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Are You Brave Enough to Follow Your Passion?

06/05/2015 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Imagine what the world would look like if every person used the highest expression of his talent instead of merely slogging into work every day.

That's the "fantasy" of Larry Smith, who, in a mesmerizing TED Talk that's received nearly four million views, tells people why they're going to fail to have a great career.

"You're toast if you don't do the work you love," Smith, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said in a recent phone conversation.

Smith has spent his teaching career coaching students to pursue their passions, and it's "serious stuff," he says.

"We're all worse for it if the person who should be an actor isn't, or the person who should be an accountant isn't," Smith said.

How do you find your passion? "Get out there and get involved," Smith says. "Do as many things as you can and eventually something will speak to you. You won't find it staring at the ceiling in your room."

A friend of mine, Bill Baptist, is a high school dropout who became a prominent Houston sports photographer. Before discovering his passion and compiling a resume that includes work for all of the local pro teams -- the Rockets, the Astros, the Oilers -- as well as Rice University, Baptist was a maintenance man at The Summit, then-home of the Rockets. When he wasn't keeping the arena in order, he was fascinated by watching the photographers working around him. Inspired, he bought a camera and began taking pictures. He'd show his photographs to the pros, knowing they needed work, and ask for guidance. "They'd tell me," Baptist said, "and I'd go back out and do it again."

Shooting pictures became like "a drug." When he nailed a shot, he couldn't wait to get out there and do it again. Baptist's big break came when the Rockets asked him to be the team photographer. He had quit his maintenance job -- it was quit or be fired, he said, because he was spending most of his time taking pictures -- when he was approached by the Rockets' franchise.

"The PR guy liked me and my photos," Baptist said. "And I was at the right place at the right time. The team photographer was getting on in years." Once in the door, Baptist's career continued to build, including gigs for Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, the WNBA and Nike.

"I worked my butt off," Baptist says. "I had no social life, but that was OK. It was all fun. I love what I do. I love working."

Smith says most people don't know what it's like to get up in the morning and be pleased to go to work.

The odds of success in a field may be against you, says Smith, who calls himself a "tough love" counselor. "I speak the truth to students. They need to recognize competitive pressure, but why should that person not try? If they want to work in the entertainment industry, I will insist on research, on mentorships. We'll talk about strategies. They won't always find success, but they can at least say, 'I tried.'

"Some passions may afford a career and some may not. But look for another passion. Keep searching. Don't live for the weekend and hope that you can golf enough to get you through another week."

Passion matters because it fosters expert performance, positive emotions, psychological well-being, interpersonal relationships and creativity. In a paper titled "The Role of Passion in Sustainable Psychological Well-Being," researcher Robert Vallerand says passionate activities come to be so self-defining that they represent our identities. Those who have a passion for playing basketball or songwriting do not merely engage in these activities, Vallerand says. "They see themselves as 'basketball players' or 'songwriters.' It becomes ... an inherent part of who the person is."

Positive psychologist Martin Seligman says passion is one way to increase "P," or positive affect, in his PERMA model of well-being. When we're totally engrossed in our work, we enter a state called "flow," where we lose all track of time and space, where we don't feel hunger or fatigue. Our greatest happiness occurs when we are in flow. And it's no secret that happiness correlates with better health. The impact is as important as not smoking.

We lose touch with passion and play as we grow up and learn how we are supposed to act. We lose curiosity and spontaneity, and perhaps with it the unbridled childlike exuberance that accompanies joy.

I was fortunate that my passion for medicine turned into a pretty good career. But even as a medical doctor, there were constraints, obstacles standing between a dream career and the happiness that should have come with it. Physicians are supposed to act, dress and talk a certain way - and they were not the ways I wanted to act, dress or talk. Every time I lectured, I felt I had to play a role. I was the somber, all-knowing physician.

Then one day my dear friend Jen Grace Baron castigated me for "not bringing more cowbell." In homage to the classic Will Ferrell SNL sketch, she meant that I needed to bring more of my character strengths to everything I was doing. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she appreciates me because she can have fun with me, laugh and learn. I'm eternally grateful to her because once I gave myself permission to follow my passion, to be who I was and let go of the safe, but boring persona of the stuffy, stoic doctor, life was better in all areas.

Like Baptist, I listened to that voice which speaks to us under the "shoulds" that can keep us on safe but unfulfilling paths instead of skyrocketing to joy, awe and heights yet to be seen.

Says Smith: "You don't want the Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. You don't want to one day say to yourself, 'I really should have tried.' If you do try and it doesn't work, you can move on with your life."

Otherwise, says Smith, that most terrifying of phrases -- "if only" -- will follow you for the rest of your life. And it will hurt, a lot.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of drug treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and writes a blog on addiction.