Placing Too Much Importance on Passion

Red Maple by Bruce / Flickr

Red Maple by Bruce / Flickr

Passion has become a cheap word. I’m starting to roll my eyes when I hear it. But it hasn’t always been this way.

It all started when I read a 2010 post by Siddhartha Herdegen, “Why You Don’t Need Passion to Be Successful.” It was the first time I questioned one of my dearly held personal values: passion for my day-to-day work.

For the past year, I’ve been on the admissions committee for the E-Media Division at the University of Cincinnati, and I’ve become numb to students who claim, “[x] is my passion.”

If true, who cares? Every other student has a passion, too. What matters is how that translates into action. Show me what you’ve done because of your passion. Show me through action that you really mean it and aren’t flirting with it. Show me that you’ve struggled and remained resilient. Show me that you have discipline.

Recently, I ran across this quote:

Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.

—Robert Sternberg

I’ve taught hundreds of students with passion. I teach few students with commitment to do the best work possible.

I think part of the problem is how we define passion, so allow me to introduce Herdegen’s definition:

Passion is a deep connection to an idea, a strong bond which creates a feeling of desire. It contains elements of both commitment and excitement but is not limited to them.

Passion plus commitment is not too common in my experience. More often you find:

  • a person with a passion for something but lacking talent (sometimes due to lack of ability to practice for the time required, lack of a mentor, etc.)
  • a person with a talent for something without a passion for pursuing it
  • a person with either talent or passion but no ability to commit (whether through life circumstance or otherwise)

I run into all of these types—at school, at conferences, in daily conversation.

It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.

There’s another category of person I haven’t mentioned: those struggling to figure out what their passion is. The questions I then pose are:

  • What are you avoiding? (There’s a reason, and don’t feel guilty about it.)
  • What activities or interactions do you most look forward to, anticipate, and hope for more of?
  • What activities or interactions do you value or prioritize on a daily basis?
  • What activities can you get lost in? (Time stops; you’re in the flow.)

The answers might not lead to “passion” + “commitment,” but I think they help pave the way to a happier life.


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Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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67 Comments on "Placing Too Much Importance on Passion"

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4 years 20 days ago

Excellent post.  I’ve been in writing groups where writing is talked about more so than actually putting words on a page.  I love writing, but passion comes and goes for it.  If I waited until I felt the passion to write, some days I’d never produce anything. 

Cate Hawthorne
4 years 20 days ago

Very True.

4 years 20 days ago

Yes. It’s easy to have passion for the idea of something and not be at all interested in the day to day work of it.

Joanne Tombrakos
4 years 20 days ago

As always, a thought provoking post. I think there are levels of passion and most of us, unfortunately feel none when it comes to our work. We think if it is work, we are not supposed to like it, nor do we deserve to. Our culture reinforces that. That said we wind up with too many of us who don’t take the time to think about what might drive us with some level of passion, or we know and we do nothing about it. Those generally seem to be the same people who look at those of us willing to… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

Turning that around, I often run into the problem that if I enjoy something that is obviously
part of my work, I still feel guilty devoting time to it because I would enjoy myself. It doesn’t feel like I’m working hard enough.

JamesHRH
4 years 19 days ago

Joanne – my father practised criminal law, in Canada (slightly different that US legal career). He practised over 50 years, loved what he did, but never used the word passion. He told me ‘it was the only thing I really thought I could accel at’ (likely untrue), that ‘it suited him in many ways’ (very true) and that he ‘liked it so much it did not feel like work’ (lucky). As Chris Rock says (and I doubt he has a passion for comedy, but you never know) ‘when you have a career, the first time you check the clock it… Read more »

jamesscottbell
4 years 20 days ago

Right on, Jane. It’s not the will to win that counts but the will to PREPARE to win. Easy to have the first, but not always the second. 

JamesHRH
4 years 19 days ago

That’s a Bear Bryant quote. Another good one, that is more specific to his sport is: “football games are won on Tuesdays (in practise), not on Saturdays (game day)”.

4 years 20 days ago

I’m witnessing this argument being made more and more. And the more I process it, the more I agree with it. It’s sad though. I still believe “passion” (as you/Herdegen define it) is a requisite element to realize fulfillment from one’s work. Therein lies the most grievous abuse of the word, me thinks… Namely, that passion – a powerfully inward, intrinsic and (dare I say) private quality for personal motivation and joy – has been forced (cough mutated cough) into an outward, manufactured and (dare I say) sensationalized quality meant to please the marketing gods. Like any precious resource, the more… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

I was a believer in that cultural myth…until about 3 minutes ago.  Thanks, Jane – I owe ya.

4 years 20 days ago

Love your thoughts and I agree. It’s easy to identify our passions but are we willing to take the steps toward being successful within our passion through discipline and commitment. Wonderful ideas to toss around with college students (we  currently have three in college – will be sharing). Thanks!

