I read a great post today on Venessa Miemis’ blog, Emergent by Design. The topic was passion and whether it is all it’s cracked up to be. I happened to be writing on the Stoic approach to passions, so I ventured a response. Here is an edited version of what I said.
Following one’s passion is important. But passion can easily become an end in itself. This can be a disaster. To ensure that we stay focused on realistic goals and achievable tasks, we need to keep our passions in check. This is not easy, with so much in the world to feel passionate about. And it doesn’t help that, in the workplace, we are constantly incited to fire up our passions.
Motivational culture is a cornerstone of post-industrial society, and it feeds on passion. Pick up a book like Drive, by Daniel Pink, and you’ll learn about the value of passion. Professionals are no longer satisfied with money and status – they want meaning, intrinsic value, and a big passionate experience of life. Cultivating a powerful sense of passion can take you a long way, and to some pretty interesting places as well. But it’s a mistake to think that passion is some kind of magic carpet ride, destination Xanadu. Nikolas Tesla was passionate about his breakthrough inventions, but he died in poverty. Romeo and Juliet epitomize passion, and we all know how that story ends.
If we want to achieve our dreams, we need to check our passions against reality. We also need to check our passions, because they have a way of taking control of us. This is something we don’t tend to acknowledge, because we are constantly told that it is important to feel passionate about things. Passion is important – it is vital. But it is also vital that we don’t let ourselves be consumed by passions, so that the passion (as opposed to the goal) becomes the meaning of life.
I am a fan of the ancient Stoic view on passion. The Stoics understood passions through the Latin passio: to bear, endure, suffer. Passions, the Stoics argued, take possession of us. Once they have overcome us, passions make us passive. Passions turn us into slaves.
This sounds a bit paranoid (help, my passion is taking control of me!), but it makes sense. Passion has a way of become a dominant force in life. It is easy to become hooked on passion. One winds up running about looking for things to feel passionate about, rather than focusing on doing the hard work to create something good. If one allows oneself to believe that one should make passion a dominant force in life, it is easy to wind up being dragged along by one’s passion. Passion should be like a jet-pack that you strap on behind and propels you forward. If it is a pack of horses, dragging you behind, you need to get a grip on your passion.
What should we be led by, if not passion? Reason is one contender, assuming that this doesn’t mean Mr Spock-like hyper-analysis, but circumspect good sense. Intuition is a guiding light. Passion should be put in its place. It is a wonderfully energetic state, but it tends to be all-consuming. Plus it is blind. There are better forces to guide us through transition.