worth as individuals but to enrich our lives as a species.
I love to write; I want to be a great writer, for my sake and for readers’ sake. But if a “great” writing career means suffering, i.e. anxiety and loneliness, then forget it. It’s not worth it to me. At the end of the day—at the end of the TED talk—I’ll gladly settle for the mediocrity of a little light happiness with my friends and family. (Laughter)
Y’all, we do not need more passion. What we need is rest. And breath. To relieve us from the compounding stress overriding us. Humor me, now do this with me, just take a deep breath through your nose, go. Good, do it again. Yeah. Now go ahead and continue doing that. Forever. You’re gonna need it.