Opinion | We can preserve our personal passions even if they’re our job

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

It feels like I’ve written more than I ever have over the past year. In reality, I’ve probably produced the least amount of writing since middle school. 

Writing has always served as my biggest creative outlet. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I write. When I’m feeling anxious or excited, I write. When I’m not quite sure what I’m feeling, I write. 

But over the past year, that compulsion to process the happenings of my world simply evaporated. In the past, Microsoft Word had been my safe space — now, I feel like I couldn’t run further from it. Of course, I was closely tethered to my laptop throughout the entire year, writing essays and articles and emails that normally would have been tests or meetings. 

Rather than serving as my most treasured outlet, writing became the cornerstone of my academic and professional life — and it made me hate it. 

And according to acclaimed novelist Colm Tóibín, it seems that this was bound to happen at some point — pandemic or not. 

“There’s no pleasure,” Tóibín said in 2009. “After a while [writing is] not really difficult, but it’s never fun or anything.”

Scottish writer and comedian A.L. Kennedy shares this sentiment.

“The joy of writing for a living is that you get to do it all the time. The misery is that you have to, whether you’re in the mood or not,” Kennedy told the Guardian. “I wouldn’t be the first writer to point out that doing something so deeply personal does become less jolly when you have to keep on at it, day after cash-generating day.”

It’s not just writing. Many of us come to college to pursue our passions — to hope the things we love will someday become the things others love enough to pay us for. But in a capitalist society like the United States, the stress of finding ways to monetize our passions often trumps our love of simply doing them. 

It’s normal not to love our jobs 100% of the time, but it’s essential to find ways to preserve our passions amidst this seemingly endless capitalist hustle.

A 2016 Gallup Poll found millennials are the least engaged generation in the workforce, with just 29% of respondents feeling “emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company.” In short, most millennials are simply “checked out”. It seems much of this burnout can be attributed to the age-old advice to “just follow your passion,” according to a study from Stanford. 

“Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry,” the researchers wrote.

On the whole, they found this advice often prompts a “fixed mindset,” or the idea that our passions are ingrained rather than growing with us. It paralyzes us in both a career and mindset that may only serve us for a period of time.

Paul Archer, co-author of the book “It’s on the Meter: One Taxi, Three Mates and 43,000 Miles of Misadventures around the World,” learned this the hard way. An avid traveler, he turned it into his livelihood by writing books, pursuing sponsorships and engaging on social media. Ultimately, rather than bolstering his love for travel, it simply led to burnout. 

“I can still fulfill my passion and travel to far-flung parts of the world and do it for myself, not for anybody else. I don’t have to film it. I don’t have to update my social media to ensure I have enough clicks and likes,” he said

It’s not that honing in on our passions is a negative thing. Doing the things we love prompts drive, focus and excitement that can’t always be recreated in other fields. But when we fixate ourselves on a single practice, it often has the opposite effect. Finding work-life balance when both your professional and personal life are consumed by the same activity is incredibly challenging, but not impossible. 

Psychotherapist Tess Brigham explains some key ways to get more joy from your job. 

It starts with lowering expectations and raising standards. I knew that writing for a college paper would not be my Carrie Bradshaw moment, but I certainly didn’t expect to be writing columns from my childhood bedroom. Needless to say, my expectations didn’t quite match up with the pandemic-induced reality. But Brigham explains that balance comes in a careful dance between these expectations and standards.

“Work on holding your standards in a high place, while not expecting those standards to be met 100% of the time,” she said. “It’s all about control — and in this case, the only things within your control are the standards you set for yourself and those around you.”

I can’t control that the pandemic — and life more broadly — has shifted the ways I spend my time writing. But I can control the effort and commitment I put into it. 

The other key is distinguishing between the professional and personal. It’s easy to confuse the two when they’re both centered around a single passion, but in order to hold on to what we love, it is essential we attempt to do so. For me, writing for fun and writing for work need to happen in different places. When I’m writing poems or essays that are only for me, I cuddle up with a record and a coffee on my bed. Academic papers or columns are only written at my desk. I’ve stopped forcing myself to free-write or to read for fun — it only happens when I want it to. Forming simple, but firm distinctions between a creative outlet and a professional task is arguably the most important way to shift our focus and re-learn how to love what we do. 

I’ve slowly but surely begun writing again. Amidst the chaos of finals, I found myself longing to cuddle up with a journal and process the enormity of the events unfolding around me. Our passions are precious. They help make us, us. They’re worth saving, even if it’s not easy to do so. 

Julia writes mostly about social issues. Write to Julia at [email protected].