4 years 20 days ago

I think you raise a good point about the definition of passion. For a lot of people, it just means “I don’t think X sucks,” and that isn’t the same thing. Maybe the problem is that we are just a culture of very low bars. When I hear passion, I want to hear about people driving themselves off cliffs, in the Byronic sense of not being able to stop yourself. I hear this a lot from writers, who talk about being “born to write.” “I can’t not write, etc.” Well I can. I do it all the time. It’s called… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

You may be interested in the work of an evolutionary psych friend of mine, NYU prof Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (@sbkaufman and creativitypost.com), who writes on creativity and measures of success. He posts on the different things that go into success and recently did a post on self-control and intelligence with self-control mattering a great deal in achievement. 

4 years 20 days ago

You’re right Jane. Passion alone will not get much done. You’ve got to take action.

[…] morning I was reading Jane Friedman’s excellent post about the over-emphasis on passion, and it resonated deeply. Jane makes the case that our […]

Jan Morrill
4 years 20 days ago

I always enjoy the way you organize your thoughts in your post. You’re right, that passion has become such a buzz word, one naturally thinks that’s all it takes to be a success. But you said it all in your sentence, “What matters is how that translates into action.” Thanks again for a great post.

4 years 20 days ago

Finding an outlet for your talent, ability and then opportunity to train it, is what gives us satisfaction in life. Passion is fire that is hard to keep constantly going. It is only fed by outside circumstances and they differ day by day.

4 years 20 days ago

It’s thought provoking, I agree. For me, the minute something I like doing becomes work or my job, I stop liking it. So in a way, pursuing my passion might actually kill it. I have yet to discover if that’s true with my writing, but I sure hope it breaks the rule . . . I have a feeling it will and it’d stand and that drives me to my commitment.

4 years 20 days ago

Those are awesome questions to consider when discovering passion. I lose time in reading, writing, teaching conversations . . . when my kids or students get into the topic and we are surprised our time is up.
I have a friend who is passionate about dance . . .and her passion includes commitment, excellence, loss of time (she can dance and choreograph without stop for hours) and she is an amazing studio owner, teacher, and director. She has always had the confidance to follow her passion and it shows.

Miagolano
4 years 20 days ago

I don’t know that pursuing one’s passion necessarily leads to happiness, but then I’m not really clear on what happiness is (even for myself). I spent quite a few years pursuing my passion for poetry – reading and writing – and there were few moments of happiness. There were, however, moments of feeling connected with something outside my own head, moments of understanding, of heartbreak, grief, silliness, etc. In my former job I spent hours counseling students on pursuing their passion (in an effort to get them motivated for graduate school). In a few cases, I think I may have… Read more »

Anonymous
4 years 20 days ago

Hi there,  I’m new here.  I was with you 100% until this:”It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, (emphasis added) especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.” I don’t know — maybe you didn’t mean it this way, but this sounds a lot like an argument in favor of aiming for the middle.  It’s probably safe… Read more »

Anonymous
4 years 20 days ago

Hi there, I’m new here.  I was with you 100% until this: “It seems like the cultural myth these days is that we ought to be pursuing our passion; otherwise we will be unhappy. I’m not so sure that’s true any more. As long as we do work that feels satisfying—that complements our personal values and strengths—we can all do just fine, especially if we have relationships that are also fulfilling and satisfying.” I don’t know — maybe you didn’t mean it this way, but this sounds a lot like an argument in favor of aiming for the middle.  It’s… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

Found your blog on Twitter and I feel inspired already.  The word “passion” has become so cliche.  Though far less inspiring, one of my favorite words is “persistence.”

4 years 20 days ago

Thanks for bringing the subject up! In my small writing group, I am the keeper of the “seriosity” meter. It doesn’t measure passion, directly. It doesn’t even measure writing. It is a subjective measure (mine) of how much stuff our members offer up for publication. In that respect, it’s a measure of marketing. It means that passion is measured in terms of what you do after the writing is over. Passion is getting rejected twenty times, and then making another pitch…as if the first twenty gatekeepers were dead wrong!

Matthew Turner
4 years 20 days ago

great post Jane i think it certainly helps if you have a passion for something you do everyday, but take it from someone who has worked for a sport club supported from the age of 6 (hard core supporter too), working has certainly taken some of it away from me People should be wary about pursuing their passion for work unless it ticks several boxes Will it provide enough income? Are you talented enough to do it? How will it effect your daily life? Do you agree with ideals of the company, sector etc? You may enter for the right reasons, in… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

Excellent post, and touches on something I have been noticing in socialmediaville, and that is passion is being used as yardstick to measure suitability.  Suitability as a Friend or connection, or as desirability as a connection.  If you are passionate, you’re in, you’re good.  If you have been assessed as (somehow) lacking on the passion scale, then you’re not so in, you may even be suspect in some way.  So passion, as Matt comments here, has not only become externalized (and sensationalized) it’s become a commodity –  “Do you have passion?”,  “Do you?”  It’s resembles high school and being cool.  I suspect… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

I only recently came to associate the word “passion” with my writing, and for me it’s a breakthrough to apply it to anything, so my first reaction to this post’s title was strong!  But as I read the post, I saw that it’s addressed to people who easily use the word. It does seem as though the meaning is shifting, becoming broader or more general — and looking at the history of “passion”, I see that trend has been going on a long time.  Apparently it comes from a Latin word for suffering, and in particular from the word used… Read more »

