Passion

I’m going to start releasing the scripts of some of the more popular podcast episodes beginning with the second episode, Passion. This was the first episode in the current format which I’ve used pretty much ever since.

The following script was released as The Here and Now Podcast, episode 2 on December 4, 2019. You can listen to it here:

https://www.buzzsprout.com/724137/2217917-passion

I’ve always considered myself lucky. Sometime around high school I remember adults started to ask what my plans were for the future. Not just me, all of us. School was drawing to a close and we needed to make some important decisions about our future. Would we go to university, find a job, any job, start an apprenticeship for a trade, join the military, go travelling? For many of my friends, the answer was “I don’t know.” But like I said, I thought I was lucky as I knew exactly what I wanted to do, it seemed I always had. I wasn’t going to be able to do exactly what I wanted to do, (be an airforce fighter pilot) as that had been thwarted for medical reasons, or maybe self-sabotage but that’s something I’ll come back too in a later episode, but in a broad sense I did know the direction I was headed and nothing was going to stop me. You see, I wanted to fly.

I’ve told these stories over and over again, always using the same one liners and anecdotes, and I won’t reinvent the wheel here, although over time with repeated tellings’, our personal stories tend to take on a life of their own, like all good versions of the truth should. So the first one liner I often say is “if my dad was a train driver I’d probably be driving trains.” But he isn’t. He is a pilot, and so from as early as I can remember I have loved aeroplanes and flying. Well, maybe not the flying part, that came later, but I definitely had a fascination with planes. So much so, that I had very little interest in anything else. That made it easy for family members come birthdays and Christmas, much to my grandfather’s chagrin. Every time I would open another aviation themed gift, a t-shirt with a plane on it, a book about planes, another model plane to add to the collection, and of course the greeting card covered with aeroplanes, he would say, “oh what’s that you’ve got there, not another plane is it?” But I never noticed the sarcasm, I was just thrilled to have something else plane related, carefully announcing to whatever audience I could muster what type of plane it was, its distinguishing features, the spec of its engine, it’s historical significance and how it was similar or different to that other plane-thing I had just opened. So you could say I was passionate about aviation and that made most decisions in life easy for me. Did it have something to do with planes and flying? I’m in. If not, nah, I’ll be ok thanks.

I remember a crucial period of time as I was finishing high school and trying to decide exactly what to do next. I knew I wanted to fly, I had several hours logged (officially) and had just about finished my private pilot licence but I really loved all things to do with the military. I had wanted to be an Air Force pilot but as I alluded too, that wasn’t going to be an option, so I had to make a decision. Did I want to go into the military as something other than a pilot, should I go to university, my mum thought law would be a good field for me, or did I want to try my luck at becoming a pilot in the civilian world? Having a no money to speak of and no interest in university at that time it was really down to whether I would go into the Air Force or army, or get a job and start working toward a commercial pilot licence. What I did with it I had no idea, I just wanted to fly, fly what exactly? I didn’t really mind at that point.

But as much as I was passionate about flying, I knew it would be a hard road and possibly my passion for it would eventually be dampened when it became a job. I found that hard to imagine but I did worry about it. I’d been working as a baggage handler at my local airport and I tried to strike up a conversation with the airline pilots whenever the opportunity presented itself. I had a set of canned questions I would fire at the unwitting interviewee rapid fire style, one of which was, “do you do any sort of flying outside of this?” Most would reply “yes,” they had a small plane of their own or flew at an aeroclub or as part of a syndicate. But, on one particular occasion I cornered a fairly grizzled, old captain who grunted when I began to ask him my list of questions. When I got to that one, he looked at me aghast, “why the bloody hell would I want to do that? When I get home from work the last thing I want to see is another bloody aeroplane, I’d rather be mowing my lawns or trimming my roses.” It was clear that this gentleman had lost his passion for flight and I was concerned that if I made it a career it would lose its excitement for me too.

But, in the end, I knew what I had to do, as if I’d ever really thought otherwise. I knew that if I did any other job I would always look upon those who flew professionally with envy. It was bad enough that I would never be an air force pilot, but to miss out altogether was something I couldn’t accept. I was going to become a pilot or die trying. That’s what passion will do. It will ignore the obstacles, the naysayers and all of the practical reasons why something can’t or shouldn’t happen. It will bypass reason and rationale and simply drive you on through whatever it takes to get to your goal. It’s not a choice as such, and there is no end state, it is a journey, a path you set out on that keeps you as close to living your dreams as possible. It’s not like having passion makes you invincible or immune to setbacks and painful experiences. If anything it’s harder than simply drifting as you are so acutely aware of what you want to achieve, where you want to be, and it can sometimes seem so far away that it hurts. But life is so confusing and overwhelming that having a passion is like an anchor, a focus you can ground yourself too, no matter how high the swells, you are tethered to this thing which is more than just something you like or are into, it is you, you are inexorably tied to this thing, and it actually comes to define you.

