The Way We Follow Our Hearts is Slowly Killing Us.

There’s this tragic idea so many of us become burdened by where we conceptualize our “heart” as a destination — a career, influence, wealth, or some other measurement of success that justifies following it in the first place.

Photo by Zoë Gayah Jonker on Unsplash

Some days I think our culture’s obsession with following your heart is utterly destroying us. I’m not opposed to doing something you love. And I’m definitely not opposed to realizing yourself as The Lover who is going to fall in love with many different things over the course of your life.

My objection is to the way we frame what it means to “follow your heart.” There’s a progressive journey we imply there, and an anxiety it imparts about the quality of our independence from the influence of others. And then there’s this tragic idea so many of us become burdened by where we conceptualize our “heart” as a destination — a career, influence, wealth, or some other measurement of success that justifies following it in the first place.

The conditioning starts early. I was ten or eleven when I first remember being scolded for not taking my “career” seriously. We bombard kids with questions about what they want to do when they grow up. Don’t know? “Follow your heart.” (But the correct answer is always doctor, lawyer, or accountant — you don’t want to starve, right?). We push them into advanced classes, extracurriculars, and other activities that will give them an edge on the next stage in life whether it’s the next school or the next job.

We cut down every answer we don’t like. Art is for the wealthy. I can’t think of any careers in writing.

We tell kids who they can be, we soothsay being a kid into predestined professions and interests, teach them how to compartmentalize and to present themselves as docile and employable — and we gaslight all of them into believing that whatever twisted form of themselves emerges from this process is who they “are” — the heart they followed.

The shadow side of this kept my calendar booked when I was doing one-on-one coaching. You get to be forty, realize you hate your life, and wind up paying a therapist or a coach to assure you that you’re allowed to have hobbies that are complete wastes of time and money, and that you’re allowed to develop new interests even if you can’t connect them back to some vague sense of continuity from childhood.

When clients bring up following their heart, their immediate associations are always careers. People can be retired and well-off, and still driven mad by the thought of doing something that isn’t profitable. People are so accustomed to bullshitting their way through job applications that they can’t narrate following their heart without trying to retroactively invent a childhood interest. True, sometimes excavating your childhood does reveal a hidden diamond or two. Most times that sort of continuity is just a fantasy you’ve been taught to keep you from trying new things, to make you feel always late and already behind everyone else.

Whatever beauty is intended in “follow your heart” is eclipsed by all the social and economic parameters we’ve designed to contain the people who actually try and do it.

So try this instead. Love your heart. Your real heart. Not the bullshit you sell to your boss and your father-in-law.

Love like you’re built with the capacity and the muscles to love — not like you have to justify or profit from your passions. Forgive yourself like you know that hearts can be led astray and chasing wonders they’ll never see. Like you know that it’s okay to love and move on when you aren’t loved back.

Love your heart like it’s okay to fall in and out of love, like it’s okay to be curious and wrong and so right still too. Love your heart like there’s no destination, no titles to claim, no rights and responsibilities to measure — just light-hearted curiosity breaking into precious moments, becoming.

Release yourself from expectations. Give yourself a break when that isn’t as easy as it was to read it. Let your kids be kids. Help them survive in our economy as best you know how, but give it to them straight as well — guard their humanity, show them how to develop new passions at any age.

Go out and date two or three new hobbies — things you never in your wildest imagination believed you’d ever try. Don’t expect them to pay. Don’t expect anything from them at all.

Be curious with them like that’s what it means to love. Like that’s what it means to follow your heart.

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