Erasing Passion

A sharp breath escaped me as the needle hit my spine again. My tattoo artist asked, “You alright?” to which I nodded slowly. I was trying not to let on that I had stopped breathing normally. Tattoos hadn’t hurt me before, but as the gun passed over my spine for the third time I couldn’t help but wince.

Sometime within the hormonal ebbs and flows of my 17th year of life, I decided that I was going to tattoo the word passion on my back. (Awful choice.) Typeset in Bauhaus. (Even worse choice.) And it was going to be bold. (JFC.) I was sure I had picked something that would mean something to me in the future. Unfortunately, for the next ten years I would have a confusing relationship with the word passion.

It’s a shame, really, that we could never get along.

A few years later I found myself arguing with a coworker over a brand persona when she insisted that our persona had passion.

“What does that even mean?” I asked.
“She’s a passionate person,” she said.
“For what?!? She’s passionate for what,” the last part of that question coming out as a statement rather than a question.

She seemed frustrated with this line of questioning and I was frustrated because I was realizing for the first time that my tattoo was stupid.

At 23, I found myself entering what would end up being my quarter-life crisis. I sat on a beach in Toronto with a good friend staring blankly into the water, asking, “Is this it?” He said, “You’re over-thinking this.” He couldn’t reach me though, I had already decided that whatever passion I had, had died, and I didn’t really know what it meant anyway.

Here’s the thing about the word passion: it’s commonly understood as an end state. It’s just as misused as the word happiness; an end to some journey you’re supposed to already know about.[1] We put people who are full of passion on a pedestal and convince ourselves that until we figure out passion, we won’t quite be complete.

I’ve been spending the last couple of years removing my passion tattoo. When people ask me why, I tend to make the same joke about it. They usually say something like, “Do you not have passion anymore?” and I get to say something like, “No, I’m dead inside now.” This garners a few giggles depending on how it’s delivered.

The truth is, my idea of passion has been calibrated over the years and my current definition of it is much more interesting than my ideals at the time I had tattooed. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You[2], written by Cal Newport, says this about passion,

Second, and more serious, the deep questions driving the passion mindset—“Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?”—are essentially impossible to confirm. “Is this who I really am?” and “Do I love this?” rarely reduce to clear yes-or-no responses. In other words, the passion mindset is almost guaranteed to keep you perpetually unhappy and confused

“What are you passionate about?” is an unfair question to ask yourself. It lacks the compassion that you would otherwise offer to a friend asking, “What am I doing with my life?” He further expounds on this in an interview I recently found,[3]

“Follow your passion” assumes: a) you have preexisting passion, and b) if you match this passion to your job, then you’ll enjoy that job.

When I studied the issue, it was more complex. Most people don’t have preexisting passions. And research on workplace satisfaction tells that people like their jobs for more nuanced reasons than simply they match some innate interests.

He confirmed what I had learned, ten years after getting that tattoo: passion is not found, it is cultivated. It is the side effect of doing one thing that you reasonably like and doing it until you find reward along the way.

If you don’t know what that is yet, then just pick something and dedicate some time to getting good at it. You’ll find out if it’s yours in time.

↩︎ [1] Popular culture suggests that I mention The Oatmeal's latest comic↗︎ about this.

↩︎ [2] Cal Newport So Good They Can't Ignore You↗︎, 2012

↩︎ [3] Joshua Fields Millburn, 'Follow Your Passion' is Crappy Advice↗︎

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