Passion means sacrificial suffering as well as strong sexual desire. Referring to both sex and death, passion encompasses the cycle of life in one word. The Latin origin of passion is “pati,” meaning “suffer,” and the word gained popularity in Christian theology referring to the sacrificial suffering of martyrs. In the sixteenth century, passion began to refer to sexual love and a sense of strong liking or enthusiasm, seemingly the opposite of its original use. Although passion can still refer to pain and suffering – as seen in The Passion of the Christ – today, the word mainly conjures up strong connotations of pleasure and desire.
I argue that although seemingly contradictory, the paradoxical nature of passion needs to be understood before we can apply it to the vocational realm discussed in my previous post which examined the popular career advice to “follow your passion.” The word has lost its ascetic depth in the disingenuous mouths of popular personal development gurus whose brands of eastern mysticism overemphasize states of blissful contentment. In this sense, “follow your passion” becomes a difficult piece of advice to follow since it turns one’s passion into an elusive entity.
Ask Canadian teenaged boys about their passion and most of them will tell you that it’s hockey – based on a study by Robert J. Vallerand. The problem is that almost all of them will eventually need to give up the dream of playing for the NHL. But this does not mean they failed to pursue their passion; it just means they need to realize passions are made, not uncovered. As Cal Newport states, “Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
One cannot create the spark of passion without first striking the flint. Rather than going on a passion treasure-hunt, we need to become craftsmen of our skills, as Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. To become craftsmen of our skills, we need to engage in deliberate practice and let go of the idea that it’s going to all be an eternal state of blissful contentment. As Cal states, “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.” Giving up at the first sign of strife is a surefire way to stifle a spark of passion. Instead, kindling the spark of passion into a burning desire requires remembering that the root of the word means to suffer, and building anything of significance comes at a cost.
Both passionate martyrs and passionate lovers share the ability to lose themselves in an act. One suffers the cost of great pain, while the other derives pleasure. The martyr and the lover are the archetypes of passion and we need them both in the vocational realm. Losing oneself in one’s work is not an eternal bliss. The pain and pleasure of passion are intertwined, rewarding those on the journey who persevere.
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