Workforce participation and the passion for work

The Labor Department reports that in December 2014 the economy added  large number of new jobs and that continued the decline in unemployment rate.  While this represents good news for the economy, this WSJ report also points out that the weakness in the fact that there is no corresponding growth in wages.  They offer as a partial reason for the lack of wage growth is implied competition from the low workforce participation rates that continue to decline.  There is a large number of people who are available for work but are not actively seeking work.   The assumption is that they would return to work if there were better incentives.

I enjoy blogging about non-participation in the workforce because I consider myself in that category.   I enjoy working and I prefer working over not working.  I’m not in the category of those who are avoiding work until it is absolutely necessary (this includes those who are retired).   I could make a case as belonging in the group who lacks the skills to be relevant to the current labor market.

However, I think my attitude is fairly unique because I seek to avoid the distraction of work to allow myself to think.   I could argue that I am participating in the workforce after all by blogging on a free site that offers no form of income.  I’m working, but I’m not making any wages.

The motivation for this post is not the jobs report, but instead from a recent note from Mike Rowe concerning the role for passion in work.  In particular he is responding to a complaint against his earlier claim that the worst advice to give someone is to follow their passion.   He ends his recent response with:

Passion is too important to be without, but too fickle to be guided by. Which is why I’m more inclined to say, “Don’t Follow Your Passion, But Always Bring it With You.”

I admire Mike Rowe’s ability as a communicator to respond thoughtfully and respectfully to queries that seem to me to have the intention of provoking something less thoughtful and respectful.   Part of what allows him to respond sensibly more often than not is that he has a great command of the language, both written and spoken.

I want to focus on the last sentence of his response where he refers to passion in two very different ways.  I suspect it is unintentional and he really sees no distinction in the passion that actively guides and the passion that passively (and optionally) tags along.  The sentence has a pun or a rhetorical device of antanaclasis: there are really two very different concepts involved and they happen to have the same label.

Part of what makes his writing and speaking so pleasing to read and watch is that he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself no matter what he is doing.   I have not watched his show Dirty Jobs but I’ve read where the jobs did involve exhausting, dangerous, and disgusting work.  Yet, his telling of the experiences belies an inner awareness of something fun about what is happening.

When he uses the word passion, I think he is really referring to fun.   So when he advises against following one’s passion unless there is evidence that one has what it takes to succeed, he is really advising against making decisions based on what appears would be fun.   This is reinforced by his many examples of people learning to have fun with the jobs they are capable of doing.  In his advice about passion, he is really referring to fun.

His last statement makes more sense to me when it is rewritten less poetically as “Don’t pursue what you think is fun, but instead have fun in whatever job you find yourself doing”.   That advice is closely related to other modern expressions that advise to enjoy each day because life is too brief and unpredictable.   It also almost contradicts itself by implying that success will be enhanced when you enjoy doing what you are naturally capable of doing: one may need to learn to enjoy what they happen to be good at doing, but once that lessons is learned, then that enjoyment guides one’s future.

The problem I have with his message is that he uses the word passion instead of enjoyment.   The initial question leaves him no choice because that question asks specifically about passion.  His answer is easier once he defines passion as enjoyment or dreams about what might be enjoyable.

Passion does not equate to enjoyment.  When I read the advice of following one’s passion, I read that differently than just following a happy dream.  The advice should use a different word than passion because passion has too many different meanings and most of those are tied to emotions.

A passion that is capable of guidance is not merely an emotion.  Emotions of enjoyment or anger can motivate actions, but that is more a provocation than a guide.   A guide is something more intelligent than raw emotions of happiness or anger.   A guide reasons with you.

When I think of a guiding passion, I’m reminded of the opening lines of Homer’s epics where he asks the muses to tell their story through his voice.   Passion is like the muses in ancient Greek mythology.  The muses live apart from humans but guide humans to various pursuits that set humans apart from other animals.   The muses can be a guide but only when invited.   Thus I imagine the advice follow ones passion as equivalent to Homer inviting the muses to take over his life so they can tell their story.   Without that invitation, the muses would just as happily ignore Homer.  The muses have the option of ignoring the invitation, even, but it seems their passion is to be eager to answer any and all invitations.

Pursuing the passions is to invite the muses to be a guide.   The invitation is not for the muses to fill the individual with emotions of fun or anger.  Instead the invitation is for the muses to replace those base emotions with some form of exhausting project to follow some goal.   Again, I recall explanations about what it must have been like for a Homeric story-teller to recite from memory the entirety of Illiad or Odyssey in one or two settings.   The story telling itself had to be exhausting.  The training to be able to tell the story must have been even more exhausting.   Nonetheless, the stories were passed down through many generations of those who found their passion in telling those stories.  The story tellers had a passion for story telling.

Today, the muses are most closely related to the arts.   Even in Mike Rowe’s response above, he mentions celebrities in the performing arts.   In fact, when I was in high school and heard the advice of following one’s passion, I associated that passion with some kind artistic goal.

Perhaps the origin of the advice to follow one’s passion in terms of pursuing a career was originally stated as the advice to follow the muses.  In modern times, we had to substitute the word passion because muses are too closely related to the fine and generally unpractical arts.  The question that Mike Rowe answers specifically cites examples from industry titans who created new businesses and vast wealth, these are individuals whose made practical contributions.   The questioner assumed that each of these examples followed their passions in face of great adversity or and difficulty.   The use of the word passion made it too easy for Mike to present his argument.  If the original question referred to the classical-sense of the muses instead of the passions, the counter argument might have been more difficult.

