Thought Catalog
October 26, 2014

Passion Is The Problem, Not The Solution

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What is the issue?
“You seem to want that vivida vis animi which spurs and excites most young men to please, to shine, to excel. Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend on it, you never can be so.” Lord Chesterfield
Thomas Hawk
Thomas Hawk

Passion might be your problem. Not in the “find your passion sense.” Plenty of other smart people have argued why the pursuit of passion alone is less-than-helpful career advice. I’m talking about passion of a different sort–the unbridled enthusiasm, our willingness to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal, the “bundle of energy” that our teachers and bosses have assured us is our most important asset.

Here’s what those same people haven’t told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from success.

Of course, it virtually goes without saying that total passion would be a problem. Apathy never got anyone anywhere. But a relentless, restless battery, a body always in motion, can also become a great weakness, a powerful and crippling deficiency that goes misunderstood, or worse, unacknowledged by those who are drained by it.

I have seen its messy fingerprints all over failed books, faltering companies, dysfunctional relationships, disappointed clients and unmanageable employees. The residue of its impact can be seen and felt in the confusion, exhaustion, alienation and resentment of those outside of ourselves whom it has touched. And it stems from throwing everything they’ve got… at everything they do, while the unanswered whys, whats, whens and for how longs tick away as timebombs.

This is the darker side of passion. It’s passion in the historical sense, which every culture—from the Greeks to the Christians—have always warned against. But today we have what I’ll call the “passion paradox”–the undiscussed, destructive capacity of the trait that every book, speaker, boss and parent seems to expect from everybody.

How could this be?

Let’s begin with the obvious: In life, we face complex problems, often in situations that we’ve never faced before. These novel, complicated problems typically require novel, creative solutions. Of course, energy is a component in most solutions. But what is really called for in these circumstances is deliberateness and methodological determination. More critically, these traits must be connected to a clear sense of purpose.

As I have seen repeatedly in my own life and you can see with even a cursory study of history, problems are not solved with an uncontrollable flash of genius or creativity, but with sober reflection, strategy and execution. We don’t go in fueled by adrenaline, guns blazing. Rather, a solution is a well-aimed bullet fired with a steady hand. And passion is not the slug. It’s the gunpowder.

Remember in Jerry Maguire, how he has an epiphany and stays up all night in a passion-fueled frenzy writing his manifesto? What happens? He goes in the next day and gets fucking fired. Why? Because nobody has time for that crap. Not when they are trying to get things done, to make money to pay salaries and grow their business.

We seem to forget that part. So did Jerry. He was a partner who grew with his firm from the ground up. Did he really think that the best way to solve the problems he had identified in his company and his industry (all legitimate, whether we’re talking fictional or real-life) was to jam a manic jumble of words into the gears of the machine he himself helped build? And that this would yield results right away? Apparently, he did. That is the danger of passion without purpose.

Thomas Edison once explained that, in inventing, “the first step is an intuition–and comes with a burst–then difficulties arise.” What set Edison apart from other inventors was tolerance for these difficulties, his willingness to tackle the kinds of problems that are endemic to the process–not exceptions to it–and the steady dedication with which he applied himself towards solving them.

We need people who can do what the situation requires. Deliberateness and passion are almost always at odds with each other the more critical the situation becomes. My dog is passionate. She is not deliberate and her purpose is fleeting from one moment to the next. As numerous squirrels, birds, boxes, blankets and toys can tell you–she does not accomplish most of what she sets out to do.

To be clear, it wasn’t passion that Edison brought to bear on his difficulties. It’s not a trait you hear ascribed to him or many great men and women, period. No, they are obsessive, determined, ambitious. Passion alone is a valuable asset only in situations where not a single problem comes up: those rare, unreplicable instances when the song gets written on the first take, when product market fit is instantaneous, and when everything goes swimmingly. But that’s not how most problems present themselves. In fact, the important ones never show up that way.

In 1878, Edison wasn’t the only person experimenting with incandescent lights. He had competitors. I’m sure a lot of them were passionate. But it isn’t passion that gets you to test 6,000 different filaments–including the beard hair of one of your employees–inching closer each time to the one that would finally work.

