We've heard the advice, “just follow your passion” again and again as a cure to life’s problems. It never felt right, but we could not figure out why. Passion often would be the fuel to launch new endeavors, but not enough to sustain them.
Enter Ryan Holiday, best-selling author of the Obstacle is the Way and former marketing director for American Apparel, to talk about why following your purpose in life is much better than passion. He’s got a wonderful way of making a point through stories that influenced history.
Below he created an adapted piece for Intelligent Change readers here from his newest book, “Ego Is the Enemy”, addressing the issue. We hope you find it as valuable as we did.
It’s Not About Passion, It’s About Your Purpose in Life
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” William Butler Yeats
Here’s the thing about passion. It’s an easy thing to tell people to follow. It sounds like inspiring advice: Go do what you’re passionate about. Find your passion.
But here’s the problem: It’s a bad cliché. Because following your passion is dangerous. And I’m saying that as someone who gets to do what they love for a living.
Early on in her political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “passionate interest” in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. “Yes,” she did support the cause, she said. “But I hardly think the word ‘passionate’ applies to me.”
Why do you think she said that? Because she felt that she was driven by something better: purpose.
If passion is driven by energy and emotion, purpose is driven by reason. Ultimately, the latter is more likely to make us successful than the former.
Christopher McCandless was bursting with passion as he headed “into the wild.” But it didn’t work out, because passion is not enough. The same is true for many prospective authors, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, designers and business owners. Just because you have a lot of enthusiasm for something doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful.
Let’s say you were hiring someone. Would you rather they be highly skilled and experienced or would you rather they be passionate?
A young basketball player named Lewis Alcindor Jr., who won three national championships with John Wooden at UCLA, used one word to describe the style of his famous coach: “dispassionate.” As in not passionate. Wooden wasn’t about rahrah speeches or inspiration. He saw those extra emotions as a burden. Instead, his philosophy was about being in control and doing your job and never being “passion’s slave.” The player who learned that lesson from Wooden would later change his name to one you remember better: Kareem AbdulJabbar.
To be clear, it’s not that Kareem or Wooden didn’t care. It’s that they resisted that kind of unbridled enthusiasm that can get coaches and players into trouble. Bobby Knight was passionate—and his passion is what always got him into such pointless trouble.
There’s a reason that the ancients used to warn against the passions. In fact, the Stoics thought that the passions were a form of suffering. Lust, anger, obsession—these were traits to avoid.
Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures share the same trait. We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory. With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a demand much greater than ever existed. With the runup to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe. The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation. I’m sure Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with. In many more examples we see the same mistakes: overinvesting, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy—not so much malice as the drunkenness of passion.
My dog is passionate. As numerous squirrels, birds, boxes, blankets, and toys can tell you, she does not accomplish most of what she sets out to do. A dog has an advantage in all this: a graciously short short-term memory that keeps at bay the creeping sense of futility and impotence.
In life, we will face complex problems. These problems need skill, patience and understanding. In attempting to solve them, breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. What we really require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
When we are young, or when our cause is young, we feel so intensely—passion like our hormones runs strongest in youth—that it seems wrong to take it slow. This is just our impatience. This is our inability to see that burning ourselves out or blowing ourselves up isn’t going to hurry the journey along.
Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.
More than purpose, we also need realism. Where do we start? What do we do first? What do we do right now? How are we sure that what we’re doing is moving us forward? What are we benchmarking ourselves against?
Is this less exciting than manifestos, epiphanies, flying across the country to surprise someone, or sending four thousand word stream of consciousness emails in the middle of the night? Sure. Is it less glamorous and bold than going all in and maxing out your credit cards because you believe in yourself? Absolutely. Same goes for the spreadsheets, the meetings, the trips, the phone calls, software, tools, and internal systems—and every howto article ever written about them and the routines of famous people. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.
The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naïvete. It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be. Remember Talleyrand’s epigram for diplomats, “Surtout, pas trop de Zèle” (“Above all, not too much zeal”). Then you will do great things.