Follow Your Heart 2.0

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups

In 1998, I walked away from a six-figure job practicing law to write a novel. I had never written a novel before and had, what is in retrospect, a laughably (or rather frighteningly) small cushion of savings. A year later, I had a lucrative deal with a major publisher.  My first novel was a People magazine Page-Turner of the Week. We sold tons of foreign rights.

Do what you love, and the money will follow. Along with being the title of a popular self-help book, it sums up a distinctive ethos of a distinctive time in American history—an Oprah-fied vision of possibilities where the only limits were the boundaries of our dreams.

Times have changed.

Looking back, the Follow Your Heart love fest was a reflection—you might say a symptom—of an economy in overdrive. The widespread failure to see this link was a significant if not surprising vestige of ways of thinking that have deep roots in western culture. It is the same point made by any number of characters in Jane Austen’s novels and stated with particular clarity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. “You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands,” Margaret Schlegel tells her aunt. “It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its existence.”

The danger of such forgetfulness is now apparent from any number of cautionary tales, most recently Elizabeth Wurtzel’s meltdown in the pages of New York magazine. “I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years,” writes the bestselling author of Prozac Nation and graduate of Yale Law School, now in her mid-40s. “I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account. It’s not that I have not planned for the future; I have not planned for the present.”

And should this example not be sufficiently chilling, we also have the object lessons of once high-flying Oprah-endorsed celebrities brought low by financial missteps. Most visible among these is Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of the blockbuster Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Oprah’s favorite book of the year for 1996. After making a fortune proclaiming the joys of simple living, Breathnach went on a spending spree, with purchases including Sir Isaac Newton’s “chapel” in England and Marilyn Monroe’s furs. She ended up with nothing. (While Simple Abundance spent years on bestseller lists, her December 2010 comeback effort—Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Way to Financial Serenity—is ranked 396,776 on Amazon.com as of this writing.)

My own story lacks both the highs and the lows of either Wurtzel’s or Breathnach’s— after publishing two books and struggling with a third, I ultimately made my way back into the paid workforce—but looking back, I see a similar thread. I too had a tendency to see the present as prelude, to live as if success, once achieved, laid the groundwork for the future. (Which is true to some extent and in some ways but not to the extent or in the ways that some of us seemed to assume.)

All of which goes to explain my interest in a trend that I’ve taken to calling Follow Your Heart 2.0. In this iteration, we no longer have a stark dichotomy between idealism and practicality. Rather, the new model recognizes that contentment generally requires stability as well as passion. It’s Follow Your Heart remixed for the 21st century.

An especially clear formulation of what I’m talking about appears in The Start-up of You, a book by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and co-author Ben Casnocha. The pair urge their readers to consider three interlocking pieces when making work-related decisions: Assets, aspirations and values, and market realities. Assets are the resources we bring to the table—our talents, education, and skills, as well as our bank accounts. The other two categories are pretty much what they sound like.

Significantly, the authors aren’t telling readers to forget about their dreams. Rather, they’re saying that dreams exist within a larger framework. Depending on your goals–and depending on your needs–context, including the market, may be critically important. “Of course, it’s worth mentioning that [her] passion is mobile payment systems,” Work Stew blogger Kate Gace Walton remarked dryly of one successful entrepreneur. All dreams are not created equal.

For those of us with ample stocks of education and social capital, the late 90s economy was forgiving and often fun. Risks were not so risky. You could always get a job. The economy circa 2013 is a very different place. “$100,000 is the new $300,000,” one literary agent remarked to me, shortly after the Great Recession began. Five years later, it seems increasingly unlikely that we’re ever going back.

More and more, I’m seeing Follow Your Heart 2.0 infuse the popular conversation—and I think that’s a very good thing. It’s apparent in Marci Alboher’s excellent new Encore Career Handbook, which acknowledges the critical role that finances play in making a transition to more meaningful work in the second half of life. It’s also central to Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which makes the case that passion most often follows hard work and success, not the reverse.

As for me, I’m older and wiser (I think), but I still have a strong inner sense of direction, and I struggle when circumstances channel my energies into other things. For many of us, work that feels meaningful is a big part of what makes life worthwhile, and there may be times when pursuing that is worth almost any sacrifice.  But today, the stakes are different, maybe higher, for many of us. Happy endings are harder to come by. Uncertainty is guaranteed.

© 2013, amy gutman. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Follow Your Heart 2.0

  1. Thank you Amy for a very powerful post. I am certain that this rings true for many mothers out there looking to get back into the workforce. I like what you said about assessing your “assets, aspi­ra­tions and val­ues, and mar­ket real­i­ties.” So many of us can get caught up in trying to recreate what we were rather than redefine who we are. By digging deep and following our heart we can assign a deeper meaning to the word success.

  2. “Context, includ­ing the mar­ket, may be crit­i­cally impor­tant.” So true. There is still a significant number of people out there who are saying “I was successful, why aren’t you?” They equate success with personal virtue, and say that if you are stuggling, you just aren’t trying hard enough. Time for a change in mindset…

  3. Another way I look at it is my dream or passion executable. It’s not just good enough to have a great idea. Just look at all the start-ups out there trying to get off the ground. Part of the creative process for me is to see a way that it can realistically – and that means with limited resources at least in the beginning – come into being. That’s what we’re working on now. Thanks for your clear and insightful thinking as usual.

    • Thanks, Maryl! On a related note, I really like the concept of MVP — minimum viable product — that I got from the folks at Third Tribe (though I have no idea if it originated with them). The idea being that you get something out fast to see if it has legs, rather than spending a ton of time tweaking something that isn’t going to fly. There’s a project I’ve been mulling over that I will definitely launch in this spirit, if I moved ahead with it.
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  4. Wow, Amy. I am so interested in checking out the books you mention, but I feel you have written such a thoughtful and reflective post that I may not need to.

    When my husband and I left the “safety” of public education, we started our own businesses. Although neither business was our dream business at the start, we have really developed – if not a passion for both of us – then definitely a happiness surrounding it. Perhaps this is because the businesses are tied to something we love (CJ- classical guitar and me -teaching) and, as we found ourselves contributing to IRAs, automating our finances, and “getting it together,” we found we certainly can be happy growing this business.

  5. Wow! What a potent post. Learning to think differently may be a skill
    of highest order in this new world economy. Everything keeps changing at breakneck speed–and so must we. I still have my passions–ones that along with hard work and single-mindedness– financed my first life but I have no clue what will underwrite my second. Maybe instead of going with the flow, I have to figure out how to ride the turbulence. Instead of looking for terra
    firma, I have to learn to read the storm clouds better.

    • Thank you so much, Carrie — I’ve been thinking about this one for quite a while and it means a lot that you responded to it. I think many of us are, by necessity, just figuring it out as we go. One of the things that has helped me for sure, is writing about the experience and connecting with others around it. So again: Thank you!
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