Is it passion? Desire? What is it? What should you follow?
Photo of Jonathon Sawyer by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

The word is passion and I used to hear it from chefs. “I can teach you to cook, but I can’t teach passion,” they would say. I took this at face value from so many chefs I can’t tell you, until I didn’t anymore because I realized it meant exactly nothing. Thomas Keller, the chef from whom I have learned the most, and the most by far, noted this a while back as well. Passion is the wrong word, he said. Desire was what he wanted to see in a young cook.

What, really, though, is that elusive quality that makes a great chef, a great musician, a great anything? It’s not passion, and I’m not sure it’s desire either. A lot of people have passion for something they aren’t good at. In my twenties I was passionate about writing fiction and worked really, really hard at it. I had great desire to achieve, and did, after much bloodletting, complete two novels. But they weren’t any good; my agent failed to place them. A lot of good passion did me then!

As I wrote in my recent Kindle Single The Main Dish, I had no desire to become a writer about food and cooking, and look at me now. And yes, I’m passionate about it, but it was directed by something Not Me. The journalist and author, Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent, asked on his always thought-provoking blog, should we follow our passion? I hear this advice given a lot, especially in the food world, “Follow your passion.” Coyle says this is really bad advice. Because the fact is, for most of us life is difficult, we’re faced with myriad choices, and few are born being passionate about something specific.

I learned to write because I did it for 20 years—I just did it, though I wasn’t very good at it for a very, very long time—and then I figured out what made a sentence, then a paragraph, then a story work, and then I learned to write hard and fast and well because I was terrified. Let me tell you, people, fear motivates. Fear of poverty, fear of working in a cubicle. I learned to cook first out of hunger—literally. I was hungry, alone, and I liked to eat. And then I learned how to really cook out of anger. I didn’t learn to cook because I was passionate about cooking. See aforementioned Main Dish for details (you can download the Kindle app, btw, on your non-Kindle device).

So what is it that makes Jonathon Sawyer at his Greenhouse Tavern such an exciting cook, someone who combines foie scraps and clams for one of the best/simplest dishes on earth, and who wraps pork in donut dough and deep-fries it (“Sloppy Jonut” it’s called)? Those cooks out at Animal, same deal.

Grant Achatz, chef and co-owner Alinea, Next, Aviary. Photo by Lara Kastner.

Or Grant Achatz, what is it that pushes him to create some of the most far-out dishes in America? (What was that weird red, flag-shaped centerpiece, smoking on my table at Alinea? By the time this nitrogen-frozen slice of beef had melted, it was ready to become part of dish number 9 in a 26-course tasting meal.) Alinea is not for everyone. I have good friends from Cleveland who actually went to a McDonald’s after eating at Alinea, they hated it so much. Here’s an important fact: Grant doesn’t give a shit. I mean he wants to please his customers, but that’s not why he does what he does.

Monday night I went to see one of my heroes, Neil Young (thank you, Joseph Daniel Sullivan, for the tickets!) playing with Crazy Horse, which is a goofy garage band of AARP 13-year-olds who can still, after all these years, rock the house. Neil Young. Remember those pink suits and Trans? God, some real disasters in a career that also produced timeless albums I don’t need to mention, as well as lesser-known classics such as On the Beach, Zuma, and Time Fades Away, a fabulous album I can’t find anymore.

It was fantastic to see Old Neil grinding and cranking in a 66-year-old body, a bit of a potbelly hanging over his jeans, a serious turkey waddle, and singing in that voice that hasn’t changed in 40 years and with an energy that had the whole crowd on its feet for “My My Hey Hey.” The guy is still rocking, hard.

I’ll cut to the chase: All of the folks mentioned above did what they had to do before passion had anything to do with it. They did something and opened themselves up to passion. Passion flowed in behind the work. They did what they had to do first. Neil Young does what the fuck Neil Young wants to do, and fuck you all if you don’t like it. Do you think Grant cares that a lot of people think his Modernist cuisine is too ridiculous for words? No—and he’ll point those people to the nearest Cheesecake Factory and get back to work.