Greek muses are external to humans like the gods were.   Humans choose whether or not follow the muses.   The advice to follow the muses is advice to follow something outside of oneself.  This meaning is lost with the demise of the classical gods.   However, I think there is some linkage or vestige of this meaning when we advise the following of passions.   The referenced passions are outside of the self.

In contrast, a passion in the context of an emotion is internal.   Emotions are also reactive.  An emotion is a response to the situation.   While we may strive for emotions that we prefer to have, we generally don’t advise people to follow their emotions.   We do not recognize much wisdom in emotions.

Another viewpoint of following a passion is presented in this study that observes how academic confidence correlates to what kind of career a person pursues.   This study finds that people with more confidence will enter more competitive fields with the consequences that people lacking confidence may be short-changing their prospects by entering less competitive fields while those with too much confidence may be setting themselves for failure by entering fields that are too competitive.  Confidence itself is measured as an emotion by comparing what a person thinks how he ranks with his peers to what his actual rank is.   In this case following a passion could be interpreted as following a desire to compete based on a self-assessment of confidence.

Confidence is subjective but it is different from simple emotions of pursuing what feels good.   Confidence is a driver to exploit ones advantages within his peers.   Confidence anticipates eventual success.   The individual may assume that success will be rewarding in a way that feels good.

The concepts of pursuing passions or bringing passions along tend to be focused on success.  The ultimate goal is wealth and power of some sort.   A strategy for success based on being guided by confidence may be similar to a strategy guided by pursuing a passion: the goal is success.   As such, the advice is bad because the consequence may not end in the desired success.

On the other hand, following the muses is a different concept.  Muses do not a guarantee success and success is not their goal.  In Greek mythology there is an expectation that the muses will generously assist in the pursuit.   The pursuit itself is what interests the muses.  The pursuit is rewarding even when it does not result in success.

The advice to follow the passions may be better stated as the advice to follow the muses, and bring the passions along.

This may have some relevance in terms of my opening observation about the steady decline in workforce participation.   Generally, we jump to the conclusion that people who drop out of the workforce are discouraged and would return if the opportunities were available.  I don’t doubt there are discouraged workers but I would expect their relative numbers to remain relatively steady.  Eventually, discouraged workers will overcome their discouragement and find some way to reenter the workforce even if it requires a revision of their expectations.   The increasing number of non-participating workforce needs a different explanation than a decline in opportunity due to obsolescence or insufficient compensation.

Perhaps one of the explanations is that there are increasing numbers of people who find that participating in workforce unacceptably constrains or distracts from following the muses.  Instead of jobs becoming more specialized, the real problem may be that the jobs are becoming less flexible.   We don’t see this because of the many ways that modern work is very flexible especially in terms of work-life balance.   These gains in work-life flexibility may come at the expense of less flexibility of what happens within the sphere of work itself.   The jobs are more regimented, regulated, and partitioned.   In addition, jobs increasingly demand the subjugation of the individual for the goals of building teams.   Teams follow management goals, not muses.

Some people may find that they have more freedom to follow the muses if they are not working.   I recall a frequent explanation that many non-employed people are spending a lot of time playing increasingly sophisticated computer games and in particular those that involve a large number of players.   These games provide the ability of the individual player to build his own destiny within the virtual world within the game by increasingly acquiring wealth or power, or by innovating to create something that is unique to that player.   These virtual games provide a path for the individual to pursue the muses without the restraints in modern work places with its focus on restraints and goal-sharing team building.

The following of a muse is a private experience.   Even in occasions in arts where there may be teams such music bands, it is common for the membership of the band to be temporary as each member develops in different directions and speeds. Frequently, the band members will eventually part ways as each continues his journey following his individual muse.

Also, the following of a muse occurs independently of any steady reward or compensation.   Following a muse may never pay off at all.   This is mostly true in the pursuit of those massively multi-player computer games.  The continued investment of time and effort into the games does not require a financial reward.   The game continues because the player desires to continue it.  I am aware that some players have found ways to obtain financial rewards in game playing, but I think game playing makes a good analogy because most players are not discouraged by not enjoying that kind of reward.

The advice of following a passion may translate to the idea of following a muse.   Mike Rowe has a point in that this may be bad advice.  We judge the advice to be bad advice when it doesn’t lead to success in life.  As illustrated in the example of playing multi-player computer games, the advice to follow that kind of muse will not result in financial or career success.   However, some people may not see financial or career success as something that will give them happiness.   If Aristotle is correct in defining ultimate good as happiness, it is possible for career or financial success to get in the way of happiness.   True happiness may be in the pursuit of the muses in obscure poverty.  For those who measure happiness that way, then following the muses may be exactly the right advice.  The right advice is to pursue happiness by following the muses even if that requires dropping out of the labor market.


2 thoughts on “Workforce participation and the passion for work

  1. Pingback: Happiness battleground: an agile world of chained sprints versus a determined world of free spirits | kenneumeister

  2. Pingback: Workforce participation and the passion for work | Hypothesis Discovery

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