Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 8, 2016

Follow Your Heart, But Use Your Head


In life, should you follow your heart or your head?

It’s an old dilemma. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato likened human nature to a chariot, pulled by two powerful horses but with a human driver. The horses represent our passions, while the driver represents our reason. Plato thought that a good person followed reason and kept the passions under careful control.

That dilemma came to mind earlier this week. One of my favorite bloggers wrote an eminently reasonable analysis of the controversy over the shooting of a gorilla at a Cincinnati Zoo. A child had climbed into the gorilla’s enclosure. Zookeepers did not know if the gorilla would hurt the child, but they were unwilling to take a chance. They made the right decision.

I commented that the blog post was sensible and compassionate, “as always,” but changed it to say “as usual.” It seems to me that the blogger sometimes lets her good heart overrule her good judgment. I probably have the opposite flaw. Reasonable people can disagree.

Later that day, a YouTube channel posted a video that seemed to embody a contrary error: “Don’t Follow Your Passion.” The speaker, a television personality named Mike Rowe, urged viewers not to follow their passion:

“Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.”

Instead, Rowe advised viewers to seek “dirty jobs” that pay well and that they eventually could come to love.

It’s not terrible advice, but it misses something important. If you have a real passion, you should follow it as long as you are aware of the risks, willing to accept them, and won’t unfairly burden other people.

Rowe gives the example of contestants on the television show “American Idol,” who he says are genuinely shocked when their passion is not met with success. But he doesn’t seem to ask what they have a passion for.

Many people have a passion not for music but for fame and approval. They doubt their own worth, so they need constant reassurance from an audience. If that is true of the contestants, then they often do “fail” to get what they want.

However, if they have a passion for music, then fame and approval are merely nice, not necessary. Their success lies in the music they create. If other people like it, that’s great. If they don’t like it, then it’s still the music that counts. That is a true passion.

Music critics hated Beethoven’s Third Symphony at first, but eventually they came to appreciate it. Beethoven didn’t care one way or the other what the critics thought. He had a passion.

At the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the audience was so offended by the music that they almost rioted. Stravinsky didn’t care what they thought. In that case, I think the audience was right, but my opinion wouldn’t have mattered to Stravinsky. He had a passion, and he had to follow it. As long as I don’t have to listen to his music, I say, “good for him.”

Plato’s analogy is informative. Without a driver (reason), the horses (passion) might run the chariot off a cliff. But without horses, the chariot can’t go anywhere. Reason by itself isn’t enough: passion gives us the motive power to get somewhere.

The same principle applies to most situations in life. If we make life decisions and ignore reason, we get unpleasant results. But if we ignore passion, we can’t know which results will be pleasant or unpleasant. Likewise, if we make moral judgments and ignore reason, then our passions lead to bad conclusions. But if we ignore passion, we can’t know what a “good” conclusion would be.

If you have a passion, don’t deny it. First, use your head. Understand the risks. Are you willing to accept “failure” if that occurs? What would you do then?

Is your passion strong enough to sustain you no matter what happens? Then by all means, follow your passion. Most people aren’t lucky enough to have a passion that strong. You are blessed. You are truly alive.


  1. I am fortunate to have a number of “passions.” Actually, I don’t like the term passion in this sense. Call them strong interests. Things I enjoy far more than others. Things it would be nice to do all the time if I could figure out how to make them pay.

    But that’s just it, as you say: so many passions don’t pay. I’m fortunate that one of my passions does: I wanted to make software from the time I was 14, and I have now done it for 27 years. One of my other passions, since I was 8, has been photography. It’s possible to make a living at it, but not shooting the kinds of things I like to shoot, and certainly not for software-company-director money. So I shoot just what I want and share it with the world for free.

    • You aren’t the only person who enjoys your passions. Both as your friend and as a regular reader of your blog, I’m able vicariously to see some of the things you see and enjoy some of the things you enjoy. If that’s a form of payment, then I hope it’s sufficient for all of your talent and hard work.

  2. Well said. I think that there is a counter-argument to Mike Rowe’s position – just because you pick something that pays well doesn’t mean that you won’t suck at that either. We have all met the person who is clearly just running out the clock instead of enjoying and seeing value in his or her work.

    • True. At IBM, they had a name for that attitude: “Retired on the job.”

  3. […] Ever heard the saying, “follow your passion, and the money will follow?” My friend and colleague N. S. Palmer coaches us to be realistic, as some passions don’t pay. He also urges us to be clear about what our passions really are; they may not be what they seem. Read Follow Your Heart, But Use Your Head […]

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