The Quality of Passion

Passion butterfly — Gulf fritillary via Creative Commons

Last weekend, my wife and I were traveling to a race about 1.5 hours from home. As is often the case, I was playing DJ, selecting song after song, somewhat in a stream of consciousness. Because I am passionate about music and the lyrics to any song I like are important to me, I found myself getting goose bumps over and over. I told my wife about this, she looked over and said, “Wow, you really do have goose bumps!” This is what it’s like to be a passionate person.

I’ve had a confusing and complicated relationship with passion.

It has been a source of fear, something poised to spin out of control, to pull me off the straight line that has been my salvation.

It has been my superpower, giving me the extra dose of adrenaline to make me unstoppable.

It has been my shame, causing me to be emotive while others looked back at me, expressionless.

I see others like me, to whom I can relate, who have a passion for life in general, and these people feel like my tribe. I see others, who are stoic in their demeanor, and I sometimes feel strange and out-of-control around them.

Sometimes we look to the wisdom of the ages to inform our views. Here, the wisdom is in conflict.

For example, Steve Jobs said, ”You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” That’s one point of view.

John Wooden, on the other hand, took much the oppositive viewpoint: “I never yelled at my players much. That would have been artificial stimulation, which doesn’t last very long. I think it’s like love and passion. Passion won’t last as long as love. When you are dependent on passion, you need more and more of it to make it work. It’s the same with yelling.

Clearly, the semantics of passion versus purpose versus emotion versus intensity can all get in the way. I won’t contribute to the problem by creating my own distinctive definitions for these terms. I will simply say that things taken to the extreme can be detrimental. For example, if you are cold-stoned purposeful without any empathy for others, you will not likely be entirely successful. If you are driven by passion but don’t bother learning to execute your plan (or even make a plan), your passion might not lead to anything.

In fact, one of the challenges when discussing passion is the tendency to see others as being either lacking in it or having too much of it. This reminds me of the old George Carlin line about how anyone driving faster than us on the highway is a maniac and anyone driving slower is an idiot.

So I say let the outcome be the measure. If someone does something significant, if she goes beyond what merely going through the motions might accomplish, perhaps that is passion revealing itself.

My running group recently had an Ultimate Runner event in which we were expected to run at different distances with a full-out effort. I saw much passion on display as some people truly did give everything they had.

Because there is a tendency to be judgmental when measuring others’ passion, I’d prefer to let them be their own judge. And because I am full of passion (as well as intensity and emotion and feelings), I am aware of the strength and weakness of passion. How someone exhibits their passion might be different from you or me, but that doesn’t mean their passion is any less meaningful or useful.

Ultimately, I think Benjamin Franklin had it right: “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” Your passion, whatever it might be, can be combined with reason and knowledge and experience to do something special.

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