On the failings of passion

One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested. – EM Forster, English writer

Forster is probably right. Passionate people can achieve a lot more than others. But we assume that because we think passionate people are those who know why they like doing what they do and derive immense joy from doing it. And that certainly is the case for the ones that emerge successful, which leads many to profess “follow your passion” advice to young’uns.

I think that is a terrible advice to give to one at a tender age. Baruch de Spinoza, a great 17th century philosopher who explored human emotions in his book Ethics, has much better career advice. But to understand that we have to go back a few steps and understand how emotions play a role in helping us feel and act.

Susan James, a philosopher at Birckbeck college and a scholar on Spinoza, explains that the true nature of emotion is to be passive. Even the word passion, which we now associate with feeling strong emotions, comes from the French word pascion, which by 13th century meant the “fact of being acted upon”.

The passivity of emotions is simple enough to understand. For example, if you enter a room and you feel more joyful then it may because in the past you were in this room and had a pleasurable time. So now that you have come to the room again you are associating that past pleasure with the room, which is making you more joyful. And the association might happen unconsciously.

In that sense, you are most of the time unaware of what exactly is it that makes you joyful. Thus your passions, as Spinoza argues, are things that you don’t fully understand. And that is a dangerous thing. If you are not sure why something makes you joyful, and because your driving force is to be more joyful, you may end up taking irrational decisions to pursue that joy.

That is something that happens to all of us, at one point or another. We end up regretting irrational decisions that we took when we acted too passionately without understanding our passion well enough. That is why Spinoza calls passions inadequate ideas. When we try to empower ourselves with our passion (ie inadequate ideas), we often fail.

This hits at the heart of the “follow your passion” advice. First of all very few people know what exactly makes them happy. Those who do, often don’t know why it is that something makes them happy. The advice given a tender age when one is at an early stage of knowing themselves is perhaps a wrong advice.

Because of this inadequate nature of our passions, Spinoza says that we must use our passions to explore more about ourselves. That the main role of passion is to be able to help us understand ourselves better and in turn be able to wield the power that our passions provide us with.

In an ideal world Spinoza’s advice is indeed a very good one to follow. And Spinoza did what he preached. After being excommunicated from his Jewish Dutch community for questioning a rabbi, he got a day job as a lens-grinder and by night he . He may not have know what his passion was and so took a day job to search for it. Eventually, though, he died at the age of 44 from lung infection (perhaps from breathing in glass dust). His work Ethics was published posthumously and brought him immense fame, perhaps a little too late.

Spinoza’s words from centuries ago have found followers even today. But you don’t have to rely on a 17th century philosopher’s words alone. Science has made progress in this area too. The work of psychologists, which Daniel Pink wrote about in his book Drive), has found that “to be happy, your work must fulfill three psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness.” Here the terms are used to mean:

Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. If you have a high degree of autonomy, then you endorse your actions at the highest level of reflection.

Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines: humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.

Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. In other words to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.

Cal Newport, who writes Study Hacks and is a passionate critic of the “follow your passion” advice, has written about this. But based on these ideas he draws the conclusion that “the traits that make us happy with our work have little to do with our personality or so-called “passions”. He finds no value introspection, which Spinoza holds so important, as a way of learning what it is that you should work at. He says, “working right trumps finding the right work”.

I find that disturbing. Disregarding inner motivations can be deeply unsatisfying. I, too, am a critic of the only follow your passion advice, but that is because I understand the difficulty of figuring out where one’s passions lie. And for them it helps to choose a profession where the above three psychological needs can be met. Mostly where one can feel autonomy and relatedness, so that it gives them time to figure out where their passions lie and where it is they should become more competent.

In a world which is moving away from the industrial model of doing things, it is indeed important that we find ways of maximising our potential. It does not help anymore to just be a cog in the system. But that must not be done at the cost of sitting at home unemployed because you don’t know what you’re passionate about or getting a job just because it pays well and hoping that it will buy you the freedom to be able find your passions.