“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”
-Hegel

Last week, GRS published an article by April Dykman that presented some ideas by Ramit Sethi and Cal Newport about how “follow your passion” is bad career advice and what to do about it.

Sure, I guess. “Follow your passion” is bad advice. For one thing, it’s terribly simplistic. It also assumes that everyone has a passion or even knows what that is. The fact that this is bad advice, however, doesn’t imply that following your passion (and I mean a real passion, not an invented one) has to be a bad thing. Difficult maybe, irrational for sure, bad — it all depends on how you conduct yourself.

The article mentions the case of Jennifer, who after a lifetime of not knowing what she wanted

…decided to become a financial adviser. “I realized that working one on one with couples in their 20s to remove or stay out of debt is my passion.” But becoming a financial adviser meant giving up the flexible schedule that was so important to her. “When financial advising came into the picture, those [schedule] restrictions were thrown out the window, and the job hunt began.”

Seven months later, Jennifer was still “trying to figure it out.”

“I read numerous blogs, did all sorts of stupid psychometric tests, went to a career counselor, and…I even went to a psychic!” she says. “Yikes. I was very frustrated and disappointed with myself.”

I’d argue, if Jennifer’s passion really was to work one-on-one with couples in their 20s, the flexible hours and psychics wouldn’t have mattered to her. She would have done it anyway. Maybe part-time, maybe online, maybe from home, she would have found a way. Which leads me to conclude that flexible hours might have been her real passion, and she just didn’t realize it at the time. “I will work flexible hours come hell or high water!” Now that’s passion. Or maybe she just isn’t passionate.

Defining the problem correctly prevents irrelevant solutions

My problem here has to do with how we define “passion.” I made a quick argument of it in my comments to that article, but I’d like to expand in that direction today.

Seems to me, Jennifer’s idea, or the idea of career counselors, or whoever is responsible for this notion, is that your “passion” is some self-indulgent state that will give you instant rewards, will require no effort, and offers every guarantee success. Maybe that’s the idea in current circulation, a kind of wishful and magical thinking, but I’m here to categorically refute that notion.

Passion is meant to be a tremendous, uncontrollable emotion, often identified with love, but also with the notion of “crimes of passion.” It’s not really something one chooses, it’s something that overtakes us, like a natural force, and more often than not, makes us act against reason. Western literature is full of such examples since antiquity: Helen and Paris, Guinevere and Lancelot, Juliet and Romeo. They are all overtaken by the gods, by magic, by irresistible nature; they defy all reason and logic and litter their paths with corpses.

Passions may come in high and low varieties, as a kind of either holy or demonic madness. It often ends badly for the individual, precisely because, good or bad, passion is larger than the individual. Passion is a junkie in search of a fix. And as any junkie or ex-junkie can tell you, they work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no days off in their pursuit. Passion is also a monk leaving the world behind, in the paradoxical attempt to extinguish all passions. I’ve read some modern definitions of passion that attempt to differentiate between passion, obsession, and addiction, but I’m not sold. The ancients knew better–all passions are dangerous.

Passion is pain, not pleasure

The word passion comes from Latin root pati-, meaning suffering, or enduring. Thus, compassion means to suffer-with: the compassionate aren’t immune to other people’s pain. And passion is, at its core, a form of pain that demands it be quenched. It’s not for the faint of heart or those who lack patience — which is not the ability to wait, but the ability to suffer.

Those who chase after a passion must be willing to endure it, and pay a price. Tolstoy knew this when he wrote Anna Karenina, so she lost her beloved son to her affair with Count Vronski. Beyond literature, passionate people pay with anything from hunger and poverty and sickness to utter and dismal failure; political passions can end in imprisonment, torture, and assassination. Are you sure you want a “passionate” life?

Of course, there’s the sublime delight of triumph, of redemption, of peace achieved, of reunion with the beloved, of freedom at last conquered. But where did you get the notion that these are guaranteed results? That’s hilarious!  Even the ABC Wide World of Sports knew that the thrill of victory is inseparable from the agony of defeat.

The passionate are a little different

Cal Newport admits that there are people who do have a clear passion. The problem is that this is a small group, and what applies to them doesn’t necessarily apply to every one else. However, I am more concerned with the reverse problem, which occurs when we try to apply what works for everyone else to passionate people, and in the process, we damage them. In the words of William Blake, “The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow.”

Passionate people don’t think much of what is safe, convenient, or easy. They follow their calling, and charge ahead, despite the difficulty or long odds. What matters to them is a sense of mission, the pursuit of an ideal, the achievement of a goal or a victory, often regardless of cost.

Passionate people might have little concern for work-life balance; their work is their life, and those who don’t like it will achieve little by complaining about this fact. I know of a violinist whose wife said to him, “I wish you loved me the way you love that instrument.” Of course, they divorced, but he continued playing the violin until his death.

Yes, passionate people are far from being perfect human beings. In fact, they are probably more imperfect than your average citizen, but I’d argue they are necessary and indispensable to the advance of civilization. And if we stuff them in a cubicle and medicate them and demand that they act normal, it’s everybody’s loss.

How to cope when you have a real “passion”

This isn’t research-based, but based on my own experience and seeing other people succeed and fail at “passion” careers, and many years of therapy.

1) Don’t deny yourself. If you are accursed with a passion for a certain type of work-life continuum, please don’t try to squelch it in order to please others. It will only make you hate yourself and resent the people who made you do it, and you’ll end up living the rest of your life on antidepressants. You’re driven by something larger than yourself — honor your calling, follow your star, and accept the consequences of your choice.

2) Give it your best. Some of us go halfway and take “insurance,” so that if we fail we can say “I wasn’t really trying.” Stop making excuses and go all-out. Success is, of course, not guaranteed, but if you fail, at least you’ll know how to do better the next time. After his “Dune” fiasco, David Lynch came back with “Blue Velvet.” After surviving Valley Forge, the American Continental Army went on to win the Revolutionary War (though it took them five years).

3) Use reason for your own ends. Reason is a tool, not a goal. Motivation is the result of emotion, and passion will lead the way — but it might not get you where you need. Trying to be reasonable won’t work for you, so recruit reason to serve your passion instead. Going by passion alone is bound to get you bankrupt, ill, and dead before your time — learning rational skills  in the support of your life’s mission can be priceless. If you just don’t have such abilities, please read the next item.

4) Find a community of supporters. You don’t want to spend your life arguing with your mate about why you spend so many hours working on your invention, organizing your revolution, training for your next triathlon, or studying for your qualifying exams. You want someone who loves you for who you are, admires you for what you do and is willing to lend a hand when you need it. Moreover, you don’t need to do your work on your own. If you’re a passionate person, the right partner or the right team might be what you need to soar.

5) Say no and say it often. As you pursue your passion, there will be many temptations along the road, some apparently harmless ones, some downright unethical, but either can take you away from your path. The artist might be offered a full-time teaching job and end up abandoning his work. The social reformer could receive funding and betray the cause. The entrepreneur will surely be asked to compromise her core principles to go after a larger market. The athlete might be asked to throw a game, or the scientist be told to change the results of the experiment. If you don’t want to kill your passion, and yourself with it, learn to say “no” and accept the consequences–even if that means that you’ll have to get a day job to support doing what you love the most.

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