In 1953, a small three-man team at a new San Diego firm called Rocket Chemical Company was charged with creating a line of degreasing agents and rust-proof solvents for the aerospace industry. The key to all of it was to get the water displacement formula right. It took the trio FORTY tries to nail it. The result was WD-40. Their deliberate hard work was even memorialized in the name of their product: W(ater) D(isplacement Formula)-40(th try).

That’s two examples. But history is full of them.

My last book proposal took three complete rewrites to sell. What got me through it was purpose. It was a determination and a willingness to eat shit and try different things until I got what I wanted. Hoc opus, hic labor est.

As Aristotle says, the critical distinction is whether we are making arguments towards principles or arguments from principles. Passion is about (I am so passionate about _____). Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______.) Actually–purpose usually doesn’t use I at all. It’s selfless, not selfish like passion.

My clients who have passion but lack true purpose all tend to do the same things. They make complicated spreadsheets. They insist on doing numerous conference calls and meetings. They send long, stream of conscious emails in the middle of the night. They set up extensive systems that are quickly abandoned. They get distracted by little things–slights, hypotheticals, bribes, schemes and long shots. And most of all, they don’t do the critical work that can only be done by themselves alone.

A deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level. They hire professionals and use them. They ask people like me questions, they ask what could go wrong, they ask for examples. Then they are off to the races. Usually they get started with one small piece, complete it and look for feedback on how the next round can be better. They lock in gains, and then get better as they go, often leveraging those previously locked in gains in order to grow exponentially rather than arithmetically. I love working with these types–it’s the true feeling of being part of a team.

See how this works:

The flash of inspiration: I want to write the best and biggest book ever.

The advice: Ok, well here’s what you’ll need to do.

The reality: despite being incredibly busy and working very hard, they actually do very little of it.

How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox.

Passion makes people delusional. Because passion is ego and selfishness. It is narrative. It’s saying with a straight face: ‘I’m going to do [insert preposterous things that never happen].’ ‘I want you to get me in [publication that makes zero sense.]’ ‘I have to respond to [insert ridiculously petty insult]’ ‘I’m going to be as big as [someone whose career took decades to develop.]’ How can they say these things and believe them? Because passion blinds us, it mutes our empathy and tells us what we want to hear about ourselves.

This is why it is so fragile. Because reality cannot always be restrained. As Emerson wrote in 1841, “If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart.” They weren’t prepared, they weren’t realistic and now they quit.

This is the Millennial way. Loving what they studied in school, finding they couldn’t get a job in it right away, and then doing nothing instead. Because passion isn’t resourceful, passion doesn’t compromise, it’s one-directional.

Actually that might be misleading. In my experience, I often see clients and friends get really blunt feedback from the world that conflicts with their passion, which they take in, agree to follow and then pathologically attempt to circumvent so that they may go back to what they originally set out to do. Ugh.

Cognitive dissonance and passion are two sides of the same coin in that way. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is retardation. At best, it’s stubbornness to the point of stupidity.

The problem with passion from both a personal and professional perspective is that it is a parasite–it exists for its own sake. People go to Burning Man to find passion, to be around passion, to rekindle their passion. Notice they never tell you what they got done there, what it actually accomplished for them. Same goes for TED and the now enormous SXSW. Just as fire consumes all the oxygen in the room to keep itself alive, so does passion want for everything you have and are willing to give it. It needs those things to fuel itself and create its only reliable byproduct–more passion.

Purpose, on the other hand, wants only what it needs–and what it can get.

Are you starting to see? Passion is not your friend. It is your temptress. It’s the most insidious kind of laziness and Resistance–because it feels like you have an advantage. It feels like you’re going in the right direction, when it reality you’re not going anywhere at all.

That’s what I want you to understand. Passion isn’t helping. Not if you’re trying to do big things. We don’t need you to be excited or jazzed. The world has that in spades.

It’d actually be far better if you were intimidated by what lay ahead–humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Think gritty, not giddy.

Develop and articulate a real purpose for yourself, leave passion for the amateurs and the narcissists. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be. Then you will do great things. Then you will stop being your old good-intentioned but ineffective self. TC mark

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