When I was out at the French Laundry in 1998 where Grant, who at the time looked like he was in fifth grade, worked the fish station, I asked Keller what he wanted this book, The French Laundry Cookbook we were working on, to do. We were all, me most of all, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing out there hanging out in the kitchen. He said, “I want it to inspire people.”

He was right about that, like so much else. Inspiration. That’s the “it” I was looking for when I sat down to write this post. I didn’t know what “it” was 30 minutes ago, but now I do, because writing is how I figure things out. But it’s not inspiration that I want those young people emerging into adulthood to hear, and it’s not passion; that’s not what I want to tell my 17-year-old daughter who has no idea what she wants to do with her life. And I’m certainly not going to tell her to follow her fucking passion. I couldn’t give anyone more useless advice.

What will I say to her and to anyone who will listen? This: Everyone has the capacity for passion built into them, it’s part of being human. You need to set yourself up to receive inspiration. Be ready to let inspiration flood into you. Be ready for it, because you never know when it’s going to come. You can’t make it happen. You can’t will inspiration; maybe you went to the wrong station and the train never shows up, and then you die. Happens. No guarantees. But odds are if you work really hard, it comes. You move through this life, making hard decisions, trying to hurt as few people as you can, trying to have a good time, trying to pay the bills. Just make sure you’re ready. We make our own luck by showing up, working our asses off, and then, out of nowhere, something that is Not You lifts you off the ground.

Foie Gras and Clams (inspired by Sawyer)

  • 2 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 2 ounces butter
  • salt to taste
  • 1 dozen middle-neck clams
  • 1/4 cup decent white wine
  • 1 cup or 6–8 ounces foie gras scraps, even foie pâté
  • 2 slices of seriously good crusty country-style bread, toasted or grilled
  • 1 bottle very good white wine
  • 2 glasses excellent brandy or single-malt scotch (optional)
  • 1 pot of coffee
  1. Sweat the shallot in a medium sauté pan over medium heat in some of the butter till soft, hitting them with some salt as you do.
  2. Add the clams and 1/4 cup wine, cover the pan, and bring to a simmer. As the clams begin to open, add the rest of the butter and the foie gras and swirl the pan until the butter is melted.
  3. Remove from the heat when all the clams are open. Taste the broth, and if it doesn’t taste perfect, add a dash of wine vinegar or lemon juice or more salt.
  4. Divide the clams, foie, and sauce between two bowls.
  5. Give one bowl to your lover and eat it with the bread, and drink the wine, taking your time.
  6. If the conversation is still going, have a glass of the brandy or whiskey.
  7. Have sex.
  8. Snooze for a little.
  9. Make a pot of coffee and get back to work.
Other links that aren’t really related but are good anyway:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.



52 Wonderful responses to “The Fallacy of “Follow Your Passion””

  • Ryan

    I don’t really get your point here. Yeah, people aren’t necessarily born with a passion, and you have to try different things out to find it, but once you do, you absolutely should follow it.

    Shouldn’t your advice be: try things out, don’t be afraid to fail, discover what you can do and what you’re good at, and *then* follow the passion that arises?

    And as for your example about your writing career: it seems pretty clear you had a passion about writing. And it wasn’t really that you *weren’t* passionate about food writing, you just didn’t know it until you tried it.

    Maybe the point should be this: many people find their passion by starting something by chance or necessity and only then discover they have a love for it. But many others do already know and find their way to that thing.

  • tom hirschfeld

    Funny, I was listening to Neil this morning and thinking about an interview he did with Charlie Rose a few years back. Great rant and great perspective!

  • Lynn LaMar

    You nailed it, Michael. I have hated that ‘passion’ word (connected with every damn thing on the planet), for so long. I never felt ‘passion’ while I slaved on the line in a 110 degree kitchen for 12 hours at a time but, I did feel ‘inspiration’ which caused me to create the most beautiful plates I could put out the window because I knew the people on the receiving end loved it! Every day, I always looked forward to coming back to work for more! I always thought I was a failure for not feeling ‘passion.’ Thank you Michael, and thank you Thomas.

