“Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.” ~ Cal Newport

Photo credit: vajdic

How important is the role of passion in your work? Career? Hobbies? Life?

First, let me say right up front that I’m a big fan of passion, even in the current passion backlash, and this is why: While the advice “Follow Your Passion” doesn’t work for everyone and, as Cal Newport explains so well, can even be a profound mistake, it is equally misguided to dismiss the value of passion in a single sweep. The fact that so many important thinkers and authors have written about the profound impact of passion on their lives is far from insignificant.

Where passion can become a problem. as Newport writes, is thinking that there is a one passion we are each meant to find or that passion is not something we can nurture and work to pave the way for:

“The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world.” Read More

An article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “You Don’t Have to Love Your Job”  puts the problem in more practical terms:

 “The belief that if you do what you love everything else—including a perfect job—will work out is what’s partially behind so many students pursuing degrees in fields where the job outlook is poor or nonexistent.”

And, finally, a thoughtful article in Slate argues that the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) movement/mantra is elitist and lacking compassion for those who have few choices of how to earn a living.

My current way of understand the issue is this: Living a life of passion can too easily become a quest for an elusive Holy Grail, leading to a lot of heartache and dead-ends. Instead, perhaps we should think of it as the journey of a hero. If we choose to answer the call of passion, we enter the unknown, we face challenges, we sometimes fail, but we continue to add meaning to our lives by learning how to bring passion to whatever we do today, right now, rather than seek it in some far away land.

I’ve found that I can experience passion in nearly anything if I am taking care of business otherwise by attending to my own mental, physical and spiritual health. In particular, I’ve learned that procrastination and pressure both are big passion drainers for me. I can even find passion in grading papers (!) if I start early and am not rushed and if I allow myself to become truly mindful of the activity (cell phone off, no multi-tasking, focused on the student’s words and ideas). It’s one reason I need to trim away some of my responsibilities, so as to make space for more passion to fill what remains.

What I’ve also discovered about myself is that passion is very important to my sense of fulfillment and satisfaction, but that’s just me, and I certainly know people for whom passionate work and even passionate living are much further down their list of priorities. We make a mistake whenever we impose one-size-fits-all “shoulds” on everyone.

What I worry about, however, is that people who are not experiencing passion or intensity in their lives but who deep in their hearts want to will read articles about how passion is overrated, especially ones with misleading headlines, and too easily give up on the idea of ever (or ever again) knowing the joy that passionate living can bring. We can begin by asking ourselves when and where have we experienced passion in the past: What made it possible? What we were doing differently? What were our thoughts and perspectives at the time? What work and practice did we put in along the way? What would need to happen—or what do you need to change in ourselves or our lives—to bring that feeling back, at least some of the time?

If passion can be defined, as does researcher Robert J Vallerand, as “a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that one likes (or even loves), finds important, and in which one invests time and energy on a regular basis,” the question then becomes not what that specific activity is but how to turn what we do and how we live into passion itself.

Or consider the wisdom of Stephen Stills (watch a beautiful rendition by Luther Vandross at the end of this post):

Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had / Well there’s a girl sitting right next to you /And she’s just waiting for something to do… / And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey / Love the one you’re with