My friend Santiago Jaramillo is Colombian by birth, but his family relocated to Florida when he was still young. When I asked Santiago why his parents decided to immigrate to the United States, he told me a story that I will never forget.
One Sunday morning, Santi and his dad were building a treehouse, which was nearly finished. Santi asked his mom and dad if they could all stay home and finish the treehouse instead of going to church. His parents surprised him by saying yes. As Santiago tells the story, his parents never missed the Sunday morning service, so this was indeed a treat.
What happened at the Santiagos’ church that day? Guerrilla fighters stormed in and marched the adults out of the building and into the jungle. As some of the only parents left in the neighborhood, the responsibility fell to Santi’s mother and father to care for the twenty to thirty children left behind.
The story ended with the eventual release of the hostages and with the Jaramillos’ decision to move Santi and his sister to a country where guerrillas and kidnapping weren’t woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Because we’re both entrepreneurs in the mobile technology and startup space, Santiago and I also discussed our work that day. We are both privileged in that we work on ventures and projects that intersect with our passions, and Santiago relayed a conversation he had once had with his father on the subject of work. His father had said that, for him, the work itself hadn’t mattered so much. His job was to provide for his family, whatever form that took.
So if they were paying $125 an hour to dig ditches and fill them back in, then that’s what he would have done. Passion hadn’t been much of a consideration for him, but he hoped that by working hard he might create opportunities for his children.
Fixated on Finding Work That Makes Us Happy
I’ve never met Mr. Jaramillo, but I would like to thank him. His perspective has shaped my understanding of work and calling. He helped me realize that for any of us to become fixated on finding work that makes us happy, work that we find fulfilling, is in fact a luxury indicative of first-world entitlement.
I’m going to pick on Millennials in the United States for a moment because I am one. We tend to think of work in terms of following our passion or finding work we enjoy. Because our parents or some other benefactor has seen to our basic needs (and some non-needs as well), we have time and brain space to ponder such mysteries as Satisfying Work.
I love and hate this quote from Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I love the quote because I think it’s true. I also hate the quote because I have only ever heard the quote used to justify navel-gazing.
Who is paying your bills?
The problem with over-spiritualizing one’s passion, one’s great calling in life, is bills. Many of us that grew up well—well-housed, well-clothed, well-fed, and well-educated—also grew up detached from the practicalities of modern life. We have enjoyed the personal and political freedom required to follow our work whims and preferences.
Now please don’t misunderstand me: I am grateful to my parents for the safety, stability, and affluence that they worked hard to create and sustain for my two sisters and me. I hope to do the same for my children, and far be it from me to bite the hand that fed me.
I am also grateful to the thousands of people who made sacrifices to create and sustain a political system, buttressed by the Declaration of Independence, that grants U.S. citizens the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
No one owes you fun.
Of late I have found myself in several conversations and situations that made me wonder if the “the pursuit of” hasn’t been dropped from “the pursuit of happiness.” What’s left is just “happiness” without the pursuit; happiness that is a debt someone owes me.
No one is obligated to give us jobs we enjoy. No one, not the God, nor the U.S. government, nor our parents, nor our spouses, nor our clients or colleagues, nor our business partners, is obligated to make our work deeply meaningful or emotionally fulfilling.
Having fun at work is not a birthright. Have we Millennials forgotten that? Fruitful labor isn’t a basic human right.
Sometimes work sucks, but you grind through the days and weeks because other people are counting on you. You put your hand to the plow because if you shirk your responsibility, someone else has to pick up the tab. Someone else may go hungry.
No one wants to feed your Chinese Crested Hairless. Get a job.
To pursue your passion is a luxury the same as having a pet.
Your passion is a Chinese Crested Hairless dog. It has snaggle teeth. Its skin is blotchy and looks like it got boiled for several hours. It has mange.
Most people could care less about your pet, and even if the odd dog lover thinks that it is so ugly it is cute, she would not want to feed it, walk it, and pick up its doodoos. She doesn’t want to feed your passion because she has her Chinese Crested Hairless. Any care she bestows on your pet is time, attention, and resources she diverts away from her own.