  • Debbie

    Love the last paragraph. I recently made a decision to end something I have been doing for several years that takes up a lot of my free time. I originally started it because I thought I was following my passion. But lately I have felt like I need to get ready for something, just don’t know what it is. Your post comes at a very good time. Thank you

  • zalbar

    Not sure I’m going to agree with you on this one Ruhlman. You’re basically arguing semantics. I would argue that it’s how each person defines passion. It’s very easy to take a world wide recognized icon such as Achatz or Young and say, they have passion and don’t care what anyone else thinks. They are successful enough to have those attitudes. I’m also going to flat out say that Coyle is dead wrong. Yes, some passions are malleable and can change, but sometimes they don’t. That is the one you follow for the rest of your life. I remember you talking about one of Bob’s visits and tasting some stuff at 3 in the morning in your kitchen, just because. That is passion, he followed it. Should he not have?

    Passion isn’t always about being successful, recognized or even good at whatever it is. Passion for something is being happy doing it. That is the most important part of it. I don’t consider myself a terribly great cook, but I wake up thinking food, I think about food at my office desk at work, and I go to bed thinking about food. (Strangely enough it’s normally about dicing onions as my head is on the pillow, go figure.) That is my passion, and I honestly don’t care what anyone else thinks of me or my cooking. It’s something I still have to do. Something I’m compelled to do. Something I was born to do.

  • Tags

    Talent is the confluence of inspiration, perseverance, genius, and a few planets we don’t know about whose pull we feel but don’t yet understand.

  • Roger Stowell

    You, Mr Ruhlman, are one of the few people who are cutting away the shit from the chef myth, I admire and love great cooking and well run restaurants. I like, even more, good cooking from good cooks rather than chefs. Each time I read one of your pieces I am more impressed.

  • Carri

    It’s that same with marriage, people who see it from the outside, think it’s so great to spend the rest of your life with the one you are passionate about, like it’s one big love-fest. Then things get difficult and they think ‘Hey, this isn’t what I signed on for!’ and they end it. The good stuff comes after you’ve worked out the crap. The operative word here is WORK. That’s the way it goes for business or a personal life….you have to work at it for it to be good. Passion is a byproduct of effort!

  • ladygoat

    I feel that if you truly have a passion for something, no one has to tell you to follow it. And in fact, even if many people tell you that you shouldn’t follow it, you’ll do it anyway because you can’t imagine doing anything else.

    But to not have or know what your passion is or what you want to do in life, that’s perfectly okay, and in fact that’s where most people are. And I also think you can really enjoy something and love doing it, but not as a career. I know a lot of people who love to cook, but would never want to do as a job. Because then it would be … work.

  • Andrew

    This essay is mincing words finer than the shallots in the foie gras and clams. You can narrow these definitions as much as you’d like, but passion is basically having a strong feeling or emotion about something. Inspiration is being stimulated to do something. Desire is wanting something. To say that you need to have desire and inspiration but not passion is like saying you need to be stimulated to do something and you need to want something but you don’t actually need to feel strongly about that something. WTF?! If you feel inspired to do something but have no passion about doing it, it’s probably not going to turn out as well as if you were passionate about it. If you had no passion for writing, odds are you wouldn’t have stuck with it as long as you did. Passion, desire, inspiration, like any other emotion can come and go, and the objects of those emotions can change.

    This seems mainly about how you define success, which is different for everyone. You can have a very successful career and a horrible family life and consider yourself successful. You can have a wonderful family life and no profession at all and consider yourself successful. However you measure that success, it helps if you know what it is you want (desire), are open to possibilities and opportunities as they arise (inspiration), and feel strongly about what you’re doing or where you’re heading (passion). Working hard helps. Being in the right place at the right time helps. Knowing the right people can help. Luck and fortune play a part as well.

    Which words you use to describe what moves your motor are a personal preference. You clearly prefer inspiration and desire over passion. Fine. But I don’t think telling someone he/she should have desire and be ready to receive inspiration but BY NO MEANS do what he or she is passionate about is very helpful advice. Just confusing.

    Everyone needs to decide what it is that they want and how they wish to measure their own success and happiness. Then decide how they think they can best make it happen, and work hard to get there. Be flexible, because things often don’t go exactly according to plan. Do your best, and hope for the best. Reevaluate periodically. Goals, measures, and people do change over time.

