ColumnSmall compromises on big decisions can add up over the course of a lifetime. The result is passion drift—and waking up one day wondering how you wound up in the weeds. How does our culture sometimes take us so far off course? And is it ever too late to get back on track?
We used to call Talking Heads “nervous music.” Part punk, part wave, part funk, there was something angular, pitched and plaintive about their songs that took you slightly off center—a place many of us, back in the proverbial day, wanted to be. Short of being a “Psycho Killer,” of course, being a bit “off” was appealing. It meant you were a safe distance from The Man.
One of the group’s most recognizable refrains comes from the half-anthem, half-cautionary tale, “Once in a Lifetime.” Its infamous earworm goes like this:
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
That last line—and the way frontman David Byrne could wrench it up from the depths of his twitchy, pitched soul—resonated deep. It was a primal scream, a warning of the horrors to come should we dare wander from our own authenticity. Nervous words. Yes. About a place where we were to take great care to never, ever go.
The Big Drift
Not too long ago, my brother and I met for coffee to talk about a commencement address he had been asked to give at his alma mater back in Boston. We like to kick around ideas when we get the time, and his charge offered us up some red meat: What do you say to your younger self?
He had chosen his topic—“following your passion”—and so we shot the shit for a while, two grownups (at 50, I have seven years on him) doing pretty well, but nevertheless thinking about what we might have done differently. To say that there was plenty in no way diminishes our current, relatively happy states of affairs. But yes, plenty.
I walked away thinking about the cultural pressures on young people that are as present today as they were when I was kid: security, money, family, prestige if you can get it. Subtle and not so subtle, the sense that we are to attain these “things” is always present, ambient, the water in which we swim. We all know the fears and the insecurities that drive such pressures. And we all know the delivery mechanisms. (Just click any “power on” button and wait for it.)
Here’s a phrase I used in our discussion that began to haunt me the second I drove away from the coffee shop: passion drift. And here’s a short definition: Unlike clear decisions that alter one’s life course (i.e., radically changing fields, partners, geographies, etc.), passion drift entails small compromises over time that offer the illusion of staying close to what delights you. It goes something like this:
Kid (cute): I want to paint pictures. I like to paint pictures!
CW (Conventional Wisdom): That’s adorable.
Kid: No, really.
CW: You’re going to need a real job, kid.
Kid: Ok, fine. How about stories? Can I write stories? You know, paint pictures that way?
CW: Depends. What kind of stories?
Kid: You know, stories. Like, make them up?
CW: You know you’re going to eventually have to buy your own shoes, right?
Kid (older now, less cute): Fine. What about writing for, um, newspapers!? Will that work?
CW: Now you’re thinking. Not something you can retire on, but it’s a start.
A start indeed. See the drift? Fine art becomes creative writing becomes journalism. Seemingly minor trajectory changes, but oh, what a slippery slope. As the challenges mount, the process continues as life—marriage, kids, the need to provide—marches on. Foreign correspondence, say, makes way for adventure travel coverage (married people have no business in harm’s way), then, maybe, to city magazines (best to stay in one place for those kids), then perhaps some agency work (got to feed ’em, too). Clients. Promotions. Leadership positions. Make a little bank. The kids grow up safely (pooh, pooh, pooh, as mom would say). “Things” are taken care of. But, hmmm. Where is that paintbrush?
Okay, so yeah, that’s my story—or part of it, at least. (All told, I’ve been blessed with a fine and adventurous life, and there are certain compromises I’m quite proud of.) But from what I see and hear, many of you have your own variations on the passion drift theme, as well. My bro does, too. What’s common, it seems, is that it’s most often about the small things. Sure, sometimes a Hail Mary comes into play, but mostly life is a war of attrition. Losing ground happens through a series of concessions, next wrong things that ultimately land you so far from your original passions that those impulses seem, at best, specks in the rearview, vague regrets that you can’t even make out from this distance. (Ok, Byrne, so you warned us.)
Get Back, Jo
Before I get too maudlin with all this, what’s a good story without a homecoming? You see, as this form of narrative happens to so many of us, the trick then is finding our way back, right? Or at least getting ourselves back into a passionate space, oriented toward something that’s not about external bullshit but more about our heart’s desire.
About turning things around, experience and simple math suggest two things: First, one has to stop what they’re doing and notice where they are. (How far into those weeds have you gone?) This is what I now refer to as a “Talking Heads moment”—an instance when one looks up and around and asks, well, what have I done? Such ahas!—or better, oh nos!—near everyone my age tells me, are not uncommon. It’s noticing and then leveraging them that’s critical. (Meditate much? Worked for me.)
And second, what takes time doing, most often takes time undoing, and the slow, methodical efficiency with which one drifts off course is an excellent model for how one might find his or her way back. For me that meant picking up that paintbrush, writing down that story, choosing this client instead of that, taking this gig for less money over that one for more. Nothing major. No burning down the house. Just beginning to do the next right thing instead of the wrong one. Bite-sized choices. Again and again.
Lack patience? I hear that. Well, as Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.” If you enter into the right terrain, it all gets pretty interesting again, and knowing this helps: Your next step will either take you closer to or farther from where you want to be.
What was nice about the conversation I had with my brother is that we’re both on the backside of life-course readjustments. We’ve had our serious crash and burns (and have been there for each other along the way), but have also had that experience of stopping—just stopping— picking up our brushes and getting back to work on what we wanted to do. Things aren’t perfect (are they ever?), but I can tell you this: I don’t recall which one of us picked up the tab at the coffee shop that day, but one of us did—and whoever it was didn’t have to sell his soul to do so.
Anyway, if you’re lucky enough to get that tap on the shoulder one day, consider this new drama. It’s short and sweet:
Conventional Wisdom: Hey kid, how ya been? Let’s talk.
Kid: Fuck you… psycho killer.
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
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