Writing Nowadays–Observations on Ambition

The coming new year seems a good time to bring this up.  Lately, for some reason, I’ve been exposed to a number of videos and blogs that encourage students and other people to “follow your passion” to find a career.  The speaker/writer says things like, “If you could do whatever you wanted, without worrying about money, what would you be doing?  Well, why aren’t you doing it?  Don’t worry about the money!  Do what makes you happy and the money will follow.”

Perhaps.  But these motivational speakers never point out the weakness in their philosophy, and this bothers me quite a lot.

In order to turn your passion into a career–say, a writing career–you need two things.

The first thing you need is A PASSION.  This may sound self-obvious, especially to motivational speakers, but it really isn’t.  Not everyone has a passion.  Really.  I’ve been teaching for twenty years now, and I have done the “find your passion” thing with countless students over the years, especially with the ones who are failing.  The conversation often goes like this:

ME: What do you love to do?  I mean, if you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?

STUDENT: I dunno.

ME: Seriously, if you could earn $100,000 doing anything in the world, even if it were building with Legos or watching game shows, what would you do?

STUDENT: I dunno.

ME: Playing video games?  Riding a dirt bike?  Watching videos on YouTube?

STUDENT: (shrugs)

ME: What subject are you good at, or do you enjoy at least a little?

STUDENT: I dunno.

ME: What kind of TV shows or movies do you like to watch?

STUDENT: I dunno.

This goes on.  The motivational speakers operate from the assumption that everyone has a passion, but the world (often in the guise of school) does its best to crush that passion.  Except I see people who simply don’t have a passion and who have no interest in finding one. It’s sad, but it’s true.

The other thing you need to turn your passion into a career is AMBITION.  No matter how rainbow-unicorn-waterfall a motivational speaker may sound, no one will ever walk up to you and say, “Hey, I need to hire someone who enjoys writing, and I’m offering oodles in salary.  Are you interested?”  In order to turn your passion into a career, you need to have the ambition to get off your ass and WORK.  You might have to create the career from the ground up and be willing to live on beans and rice in the back of a truck for six years until you earn decent money.  You might have to go to college or a trade school so you can learn the skills you need to get that career, and you might have to take some shit job to pay for it in the meantime.  You might have to move far away from your current home so you can be in a place where people are willing to pay for your skill.  You might have to fail three, four, five, a dozen times, and each time you’ll have to find the strength to try again.  All this takes AMBITION.

I can’t count the number of students–boys, usually–who are passionate about video games.  They adore video games and in the conversation above, their dream career would be to work on games.  But then we get this conversation:

ME: What video game careers have you looked into?

STUDENT: I dunno.

ME: I mean, have you looked into what positions exist in video game companies–design, programming, graphics, art, writing?  We have classes here at this school that teach you how to do all those things.

STUDENT: I just want to play.  It’d be cool if someone paid me.

ME: Have you looked into finding people who will let you do that?

STUDENT: No. I just want to play.  Do you know anyone?

People like this–and there are lots of them–won’t turn their passion into a career because they don’t really want to do it.  No ambition.

All of this, of course, applies hugely to writing.  I’ve met dozens and dozens of people who say they want to be writers but they don’t, really.  They’re either not truly passionate about it or they don’t have the ambition to both write and learn to get better at it.

A good friend of mine makes an excellent living as a science writer.  She is a talented, hard-working writer with an extensive background in bio-chemistry, which makes her uniquely qualified to interview scientists and make their words into something other people can understand quickly and clearly.  Over the years, she’s worked hard to create and maintain an extensive list of contacts in the scientific community and among editors who publish scientific material.  She’s endured a great deal of frustration and difficulty, and not everything worked out the way she’s wanted it, and she’s continually learning new ways to juggle her writing life with everything else in her life, but she’s doing it and doing it well.  She has both the ambition and the passion to do so, and I find her highly admirable.

I rather wonder why these motivational speakers and writers never mention this stuff in their speeches.  Maybe it’s because “work your ass off and you might get there” doesn’t sound as good as “follow your passion.”

–Steven Harper Piziks
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Writing Nowadays–Observations on Ambition — 13 Comments

  1. Along with ‘follow your bliss’ there’s ‘find your life’s work’ which I find even more frustrating, because I don’t have any one thing that drives me. (I’m a butterfly. I am interested in *anything*, at least at an observer level.) Many people can be happy in many careers – sometimes concurrently, sometimes not, and many people fall into a niche and find they like it there because it makes use of their skills. If you concentrate too hard on the goal (‘I want to do x’) where ‘x’ is very narrowly defined, you might miss things your younger self never dreamt about.

  2. I have worked in mental health for many years, and part of what I do is write treatment plans which (because I actually use them to help people, rather than as a ‘mandatory paperwork’) are co-written by therapy participants and based on what they want.

    I have observed two things:
    1) Everyone has at least one thing they want to gain or conserve in their life in the next year, and
    2) It can be very difficult to get them to tell you what it is.

    Because I’m required by statute to figure out this stuff, I figure it out 100% of the time. I’m not always happy with peoples’ ambitions, though. “I want to get married by the end of the year,” for instance, usually ends badly without intervention, especially if the person who makes that statement has no particular person in mind.

    Most people can’t wrap their minds around a life ambition, but can usually handle focusing on one change in a year. And sometimes ‘follow your passion’ is great advice, but maybe ‘find your passion’ has to be the first goal, or even ‘find the passion you want to explore right now’.