    • ruhlman

      I didn’t mean to imply that you should AVOID doing what your passionate about. Indeed, if youre passionate about something, nothings going to stop you. I was only saying that “passion” is not always the the driving force behind what you’re good at.

  • Dan

    I think the last paragraph resonates most deeply with me. I ‘followed my passion’ for several years, whilst living in the US, creating customised Barbie dolls. I started with no artistic training & was entirely self-taught. Through hard work & perseverance, I became one of the best in my field & was able to make a small living & ended up full-time.

    I ended up losing the passion for it, though, after a divorce & a crappy health diagnosis. In 2011, I found myself back in the UK & severely depressed, not knowing what the hell to do next. Knew I didn’t want to go stack shelves in the grocery store. Then inspiration struck & I started sewing with tie silks woven at a local mill. I wouldn’t have the super sewing skills if it weren’t for all the years working on doll clothes, nor would I know about the silk mills. So here I am in 2012, starting a new mens neckwear business from scratch, hoping that maybe this time I’m at the right station. I’m doing my bit by showing up, working my ass off every day, seven days a week, listening to advice & acting on it if I feel it applies, trying to be the best I can. The rest is out of my hands, and in my Higher Power’s.

  • Mary

    Exciting post today. It puts me in mind of a TED talk about how people are actually really bad at predicting what will make them happy — what job will make them happy, etc. It also puts me in mind of stories like Robert Redford’s — he wanted to be a painter, studied for years, and on a fluke ended up being an actor. Or Julia Child initially aiming at hat making once the war effort was over. Even when she turned to learning to cook, I don’t think she had a passion to become a tv personality. It seems more like, lives unfold, often in mildly surprising and unintended ways… I enjoyed your kindle book. And I am enjoying this conversation. “Follow your passion” has always seemed to me to be a bit of a conceit of a rather privileged class/country. And I mean conceit in the traditional sense… because I couldn’t seem to work out all that is left unsaid in that sentence, nor how passion actually functions in life. I mean, what does passion for? Is it really a meant to inspire, and further, offer support for an entire livelihood? What, exactly, does passion encourage us to do? The very attempt at nailing down a passion and following it to build a should-be-brilliant life — yeah, I tried that. It was very, very expensive and a rather painful disaster. On the other hand, things I kind of fell into, serendipity, things that I was just plain good at, pleasant things… those always brought a rather contented and happy living. Anyway, thanks for bringing this up and sharing your ideas. Glad I’m not alone questioning these things and thinking that finding and following a passion is not quite…. right.

  • J.T.

    Great post, Michael and great advice for young people. Show up, work hard, and be open to the world that is out there. Probably not going to accomplish much hiding in the bathroom out of fear of the world no matter how passionate you are. I’m going to pass this one along to my nephew. Thanks.

  • Kathy

    I get it, and I wonder how much of this is an age/generational thing. You can’t really ON PURPOSE find your passion, career-wise, any more than you can on purpose find the love of your life. But I think that’s a lesson that comes with age and experience. If you’re lucky enough to be around long enough to discover all the things that DON’T work, and if you’re smart enough to take advantage of opportunities that come your way, one day you’ll be doing something you’ve done for a while and you’ll realize … this is it. This is the one.

  • Sarah

    I could jump into the argument on language here, but I’m more interested in the practicality of the advice in this post. I’m one of those people for whom this post resonates strongly. There are so many things I enjoy doing, in the moment-music, dance, other forms of art. But did I grow up pursuing them? No, instead, I was thrown into them, “forced,” if you will, by parents.

    I read this post not as an answer or as a treatise on happiness but simply as a frozen moment showing your thought process. It’s refreshing in its honesty. I’m not naturally a “happy” person, whatever that word means, but the moments I feel most fulfilled are when I am doing something that is both something I’m good at and something I consider “worth” doing (which to me means it’s worth some value to another person and aligns with my values/aspirations to make the world better).

    Writing, taking photographs, blogging….I would never say I “enjoy” any of these things in the same way I enjoy dance. But they are fulfilling to me, right now, and each involves some process whereby I gain some new knowledge or at least have the satisfaction of creating something.