It sounds like I am describing an obsession, and to be honest, there is probably very little daylight between passion and obsession. To be passionate about something is to be obsessed with it. It never seems like work which is why it’s always funny when people ask questions like “oh you must be really smart to do that” or “oh, it must be so hard to learn to do that.” You smile and nod but you don’t really understand the question because you’d never thought about what you had to have to do it, you didn’t really think about whether you were good enough, or whether you could actually do it, you just knew you had to and so you did. It was hard but it didn’t feel hard, it was just what had to be done.

That’s the other thing about passion, it never feels like hard work, even though you have to work your arse off, you love every moment. My story is mine and it has specific details, but I think you could substitute the key words for just about anything else people can love, horses, surfing, motocross, running marathons, painting, you’d find the same type of description. What seems totally foreign and amazing to most people was just natural and unquestioned by those who are passionate about it. For sure there are milestones and turning points, like the moment when I consciously decided to pursue flying as a career, but like I said, it was kind of for show, a bit of internal theatre where I acted out a mini drama as if I actually had a choice because it seemed like the thing I was supposed to do. But I knew what I would do even if I pretended that I had a choice. I’m sure it is the same for others who are passionate about something. But, is passion really as extreme as that? To be something one would equate with obsession?

It’s an interesting exercise to define passion. Here are several definitions from the Merriam Webster online dictionary, here are the two that jumped out at me.

One. The sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death
Two. Emotion
Three. Ardent affection, a strong liking or desire for some activity, object or concept.
Four. An object of desire or deep interest.

In historic usage, passion meant suffering from the Latin word passio. This is where the idea of the passion of Christ comes from. So, it’s bizarre that it has become known to mean something almost the opposite in common, modern usage. But there is probably a little of that historic origin tied to the modern expression of passion, in that while it is indeed about something we desire or have a deep interest in, it is an emotion so powerful that it is almost to suffer to want it so badly. It can be a curse in that regard. The curse of one track focus on something to the exclusion of all else, and there enterth obsession.

But, does being passionate about something also mean to be obsessed with it? Is it possible to really love something but not have it as the be all and end all? The answer, I would argue, is yes. Life often gets in the way of our hopes and dreams, but does that mean we are any less passionate about something? If we were not able to focus on it exclusively at a young age, or if we discover a passion later in life when we have other responsibilities that make it practically impossible to drop everything in the pursuit of that thing, is that not still passion? Perhaps I was wrong to choose to make flying my career, I confused my passion for it at that early stage with compulsion. I chose a path which I have since justified as being determined by a passion which was borne in childhood, where as I could have chosen a quite different path, perhaps as a lawyer like my mum suggested, and not had to relinquish an ounce of passion for flying, perhaps I would be even more passionate about it as it is not a job that I have to do, even if I don’t really want too.

I often think of world class athletes as the epitome of passion, for it can only be through tremendous passion that they achieve such feats. But then I read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, “Open” and in it he describes how he hated tennis with a passion. He loathed it but yet he continued, and he was good. Really, really good. Yet as successful as he became, he still hated the game. He became a victim of his own success, a hostage to it. So it is not always the case that passion is always the successor of greatness. So coming back to earth, for you and me who love many things, at what point can we say we are passionate about them? Because if you don’t necessarily need to be passionate to be uber successful, then is it quite acceptable to be passionate about something you aren’t very good at? Of course it is, in fact, that is almost certainly the case. If it wasn’t, everyone who picks up a guitar, a set of golf clubs, a fishing rod, or a paint brush would be signing autographs, and that obviously isn’t the case. Passion therefore is not the same as talent, or even ability, although high achievers probably have it often, they don’t always.

Finding your passion is something most of us attempt to do at some stage in our lives. There are plenty of self-help guides and websites which will help you to find what you are passionate about that you hadn’t realised before. Mark Manson is pretty scathing of passion, not because he doesn’t believe in it, but because he thinks people worry about not having a passion, or that they don’t know how to find it. His advice is, “who cares?” But he also says that you probably already know what your passion is, it’s what you do when you don’t have to be doing something else. What you talk about, think about, what others might say you’re “in to.” The challenge is really how to turn your passion into something you can do more of, and if possible for money. But, not always.

I agree. True passion is not something you need help to find. It finds you. But for the sake of balance, I’d like to consider two diametrically opposed angles of passion, the passion you didn’t realise you had, and the passion you don’t know how to live with. I’m in that latter category, my struggle, as fortunate as I feel to have my passion, is to find balance in life. How to find other things to define me so that not everything I think about, talk about and build my persona around is about my passion. Why would I want to do that? Well there are a few reasons.

