‘Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.’ – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
In trying to improve my own life I have often come across advice to ‘follow my passion, my bliss’.
Just find what you’re passionate about and build a life, a career around that. It’s as idiotic as it sounds.
I’d say this idea of ‘finding passion’ is not only false but actually misleading.
There are many problems with the concept of following your passion.
What does it mean?
What do I mean when I say I’m passionate about something? Emotion?
Determination, fear, anger, desire, triumph, frustration, and lots more. Passion is about feeling.
But we spend almost all our time feeling something. So passion is easy to find, it’s everywhere! Just look at yourself when you are upset, fired up, motivated.
Finding it is not the problem.
The multitude of desires
We have many desires. Anything and everything from abstract ideas like justice and truth, and loneliness.
Onto more practical ones like keeping connected with friends and enjoying music. To fleeting sensory desires like eating that chocolate cake you know you shouldn’t.
We are feeling creatures, with a thin veneer of rationality. Most of our behaviour is automatic, habitual. We need emotions to make decisions. So our desires are manifest in our lives all the time.
Like a bubbling pot of stew. Our passions are a complex and changing.
The problem with living our lives is that we have so many passions. We can’t decide which ones to follow, and which ones to ignore.
This concept of passion is also poisonous because we assume that if we find our calling. It’s something we can sustain through our entire lives.
Our emotion comes and goes like changes in the weather. They arrive fast and fade just as quickly. That’s the difficult bit because these desires seem so important when we have them.
Finding your passion is not the only answer to living the good life. People change, and so do their priorities. What you want out of life now will not necessarily be what you want in ten years time.
Our existence is far too complicated to be squeezed into the idea of a desire that lasts a lifetime.
A further issue is once we find our calling we expect our problems will disappear, leaving success and happiness to follow. It’s idealistic nonsense as we have discovered that leaves us more stressed and confused.
All this means Passion is a vague term, poor at helping us define what we want.
Which passion are we talking about?
So what are we looking for if it’s not passion, what is it about?
Perhaps the answer is to recognise that we are using the term passion to mean two different things.
We use it to mean emotion in the sense of our fleeting desires. But we also use it to mean a life long passion. An existential desire to do with our life, our purpose. This is the passion we seek when we talk about purpose, career, job, meaningful work.
It’s an equivocation fallacy we’re making, confusing emotion for calling.
It’s not about ‘finding your passion’. It’s which one to follow for longer than your insect level attention span allows for.
We want to take the right path, the one that leads to our success, wasting neither time nor effort.
But we are looking for answers in the wrong place. The idea that you only have to ‘find your passion’ becomes ridiculous when you actually try and find it. We are a mess of conflicting needs and wants. It’s like navigating through a storm.
The problem of choice
‘The problem lies not in finding the cauldron of our desires but what to do with them’ – Richard Collison
The issue of our passion comes own to the choices we make. Like a blacksmith, we have the hot metal ready, but what to make of it? What should we turn it into? Like an artist with a blank canvas, a writer with a blank page.
Passion can be the desire to create, to do something, but it doesn’t tell us what to create with our lives.
The question then becomes the lasting desires we can build a life around.
Consider, which passion is most important to you? Which one seems to keep coming back again and again?
It calls us to ask: What skills do we want to develop into becoming a master? So we can not only make a difference but also make a living.
It’s the enjoyment of getting good at something? What skills we want to develop by sustained practice over a long period time?
What contribution do we want to make to society, and the people around us?
The problem is finding a direction a focus for those desires.
How we answer comes down to a question of what we values in life the most.
Giving Passion a Form
Beyond a calling, beyond choice there’s the next problem. How to manifest our desires. Otherwise they will remain just feelings and thoughts in our head.
Nietzsche, in his book The Birth of Tragedy, compared and contrasted two Gods in ancient Greece that symbolise these drives.
Dionysus represents passion, desire and suffering, he is a tragic god.
Apollo represents the outward form of desire, the craftsmanship, skills, and habits. He is the god of the arts that give form to that passion.
Our confusion comes from our trouble in giving form to our desires. Do we study art, science, philosophy, or car maintenance?
The path you must tread is knowing which desire to keep focused on, and learning skills and taste to manifest that desire in the world. This is creativity as we know it, a need to create, and craftsmanship to be able to create
The advice to ‘follow your passion’ is fraught with problems. To me it’s the kind of nonsense that gives self help a bad name. Vague, useless advice doesn’t help us us live better lives.
Above I suggest a clarification, a way of seeing passion in ways that can help.
We can become so locked into our desires our emotions that we forget to add a dosage of self discipline, order and control. It’s about balancing passion with reason. Expansiveness with control. Desire and hard work. This is the creative habit we need to foster.
‘The desire to find that one true passion leaves people anxious because they can’t find it, afraid they never will locate it, and exhausted from trying’ – Richard Collison
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