    Words are vehicles of communication, and when it comes to nebulous things like happiness and inspiration and passion, they can be chains as much as they are useful tools. There are plenty of Malcolm Gladwells out there who can bottle these topics up neatly, but I’m more interested in opening that dialogue for debate. Thank you for encouraging the conversation!

  • Thompson

    Like Thomas Keller says….Passion will eventually dry up. Although he has a point about Desire being the reason for people to go to such extremes for their goals, I don’t think one word can describe the what drives people.

    Desire, inspiration, necessity, boredom, confusion, fear can all be proposed as the reason for ones’ drive to succeed.


  • todd

    Man, some editor decided that your book wasn’t worth investing money into, put it on Amazon for 2.99 and let the readers decide!

  • Lora in Louisville

    MIchael, with your following, put the book on Amazon for $12.99 and let the readers decide. I have a feeling this topic will creep back to the forefront of my mind after your Friday cocktail post this week. Thanks for all you put out there for us!

  • Peter

    The word everyone is looking for is: purpose. One must go forth with purpose.

  • Bernadette

    Purpose, Passion, Inspiration. This is the first blog I have ever commented on but your writings inspire me. I wish I had more inspiration to cook years ago. What is a 60ish wanna be cook to do!

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    are you saying that a person can have the passion but not the desire and you can have the desire but passion might no be part of that desire…I’m confused. I should not have read this post in my state now…embarking on a whole new career: what if my desire is not as strong as the passion I feel…..or worse what if my passion is ignorant of my desire…..shit…I have total fear now and you say that is good? Even with an investment of too much money?

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    The old man just came home and from his mouth of wisdom, whom I trust implicitly, Michael he agrees that one can have passion but no desire. Not the other way around. If you have desire the passion follows. Gospel …(he’s the investor)

  • Wilma de Soto

    I really like this post. What I feel these guys have is a kind of foresight and vision along with the drive to realize that vision. If that’s inspiration, then so be it. I believe people like Keller and Aschatz are able to look at the same ingredients we all see around us and visualize how to tweak the traditional ways of using them or come up with a new twist on using them. The are then are able to bring their vision to fruition with a drive to see it realized. They simply see what the rest of us do not, until they show us it is possible.

    I have absolute pitch, so when pots clang or spoons drop I hear melody and musical notes. Everyday sounds translate to music in whatever I hear. It just happens, but I still have to practice. I feel it’s a bit like what these gentlemen experience when they see, taste or smell food.

  • karen downie makley

    Good post. I have come to hate the word “passion” because of how it is overused in the working world. I know you’ve seen somebody’s LinkedIn page with something like “Suzy Sunshine has a passion for accounting and actuarial pursuits.” NO SHE DOESN’T!! She just thinks that saying so will make her “more legit” in the business world, separate her from the competition.
    It’s perfectly OK to “merely” be focused, interested, dedicated, hardworking, and creative about what you do for a living (even if it’s cooking, or art, or music) and save your “passion” for the people who make your heart leap for joy.

  • Skip K.

    I guess from what your saying it is “desire” and the “discipline” to achieve what you desire. Then just put some blind luck into it, too. Some pretty wonderful creators aren’t recognized by a huge audience.

  • Rachel Willen

    Great post. Your book Making of a Chef INSPIRED me and my son to go to culinary school…at the same time. He was 19, I was 52. Now he works at Per Se as the house butcher/charcuterie chef and I have a blog and successful cooking school. Thanks…love this post…and all your work.

  • Bian Silvey

    The word doesn’t matter. Having anyone of the three about anything makes you more energetic when pursuing that activity. If you have more energy you are more likely to do it alot. They say it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something. What I find intersting about your post is noting that you may not have a talent for what you have a passion/inspiration/desire to do. I think that’s fine. Like Grant A. ,fuck it if you like doing it do it.

  • Craigkite

    I agree with your observations, Michael. Fear does motivate. I tried earning a living at something I was passionate about, but finally fear of living on the street pushed me into something that I could do. We can’t all be fortunate enough to find a way to earn a living that fulfills all our creativity and potential. That is when we find time in our lives to develop skills at a hobby that does make us feel good about something. Sometimes we get stuck doing something we never dreamed of doing, and if we are open…we find things to make us happy in these forty PLUS hour a week paychecks. Advice is generally worth the price we pay. Passion is pretty good, but like a four hour erection, dangerous to maintain.

