Placing Too Much Importance on Passion

Red Maple by Bruce / Flickr
Red Maple by Bruce / Flickr

Passion has become a cheap word. I’m starting to roll my eyes when I hear it. But it hasn’t always been this way.

It all started when I read a 2010 post by Siddhartha Herdegen, “Why You Don’t Need Passion to Be Successful.” It was the first time I questioned one of my dearly held personal values: passion for my day-to-day work.

For the past year, I’ve been on the admissions committee for the E-Media Division at the University of Cincinnati, and I’ve become numb to students who claim, “[x] is my passion.”

If true, who cares? Every other student has a passion, too. What matters is how that translates into action. Show me what you’ve done because of your passion. Show me through action that you really mean it and aren’t flirting with it. Show me that you’ve struggled and remained resilient. Show me that you have discipline.

Recently, I ran across this quote:

Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.

—Robert Sternberg

I’ve taught hundreds of students with passion. I teach few students with commitment to do the best work possible.

I think part of the problem is how we define passion, so allow me to introduce Herdegen’s definition:

Passion is a deep connection to an idea, a strong bond which creates a feeling of desire. It contains elements of both commitment and excitement but is not limited to them.

Passion plus commitment is not too common in my experience. More often you find:

  • a person with a passion for something but lacking talent (sometimes due to lack of ability to practice for the time required, lack of a mentor, etc.)
  • a person with a talent for something without a passion for pursuing it
  • a person with either talent or passion but no ability to commit (whether through life circumstance or otherwise)

I run into all of these types—at school, at conferences, in daily conversation.

It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.

There’s another category of person I haven’t mentioned: those struggling to figure out what their passion is. The questions I then pose are:

  • What are you avoiding? (There’s a reason, and don’t feel guilty about it.)
  • What activities or interactions do you most look forward to, anticipate, and hope for more of?
  • What activities or interactions do you value or prioritize on a daily basis?
  • What activities can you get lost in? (Time stops; you’re in the flow.)

The answers might not lead to “passion” + “commitment,” but I think they help pave the way to a happier life.

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