    • I like this a lot. Sometimes choosing a goal can feel limiting–because anything you say you are going to do immediately closes other doors. In the short term that’s not so bad. But for some people, longterm, it’s overwhelming. To look forward and know that Choice A I make today might very possibly eliminate any chance I have at doing Choice B ever in my life?

      And it may not be a conscious thought. Just an uneasiness, that fear of committing to a lifetime goal. Although I recall reading a book Wishcraft many years ago that included making a long list of lifetime goals…

      I’m rambling. But it sounds like you’re very good at what you do.

      • It feels limiting because it is limiting. But then, so is doing nothing. The passage of time alone imposes limits.

    • find the passion you want to explore right now

      That’s doable and positive, but if you ask me to pick one passion as THE passion in my life, I’ll pass. Heck, my business card has three things on it because I can’t commit to just one. (Editing. Photography. Filemaker.)

      ‘gain or conserve’ is another discussion, and probably often one that needs chanelling into positive directions, or given concrete actions, and having an advisor who can advise on how to turn ‘I want to earn enough money to be comfortable’ into ‘I want to expand my freelance business by concentrating on x clientele’ (or ‘I want a job in x field’ or ‘I want to start an online shop on Etsy’ or…) is probably extremely useful. ‘I want to get married’ is iffy. ‘I want to meet a person I can imagine being married to, and I will take x steps towards this goal (including becoming the person the partner of my dreams will want to marry)’ sounds like A Plan, and not the worst.

  3. Isn’t there a terrible word like ‘actionize’ or something that means to figure out the methods of implementing a plan? For me and for a lot of people I know there are certain goals that people have – not necessarily passions – you can be passionate about helping juvenile offenders and not want to defend them in court, or even talk to them frequently – but they’re big amorphous goals (even like ‘getting a job that pays well enough to move out of their parents’ house’) that seem unreachable because they haven’t sorted out the steps necessary to make it happen. Or if they have they’ve let the first step get so huge that they can’t face it. Or they think there’s only one way of making something happen, when there might be a bunch of ways if they research the options.

    “Follow your passion” sometimes seems to mean that if you want something it will fall into your lap. Which really doesn’t happen.

    • It’s not necessarily a big step – but often a step that depends on other people. ‘I want a well-paying job’ (or ‘I want to sell a novel’) means that someone needs to be a) willing and b) able to GIVE that person the job or novel contract. But that isn’t always the case. And the next trap is thinking that if you just work very, very hard, you’ll succeed – but 200 applications with a fair-to-middling CV, or 200 query letters for a fair-to-middling first novel are unlikely to get you anywhere, and nor will 500 of the same, so I think that change – finding out what is and isn’t working, and doing something about the not-working things – will have to play a role in success.

    • And “actionable” plans. (That’s even worse, folks. An actionable plan is one that someone can sue you over.)

  4. When I’m asked by students what they should study if they want to be a writer, I tell them to pursue the career that will support them in the fashion to which they choose to live while they write in their spare time. While it’s true that some writers do study English or Literature or Creative Writing and pursue successful writing careers, you can look at Grisham and Crichton to see that path can certainly work. Or do as others I know have done and choose a deliberately simply, low-income life with a job that is undemanding of your mental and creative energies so that you have them all available to pour into your writing. A screenwriter I once met worked as a night watchman for years so that he could write at work, taking occasional breaks to patrol the building.

    One way or another you have to pay the bills, and few writers manage to do that only with their writing.

    Although I do understand the student who leaned back in his chair and said, “I am waiting for someone to recognize my true worth and just pay me to hang out and be awesome.”

    • I used to work in the computer game industry, and hung out online with a bunch of other folks in the business. Whenever some kid came by and asked what they should major in to get into the business, the answer was universally “Anything except computer programming.” You learn to program by programming; any company you hire on with will have its own proprietary development language(s) that you’ll have to learn anyway. If you’re going to get a college degree, it’s better to learn something to design games about.

      I think the same advice holds for fiction writing. You learn to write by writing; taking a lot of English or creative writing classes can actually be counterproductive, once you’ve grasped the basics of craftsmanship and mechanics. You’re better off majoring in something that’ll give you things to write about.


    • Preferably a career that has nothing to do with writing, so their writerly energies are not sapped by it.

      The only writer I know of who actually did writing for his day job and didn’t mind it is Gene Wolfe, who worked for a magazine on manufacturing plants.

  5. “Get married in the next year” . . . oh dear!

    Finding one’s passion can indeed be a goal all by itself. And there’s also the possibility that you might not WANT to turn your passion into a career. I love to cook. It’s one of my passions, in fact, and more than once people have said to me that I should be a chef or go into the restaurant or catering business. But man . . . no way! Cooking as a job would wreck it for me. It would add the pressure of deadlines and meeting someone else’s standards and worrying about money to something that’s always (well, almost always) just fun.

  6. Very true that not everyone has a passion, or has the ambition to turn a passion into a career or even a life goal.

    When I was younger (and heck, even now if I’m honest with myself) I was passionately interested in so many different things that focusing on one made me yearn for one or more of the others, and I ended up like the sheep surrounded by a dozen piles of hay, starving to death in the middle for being unable to decide which of them to eat. Which I suppose is a problem related to being unable to come up with any passion at all. [wry smile]