Originally published October 29, 2011 at Creative Dream Journals.
Many of us who are following a creative calling resonate with Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss.” But following your bliss doesn’t always feel blissful. How do you know when you’re on the right track and when it’s time to rethink?
I used to be a professor, and now I’m involved with online communities of people who pursued an academic calling and for different reasons are reconsidering that path. Many of these people have come to resent the “follow your bliss” mantra. It was given to them as career advice, and many of them heard it like this: “You’re passionate about French literature (or East Asian history, or ethical philosophy), so pursue that. Keep studying that, get your PhD, and a career as a professor will come together for you.” They followed that advice, imagining a glorious future immersed in the life of the mind. But then things started to go wrong. Maybe graduate school was a nightmare. Maybe the academic job market was so tight that after years of trying, they were never able to get a job as a professor. Maybe they were able to get that job, but found themselves miserable in it. Maybe they eventually lost interest in their field of study and felt stuck in a career that didn’t speak to them any more. Where was the bliss they were promised? Wouldn’t they have been happier if they had done something more practical?
Following a creative calling, too, can bring up questions about the bliss factor. Maybe I love making art, or writing, or singing, but to pursue it seriously, I have to compromise other things that make me happy. How much sacrifice is worth it? A touring musician might give up the stability of home and family to keep on pursuing a musical calling. An artist might work a string of day jobs that drain her energy to support the art that feeds her soul. A writer might sacrifice her personal life so that she can work full time and finish her novel on nights and weekends. An actor might find himself in middle age and without any kind of financial stability because he prioritized his unpaid or poorly paid creative work.
So what becomes of bliss? Is following your bliss a cruel joke?
The only answer I know is to use that word “bliss” as a kind of navigational tool, like a compass. We have to keep on returning to it, keep checking in, keep adjusting our course. We have to remember what following our bliss really means—to remember that French literature, or being a professor, or publishing a novel, or making a living as actor, is not the real goal. The real goal really is bliss: happiness, creative fulfillment, self-expression, and a rich life that nourishes all of who we are.
So we make sacrifices to pursue what we love—we take risks, we give up resources, we endure training, we confront fears. But we consistently check in with ourselves. Am I happy? Do I feel like myself? Do I have what I want and what I need? I know what I wanted a year ago, but what do I really want now? And if things feel off, then we adjust course.
Adjusting course probably doesn’t mean giving up the things you love. Instead, it means finding ways to have all the things you love. So you keep on reading French literature, or teaching, or making art, or acting. But you don’t sacrifice the rest of your life to do that–you remember that you’re a whole person with your own unique human needs, and you tend to all of them. And you don’t assume that there’s only one way to be happy doing what you love, or only one career path or lifestyle that will allow you to do what you love. You use your creativity and your support system to make for yourself a life that incorporates all the things you need and love. It’s hard work. But if you keep on adjusting course, keep on checking in with yourself and taking your needs seriously, and keep on making real happiness your priority, then maybe the bliss will be in the journey.
What are your experiences following your bliss?