It is almost a cliché of our times that everyone harbours a passion which, once found, will unlock the door to all sorts of goodies like happiness and fulfilment. The terms used can be scarily peremptory. This passion is your true purpose, what you were put on this earth to do. It’s absolutely necessary to find it and until you do you’ll be living a life of mediocrity. When you find it, on the other hand, you’ll love your life so much that, in effect, nothing will feel like work any more. No pressure then.
If your reaction to this is: “Er … I don’t really have one”, it is often assumed that it’s just a matter of trying a little harder. Recommended questions to ask yourself include: what would you do for free, what makes your heart sing, what did you love doing as a child, what would you regret not doing … and so on. That everybody has a passion and that we must find it in order to flourish is still seen as beyond dispute.
Of course, those questions are useful. It’s important to reflect on what we enjoy and value in life. But it’s naive to think this is bound to reveal a passion that will provide abundant income, work fulfilment and a joyous life all in one.
It’s nice and neat when everything lines up in life. But often it doesn’t. Maybe we don’t have a passion, but rather many things we enjoy or periodical bursts of passion. Maybe we have mere interests. Why should we feel we’re missing out? There’s no reason to assume it’s better to be the kind of person who focuses intensely on one thing rather than someone whose interests wander more. There are different ways to live, and something to lose and to gain on both sides.
The most constructive attitude is not “I must find my passion”. Instead pursue what passions you do have, big or small, and keep exploring the things that interest you with an open mind. There is plenty to love and appreciate, whether or not you find “the one”.
I don’t usually nod along with every word Margaret Thatcher says, so a bit of me hopes that one speech in the film The Iron Lady is pure invention. “People don’t think any more, they feel,” she says. “One of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.”
It’s a sentiment that is, like Thatcher, deeply unfashionable. In the coalition between thought and feeling, intellect has become the junior partner while passion leads. If you doubt this, type the phrase “passionate about” into a search engine, adding whatever obscure, dull subject you can think of. I got 2,380 results for “passionate about outsourcing” and 1,490 for “passionate about waste management”. It seems being committed to doing the best job possible just isn’t good enough.
Passion is all very well, but there are good reasons why, until recently, it often came accompanied by a cautionary adjective. Passion can be all-consuming, making us too focused on one thing and neglectful of others. It can also be unruly, diverting us from our better judgments and undermining our more sober plans and ambitions. And it can be misplaced, directing too much energy into waste management when it would be better expended on friends and family.
But perhaps most insidious of all is that it can be blinding, so we don’t even notice that it is leading us astray. For instance, while not many would associate passion with philosophy, I have seen people fall harder for their own ideas than they do in love. Seized by this intellectual fervour, they become unable to see the pertinence of criticisms and their thought ossifies before it has properly formed.
The problem with the contemporary worship of passion is that it neglects these warnings. A passion that does not consume, blind, misdirect or rule us is well worth having. But passion often does all these things and more.
So for every person for whom finding a passion is the solution, there’s another for whom it is precisely the problem.
To suggest a question for The Shrink & The Sage, please email email@example.com.
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published