A Slight Row with Mike Rowe
If it had been only one of my Facebook friends who shared Mike Rowe’s thoughts on the dangers of following your passion, it might have been water off a duck’s back. But when, several weeks later, another friend shared the same item, it got me thinking. So far, so good. I don’t mind thinking. The item being shared, if you haven’t already come across it in your own social media circles, is an open response to a viewer of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs program for the Discovery Channel. I like some of what Rowe has to say in his essay. His writing is compelling, his thoughts sound. In fact, here, judge for yourself:
See, convincing. So why does the letter start the skin at the back of my neck tingling? Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” I suspect that Mike Rowe’s argument has something in common with satire. We’re all about pursuing our own passions. It’s other people’s passions that make us uncomfortable. And that’s the problem with crafting a nuanced argument: it invites a nuanced reaction.
If you didn’t actually pause to read Mr. Rowe’s letter (well, first of all, you should), the gist of his argument is that passion is good up to a point, but that not enough people know when to call it quits. When your passion leads you down an impractical avenue, it’s time to shift your focus.
Keep in mind, this is the advice of a very successful human being, by a number of measures. He may have performed numerous dirty jobs on his reality television show, but through it all he was a television personality, not a ditch digger or lumberjack or sewer worker (I must confess to never having seen the show, so I don’t know what jobs he actually took on). Sure, he must have gotten a taste of those professions, but that’s not the same as giving up your dreams to become a blue-collar worker living paycheck to paycheck for thirty-some years.
So I bristle at the dogmatic advice of the rich and successful. It’s nothing personal, it just smacks a little bit of hypocrisy. I realize that luck must play a part for anyone who finds success of a certain magnitude, but surely Rowe wasn’t just lying around waiting for the phone to ring to get where he is. Surely he actively pursued some kind of television career. Surely he followed his passion.
As a (currently) part-time writer, I’ve had to make the very difficult and painful decision to set aside my other great passion: acoustic guitar music. I hope it’s temporary and that when my writing career kicks into a higher gear I’ll be able to return to the six- and twelve-string instruments I love so much. Until then, I write … and no aspiring writer will need any convincing that writing while holding down a full-time job is enough of a handful without adding a hobby—not to mention family—to the mix.
So why not give up on the writing as well? If I was able to cut the cord on my music, why not just turn my back on the arts entirely? Anyone who thinks that’s possible doesn’t understand the creative impulse very well, for one thing. The reason I was able to set aside the guitar, and my passion for writing music on that instrument, is that I’m fortunate enough to have another passion with the same amount of power over me, and to which I’m pretty similarly matched in the proficiency department. See, it’s the need to create that overwhelms someone like me. As long as I can funnel that need into an activity I have some talent for, I’m clam-happy.
Rowe talks about passion as if it were some kind of ailment, when in reality, passion is tied closely to how we view the world, and how we see our place within the world. It’s also connected to morality. We’re passionate about things because we believe that they’re important. If it’s truly passion that you’re following, it seems to me that it’s hardly a sin. In fact, maybe you owe it to yourself and the world to go down that path. However, there is always the very real possibility that you’re chasing something that you’ve convinced yourself is your passion but is, in truth, a wild goose. There’s a world of difference between the two, so his point about self-awareness is well taken. There’s also the question of whether or not you’re any good at that passionate pursuit of yours. I’m not saying that talent, or the lack thereof, shouldn’t factor into this discussion.
I have other concerns about Mr. Rowe’s position. What about the danger of reaching old age only to find that you wish you would have tried harder at something and sweated less about the small potatoes? And what are we supposed to do, in the World According to Mike Rowe? Give up on our own ambitions so that we can work to support those of other people? That's the trap many of us already find ourselves in and are working tirelessly to free ourselves from. But I’ve gone on long enough. I think Mr. Rowe and I are in agreement on some level. I appreciate his not wanting to encourage flights of fancy among the ignorant and talentless, to paraphrase. But I don’t want to live in a passionless world, either.
So go ahead and follow your passion, I say! Where’s the harm? If you’re the passionate type, you’re going to do exactly that, whether anyone tells you to or not. If you’d rather spend your time watching fail videos on YouTube, no one but your own damn self is going to coax you out of that rut.