  • Terry

    I heard it put another way just a couple of weeks ago and it really resonated for me:

    “Don’t do what you love…do what you ARE.”

    Just because something is something you love (or something about which you are passionate) doesn’t mean it captures and leverages your personal skills and talents. I love harpsichord music, but I am WORTHLESS as a keyboardist…and to pursue it as an avocation would lead to frustration and (ultimately) failure.

    I know who I am – I know what talents I have – and I try to use them every day in what has proven to be the best job I personally could ever have. I do what I am.

  • DJK

    How about: passion + self-awareness?

    As a 17yr old, I might have said I was passionate about basketball. Self-awareness kept me from spending my 20s working on my jump shot. (Context: I’m very white and not very athletic.)

    Or maybe instead: passion divorced from fantasy?

    Not unrequited passion, fueled by one’s insistent delusions, but a passion that reciprocates. You think X might be the passion for you? X sees your first effort, and throws you a come-hither “maybe.” You work at it, and X says “Oh, yes! You’re the (wo)man for me!” You work and you work, and X says, “We were made for each other!” etc, etc…

  • Brian Vo

    Nice piece. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say to people as I am going through school to become a teacher when these people feel that I should follow my passion and become a chef full time rather than considering it carefully the way I have, as something I’d really like to do, while safely placing my eggs in a safer basket with something that I know I can do.

  • Chris

    Great article. One gets’s the feeling this was written during step 9 Foie Gras and Clams before the coffee was ready…

  • Ruthy

    Think this post is my new favorite. I get so discouraged at times, in getting nowhere as a (mostly food) writer/blogger, and then inspiration strikes and it’s fun again. I think an end goal is what is most important- even when everything else meanders all over the place, to know that there is some sort of a desired end, I think creates that same desire to get there. And then suddenly passion arises. Does that even makes sense?
    Anyway. Loved this post and saving it for another read through when I feel like throwing my hands in the air.

  • David Oweb

    I don’t like the word passion much. It often implies irrationality.
    We don’t need drama. We need overview.

  • Sara Adams

    Dear Michael Ruhlman: I have just returned from a nine hour work day in MY OWN restaurant. YOUR WRITING led me to my hardwon profession. I truly can’t wait to go back ~ tomorrow, before dawn. 🙂

  • Sara Adams

    ‘The Fallacy of ‘Follow Your Passion'” sounds like the heading to a sharp restaurant review. You’re scaring me. Don’t drop the torch!

  • Steve T

    Generally I love Micheal’s blog but this is a horrible post and it reveals what a privileged life and even worse what an unaware life he’s had to date.

    For most of the people on the earth life is a struggle to eat and not to eat well, just to eat at all. Human existence isn’t about passion or desire, it’s about luck. Shame on you for writing this Michael. You’re smarter than this, so a moral failure.

    Your son and daughter have zero chance of having the fortunate life you’ve had and will be reduced again as we have been through human history to searching for anything at all to eat by the time they are your age.

    • Mary

      Oh dear, I think you miss-read the post. His point in the end was about luck — not passion or desire. I do agree with you that the whole question of following a passion is mostly the conceit of a rather privileged group of people on this planet. And now they want to shove it on us younger set, as if they’ve built something beautiful for us, and like Mr. Ruhlman says, it’s rotten advice.

  • Carly

    I’ve come to this late and admit I haven’t read the comments, so apologize for saying something maybe said 20 times already: the advice to “follow your passion” can be very limiting. Especially if your passion is something like food writing, where there aren’t really very many jobs at all. If writing about food is your passion and you’re sure you want to end up in it, you should certainly work hard at trying to do it–but early on (or in some cases, forever) you’ll likely have to pick up some other work to get by. If you get caught up in thinking that you have to follow your passion and only your passion, and that anything else is just a distraction, there’s a good chance of burn-out. Or, you might not even realize that you’re actually better at what you think of as your sideline.

    In that case, I think at the very least, the advice should always be expanded to “follow your passion, even if no one pays any attention and you have to do it at midnight because that’s the only free time you have, and that only as long as it continues to be fulfilling to you.”


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