You do not deserve to pursue your passion.
And if you, like Santiago’s father, had grown up in Colombia, you would not be thinking about your Chinese Crested Hairless except during a rare daydream when you imagine what you’d be doing if you were rich.
If you were Mr. Jaramillo, you would get a job. You would find the best-paying job that you could find because you wanted to put food on the table for you and your family.
Maybe eventually you would create safety, stability, and affluence. Maybe your children would have opportunities that you did not have. In the meantime, you survive, and you try not to be a burden to those around you.
Set aside any indignation you might be feeling at the moment, and answer this question with as much honesty as you can muster: Are you a burden to those around you?
Are you a burden to those around you?
No? Good on you! By all means pursue your passion. Feed your Chinese Crested Hairless.
Yes? Screw your passion. Get a job. Support yourself. Pay your own way so that you can stop draining the people and resources around you.
An ironic paradigm shift can happen from one generation to the next. The youth of one generation that have faced deprivation work like dogs to create a better future for themselves and their children. They create surplus and give out of that surplus.
The next generation becomes so accustomed to that surplus that they face the same crucible that forms character. They don’t learn how to work hard. As they get older and join the workforce, they don’t appreciate the opportunities they already have. They look for better ones. They spend so much time leapfrogging opportunities that they cannot create their own surplus. They perform autopsies on their discontentment, and all the while, they keep on taking.
Pursuing your passion can turn you into a Taker. You have a beautiful dream, full of cupcakes and rainbows. Your dream isn’t a Chinese Crested Hairless. No, you’re going to solve world hunger! You’re going to end AIDS! You’re going to provide clean drinking water for people around the world!
You busy yourself with meetings at cool coffee shops where you agonize over your new logo and Snapchat handle. All the while, somebody else is picking up your tab.
Pay for your own fancy coffee.
This is unsustainable. Other people have to keep giving and giving while you pursue your dream. What about their dreams? What about their passions? The people in your life bankrolling your passion might prefer to do other things with their cash. Even parents who want to create opportunities for their children that they themselves did not have don’t enjoy watching said children waste said opportunities.
Now you see that pursing your passion can be fundamentally selfish. How will you get other people out of poverty if you can’t pay for a single cup of coffee with money that you earned through the sweat of your brow?
That’s the first goal of being a grown-up. It’s not figuring out what your passion is. It’s not finding yourself. It’s making a buck so that you aren’t a burden to those around you.
There’s a subset of every generation that wakes up and works hard. Your hard work is the homage you pay. Your hard work is your public acknowledgement of the sacrifices of your parents, mentors, teachers, coaches, and other benefactors. None of them had to give two craps about you. But some did.
We millennials do, indeed, have a choice.
Let’s live in a paradox. Let’s protect the people who created safety, stability, and affluence for us by not requiring their financial assistance.
Let’s honor their hard work and sacrifices by not making choices that threaten their financial security.
Let’s learn contentment and take advantage of the opportunities right in front of us.
Let’s use the delicious freedom we have inherited to pay our own bills while also creating better opportunities for others.
Let’s grow up and pay it forward.
Let’s take the lesson from Mr. Jaramillo to heart.
Once we have achieved sustainability, maybe we can think more about passion. We can use some of the surplus we create to feed our Chinese Crested Hairless puppies. But while other people are still paying our bills, that passion is a ruse that conceals immaturity, selfishness, self-indulgence, and laziness.
Subjugate the beast and the madman and express the angel. Get a job.
“I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, down throw and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression.” – Dylan Thomas
P.S. Perhaps 5% of you need to ignore everything I just wrote. You are a madman. You have myopic vision. You can see only one thing to do. You must do it, or you will die. Do it.
P.S. Special thanks to my friend Daniel Everson for reading an early draft of this post and offering his feedback.
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.
Also published on Medium.