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Tuesday 16 August 2011

Passions Are Built, Not Found

Cognitive therapy emphasizes the idea that we all have characteristic distortions in the way that we view the world.  Some of us automatically assume that everything we do must be perfect.  Others predict catastrophe at every turn.  Still others believe that when something bad happens to them, they must have deserved it.

But it’s not just people that harbour these distortions.  Cultures do too.  People living within these cultures adopt the distorted ideas without thinking, just as we learn about gravity automatically, without thinking too much about gravitational science.

There are many distortions in Western cultures (and doubtless in Eastern, Southern, and Northern cultures as well).  Let’s just consider one of these for now:

"You must discover your passions."

This is a cultural idea that seems to have spread widely in the past 40 years – to the point that young people can hold the idea without recognizing it as just that:  an idea.

Ideas can be wrong.  This is one of them.

The implication is that within each of us there is a pre-existing slot, or desire, of which we can be entirely unaware.  And one day we will discover in the outside world an activity, or career, or sport, or hobby, or role that fits that slot perfectly.

All we need to do is look around and we will suddenly recognize our passion when we see it.  We can then start doing it and find fulfillment in our lives.

The result of holding this view is, paradoxically, the absence of passion.

Because we look around and don’t find that special something that ignites a flame of passion, we assume that we haven’t found “IT” yet and need to keep looking.  Passion, by this model, is a passive process: it sits outside in the world and we just have to find it – or have it given to us.

Eventually we can feel despair: we’ve been looking for years and haven’t found it.  And yet other people seem to have succeeded.  One friend is a marathoner, another obsesses about health policy, a third is a rockhound. They’ve obviously discovered their passions.  What’s wrong with us?  Why are our passions hiding?

Of course, they’re not hiding at all.  They don’t exist.

Until we build them.

Interview some people who have great passions.  Seldom will you hear that the object of their fascination came along and clubbed them over the head one day.  “I was innocently walking along and suddenly realized that my role in life was to do wedding photography.”

Instead, these people didn’t wait for passion.  They detected vague, fleeting interests and tried out a lot of things.  Most of these activities, upon investigation, turned out to be dead ends.  One or more of them resulted in a tiny, insignificant, increase in interest.  So they did them again.  They developed some skill or knowledge in those areas.  A sense of mastery began to develop, and their interest increased some more.

By the time we met these people they had been engaged in the activity for months or decades, and they had, as a result, developed great skill and fascination.  Their interest had become self-sustaining.

But they did not discover their passion.  They built it.

People differ.  Some of us have the temperament that can cultivate a fascination for badminton.  Others are more likely to create an interest in 18th century art.  But we are not wired for passions, and if we go searching for them we will fail – and potentially waste years of our lives.

If we want passion, then oddly enough we need to give up on finding passion.  We have to look for vague, fleeting interest instead.  And we have to push through our tedium and disinterest to do so.  With time we will cultivate our passion.  At some point, it may even seem that we have discovered our passion.

But that will be a distortion.  We didn’t discover anything.  We built it.

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