Seth Godin on the Practical Way to Pursue Your Passion (It Does Exist)

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What’s a better strategy in life: pursuing passion or pursuing financial stability? For the lucky few, these paths are one and the same. But for the majority, pursuing passion doesn’t pay the bills. To quote Mad Men, "Not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can't support that many ballerinas." 

Seth Godin, in a conversation at New York City’s Advertising Week, made the case that the correct answer is always yes. Do both. Pay the bills and dance ballet.

On one hand, Godin -- a serial entrepreneur, author, blogger and marketing guru who has successfully transformed himself into a walking, breathing, bankable brand -- is a firm proponent that everyone should pursue their passion, or “art.”

His fierce insistence on this point groups him with other self-help peddling gurus: Godin is against an “industrial mindset,” which by his definition rewards mediocrity, and for the singular pursuit of artistic expression, particularly in the face of opposition and dissent (in his view, that’s the only way to know you’re doing it right.) “Art is our best option as humans and people who want to make an impact,” he said onstage at the Hard Rock Cafe last week.

At the same time, his message is more complex than the standard saccharine wall poster quotes bandied about by inspirational speakers and bloggers. ‘Do what you love and the money will follow,’ is a nice idea, but in many cases it’s simply not true.

Related: Seth Godin on Why You Can't Wait to Get Noticed

Instead, Godin said, artists are able to separate financial ambition from artistic ambition. This doesn’t mean it’s not possible to make money from art. Some of the best artists have been rewarded with money and fame. The difference is in the motivation. “You see people who do this with right intent and make money, and then you will see people who will say, 'how do I make money?'” Godin said. “And painters have made money for time immemorial. It’s a fine way to make a living.”

But art can’t be contingent on making a living. By Godin’s definition, art hinges on the possibility of going too far, of tension and of failure. Once you add a financial incentive to the equation, it’s impossible not to dial it back, to aim to please and to construct a safety net. Suddenly, you’re putting the needs of your audience/employer/client first. And that’s when an artist becomes a painter.

Godin recounted the following exchange he recently had with a woman who told him that when she faced the blank canvas, she felt fear.

I congratulated her. Because there’s a village in China called Dafen where they paint one third of all the oil paintings in the world. Over and over again, the same paintings. Those people have no fear. They know exactly how to paint water lilies; they know exactly how to paint Chuck Closes. They’re not artists, they’re painters. Artists have fear when they face the canvas because they’re holding nothing back.

Unfortunately, this means that the majority of artistic pursuits won’t be immediately, if ever, rewarded with monetary gain and so it's necessary to make money through other means. “Paying the bills is really important. If you don’t pay the bills, you don’t get to play the game,” Godin said. “The first rule is make the bills smaller. Don’t live in Manhattan, live in New Jersey and don’t tell anyone.”

Next, be a painter in your day job. “It is entirely honorable to make a living,” said Godin. But, he urged, keep doing art in your free time. And eventually, money may follow. Or it may not.

But that’s the name of the game. “You can’t create art without tension. You can’t create change without the fear that it might not work. So when that fear shows up, the answer isn’t how do I drown out the fear… the answer is to welcome the fear and to dance with it.”

Related: Seth Godin: 'The Person Who Fails the Most Wins'

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