Firstly, as much as I love my passion, to others, like my grandfather, it probably gets a bit boring. As rich and layered as it is too me, to others its one dimensional. They don’t see the nuance and richness of it, but that’s fine, they haven’t spent their life studying every facet of it. So in order to have a life outside of my passion, a life where I can be open to other experiences well outside of my comfort zone, things I really know nothing about, and the people who are expert in those fields, I need to step back from my world and open myself up to other things. Life has to be about balance, anything we obsess ourselves with comes at the cost of everything else. To reach the top of your field, you have to be obsessive, but at some point you don’t need to be obsessed anymore. You’ve got the ability, you’re on the path, your passion is locked down tight (maybe), now you can free yourself to look at the big wide world and learn to be impressed by other people and their passions. We are most humble when we realise how little we know, and we should challenge ourselves to feel that way as often as possible. Then we can begin to learn.

And here’s a little secret, you may learn things from other people who do things totally different than you, which you can then apply to your own passion and make it even better! When on a one track path, you tend to focus on the skills you need to excel in that area. Your passion focuses you on the specific things you need to execute it well. These things are the obvious ones. How to hold a brush, mix colours, draw from the correct perspective. How to catch a wave, with every step broken down and perfected in requisite detail. Skills that may not be immediately transferable to other disciplines. But therein lies the beauty of passion, discipline. Passion makes discipline that much easier because it is never, or at least rarely, a chore. You do something because you love it, it ticks the right boxes for you. And the practice and dedication required to get good at it requires immense discipline, and that is a transferrable skill.

So there are two components, the skill itself, and the will that goes along with working at it over a long period of time. Now there is a caveat, as there always is, just because you are passionate about something doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best at it, in fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t be. But does that matter? Of course not. We aren’t all Eric Clapton’s, David Gilmore’s, Jimi Hendrix’s or Steve Vai’s, but we can still find great joy in noodling away, and the more we noodle, the better we get, and that repetitive practice instils discipline, which is totally transferrable.

So now we see passion evolving from this thing we are obsessed about, to a thing which has allowed us to focus and concentrate our attention to the exclusion of a lot of other things and we learn the quality of discipline almost by accident. But, there may be plenty of other elements drawn from your passion which are transferrable in different measures and they often are. I think this is why our passions can tend to define us, because the skills that we hone inform our personality and approach to everything we do. It becomes difficult to see the world through any other lens than that which we use to view our passion which consumes so much of our thoughts and time. Can there be too much of a good thing?

I don’t think there is a right answer to that question but my intuition wants to say yes. Obsession is a form of eccentricity, which can certainly be taken too far. When you are unable to achieve anything else, particularly the fundamental things needed to survive and maintain relationships, you need to take a step back and re-evaluate your priorities. There’s that fine line again, the balance between having enough focus to achieve your goals, and enough to maintain your humanity. As passion is an emotion, that can be beyond our objective and conscious ability to control, like love, it just rolls up and hits you smack in the chops. So discipline works both ways here, it’s the essence of passion that allows you to focus your emotions into something concrete and tangible, but it’s also what allows us to maintain a sense of perspective, of how this thing we are focused on fits into the big picture of our life and how it may be impacting others we care about and who care about us.

Passion will almost always have consequences for others. In concentric circles, those closest to us will be affected by our lack of attention to anything else, those further out may see how we engage with our passion and be inspired or be envious, and those further out still may call us lucky or naturally talented without any appreciation for the years of commitment, the patience and persistence that it has taken to get to that point.

There is a story which probably isn’t true that goes, a woman approaches Picasso in a café and asks if he would scribble something on a napkin for her, she offers to pay whatever he thinks it is worth. Picasso complies and quickly sketches something on the napkin. As he hands it to the woman he says “that will be $10,000.” The woman incredulous replies, “but that only took you thirty seconds!” “No,” replies Picasso, “that took me forty years.” Picasso, who probably didn’t say that, meant that the worth of his sketch was not relative to the sketch itself, but to the years he had spent honing his craft to the point where he would be approached in a café and asked to draw something for someone. But, he also meant, “I have consumed so much of my life in the pursuit of this passion, I have given it everything and it has given me everything, that for you to ask me for a slice of it has a value which I can only place an arbitrarily high amount on, it is virtually priceless.”

And then there are those who have passion but not opportunity and so cannot devote enough time to become obsessed and realise the potential their passion may offer them. They discovered their passion to late, other circumstances got in the way, they could only scratch away at the edges, never able to dive right in. Or their dreams were stifled, they did not receive the encouragement and opportunity to exploit their passion, never believing they could really do it. It is not a given that passion will lead to obsession. Passion may be a significant source of motivation, but is it fair to say that only those who have focused their lives on it can be labelled passionate? Just how much does one have to love something to be passionate about it? And if someone really does love something, but cannot devote all of their time and energy too it, the excruciating sense of being so near but so far, are they deprived of fulfilment as a result? Is that how we define passion? Not just by obsession with it, but by obsession with not being able to do it?

I love a good cliché and here is one that seems appropriate, life is short. I don’t know how to be happy, but I’m sure that the more you can do the things you love, the closer to happiness you will be. If you are lucky enough to know your passion then escape to that happy place whenever you can but don’t lose sight of the big picture. Your passion is part of you, but don’t let it be all of you. Not all of the time anyway.

You know, the more I think about it, the more it seems like passion is about suffering after all.

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