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Andrew W.K. on Finding (and Following) Your Passion

It is thrust on you whether you particularly like it or not.

I couldn't believe it. At the tender age of 15—not a boy, not yet a man—my dream suddenly seemed entirely within reach. I wanted to be a fashion designer. Badly. When I wrote a letter to one of my favorite designers, Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, I had no expectation it would go anywhere. I just wanted to express my appreciation and gratitude for the radical and transgressive beauty her clothes brought into the world. I was shocked when I received a reply.

My letter had been forwarded to the New York offices, and the people there said they were excited to hear from me. They even made me a job offer. They told me that when I turned 18, if I moved to New York City, they'd give me entry-level employment. I was elated, not quite fully understanding the slow-burn torture I was about to run head-on into. Three years feels like a very long time to wait at that age, especially for a dream so palpably close to coming true.

I thought about my future constantly, this move to the big city to work for the influential fashion house. I saved money for what felt like an eternity, continuing my work on sewing and studying everything I could about the industry. When I turned 18, I was on a train to NYC within days. I arrived with a dream in my heart and stars in my eyes.

Then, reality set in.

My job lasted about two months. I was in way over my head, and everyone seemed to know it, especially my boss. When I finally realized it too, I felt nauseous—like all the inertia and momentum that had seemed to propel me toward my destiny had instantly fallen apart. It wasn't only that I was in over my head; I didn't like the work. I wasn't making clothes. I wasn't doing anything creative. I was filing papers in a basement office on Wooster Street. It was nothing like I pictured.

Back when fashion was Andrew's passion. All photos via Andrew W.K.

The dream died, and the stars dimmed. I was deflated. Some deeper sense of purpose motivated me to stay in New York. Over the next four years, events worked out in a way I couldn't have predicted, and, earlier in my life, I wouldn't have even wanted.

The fashion chapter of my life isn't one I talk about often and isn't widely known—odd, considering how impeccably I dress today. Some are confused by the story. "Oh," they say, quizzically. "So music wasn't always your passion?"

I suppose it wasn't. But then again, I think maybe it was. I don't mean to blow your mind here, but... what if my incongruent interest in the fashion was the vehicle destiny used to get me into the entertainment industry? Into my true passion that I didn't even know I had? 

What is a "passion" anyway?

The word meant something different growing up than it does now, it seems. Back then, as a student of the piano, I mostly associated "Passion" with the title of some of the most famous and moving works of Johann Sebastian Bach. His Passions commemorated Jesus's brutal crucifixion, his torturous journey to the cross. To me, the word was always closely associated with the concept of Christ's commitment to his truth: Even in the face of so much suffering he stayed true to what he felt he was on Earth to do, a love so total and complete that it transcends obsession and moves into the realm of inevitability.

Today, "passion" has morphed from that, retaining some of the meaning, but mostly stripped of it. In particular: the suffering. Highlighted instead is the unbridled devotion and optimism about what it is people think they want most to do, the dream they most wish to pursue.

These "passions" light up a person's world in a way nothing else does. Nothing else will make them happy in life. Because this "passion" is so compelling, people believe it to be a birthright, something owed to them.

It's easy for some of us to forget that the pursuit of passions is not free from struggle.

Because of this, it's easy for some of us to forget that the pursuit of passions is not free from struggle. It's most often inextricably linked with ordeals and arduous tests, showing us that it's almost impossible to be passionate about a quest without having to struggle on our journey toward it. The road on the journey to fulfillment is never straight. It doesn't necessarily have to be a physical or emotional suffering, but sacrifices of some kind are seldom avoided. 

Strangely, there's also a sense that one's passion is somewhat out of one's control. These most prophetic interests have a way of choosing a person, rather than that person choosing the interest. Oftentimes we're taught that dreams and our destiny is something that we make up, that we decide based on what we enjoy the most. But in my case, fate zeroed in. 

This has led me to believe your passion is thrust on you whether you particularly like it or not. This is a disorienting and challenging experience—finding out that what you're meant to do with your life is different than what you feel like doing. It then becomes a matter of whether you have the fortitude to withstand the demands this passion will put on you. Do you have what it takes to follow it? It's almost as if your passion is also passionate about you. Your destiny is trying to pep you up so that you can go and do the stuff that you're meant to do. For me that was a huge breakthrough: that what you are born to do might not even be something you completely enjoy doing in the typical personal sense, but are compelled to do nevertheless. You love it and hate it. "The only thing worse than writing," author Richard Price once said, "is not writing."

We are often told we decide our dream. But sometimes, our destiny dreams us and pulls us toward it, defying our own personal flights of fancy, plans and ambitions, and even logic and reason. It can be surprisingly comforting to realize that our true purpose in life will rarely feel comfortable, enjoyable, or pleasurable in the way other interests might. It is a calling. And answering that call—even if it means sacrificing your own self in the process—is one of the most noble efforts a human can make.

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