[…] and writer Jane Friedman posted on passion on her blog recently, questioning the necessity oaf passion. As a university writing […]

4 years 20 days ago

What I’ve come to understand is that there are things that you choose to do, and there are things that you must do. I don’t mean must in the sense that you must eat, because everyone must eat. I mean must in the sense that you’d do it even at the expense of eating.  Occasionally there are things I must write. Mostly, there are things I choose to.  Either way, I feel well-used when I write, at least when the process is working. I wouldn’t use the word passion. But it’s different from wanting recognition or money, both of which… Read more »

4 years 20 days ago

I usually think about combining passion with purpose–as in the sense of mission. When people feel really passionate about something and have a sense that their passion relates to a life purpose, they get inspired…inspired to action. And they tend to commit to taking action to fulfill their purpose. That said, not too many people find both their passion and their purpose. When they do, though, the combination can lead to really powerful action and results. Taking action seems to be hard for a lot of people. I think there’s a fear factor involved–a sense of insecurity about moving forward… Read more »

Victoria Noe
4 years 19 days ago

In the book “Dear Me”, one of the celebrities writing a letter to their 16-year old self is Hugh Jackman. One of his observations was: find the 5 things you love and the 5 things you’re good at. When the two lists merge into one, that’s when you’ve found what you’re supposed to be doing (passion, I guess).

4 years 19 days ago

Well said.

Placing passion above all else and expecting it to pull you through the tough spots in life/work/career is like placing chemistry above all else in a relationship and expecting it to pull you through. Both ebb and flow. Compatibility is a better focus for both.

4 years 19 days ago

I’m so glad I followed a tweet by @Ornaross:disqus to get here.  Thank you!  You know, I’ve always felt this way, despite my inborn creative crazies and a big soft open heart. I think for many of us of a certain age, raised in a blue collar environment, passion wasn’t really categorized as a valued trait useful for self-promotion. Where I am passionate, it seems more like a reward of my own blessed life, an emotion I am lucky to feel, because I’ve experienced something incredibly moving. None of the people I have loved and admired in my life ever touted how they had a passion for anything, I… Read more »

4 years 19 days ago

Faith – I love that about devotion.  It brings to mind so much more than passion, at least for me. It conveys a sense of commitment, of perseverence, of sticking-with-it-ness, of something deeper and stronger than what is conveyed with the current use of the word passion.

4 years 19 days ago

Faith – I love that about devotion.  It brings to mind so much more than passion, at least for me. It conveys a sense of commitment, of perseverence, of sticking-with-it-ness, of something deeper and stronger than what is conveyed with the current use of the word passion.

Lauren Harris
4 years 19 days ago

I totally agree. I meet a lot of other aspiring writers

Lauren Harris
4 years 19 days ago

I totally agree. I meet so many other aspiring writers who have the desire, but not the commitment or willingness to make it higher priority than everything else. It’s frustrating to hear things like, “I wish I had the time to write a novel.” That infuriates me, because I make the time to write by taking it away from other things. I don’t watch much TV, I don’t play video games, and don’t spend a lot of my free time going out. I’m generally buckled down in a coffeeshop or at my desk.

So I agree: without commitment, passion is useless.

4 years 19 days ago

Funny! I touched on this in my talk at #WDC12 when I did a rather spontaneous interpretive dance of what a fit of passion typically looks like to illustrate how emotion is so good at throwing us off track, instead of helping us ground, center and focus our creativity.

Great minds…you know. 😉

4 years 18 days ago

Steve Jobs said that the Apple brand stood for “people with passion can change the world” 

The absence of passion leads to a pretty dull life.

Don’t let all the digital marketing people take the word passion from you. It’s far too important.

:)  great post though.  I’ll be far more judicious with my use for clients in the future.  

4 years 18 days ago

It’s true people with passion can change the world as Jobs said. But to me, “can” remains the key word there, more than passion. People with money, power, connections or ideas can also change the world. They can, but do they? Not always. Doing is the thing. Passion has to serve a purpose. I think its purpose is to fuel action. I still think not using the word in the beginning of a sentence that ends with “so that’s why I’m a great candidate for this job” or “so that’s why you should publish my article” is great advice! It’s not even a good answer… Read more »

4 years 18 days ago

You don’t win Idol if the only thing you have is passion – but you can also work exceptionally hard and have an incredible voice and lack of passion will definately make the difference between good and great.ps. i cannot believe you just made me use American Idol as an example. I feel dirty.
– posted via http://engag.io

[…] “Placing Too Much Importance on Passion,” Jane Friedman: So you’re really passionate about something? Who cares, Jane says: “What matters is how that translates into action.” […]

4 years 17 days ago

Too true!  I hear so many wannabe writers refusing to write unless they are impassioned.  Well, good luck, I say.  Maybe they’ll be writers in another lifetime.  Damn… there I go being too harsh again.

[…] the corporate setting the same message that Jane Friedman laid out for writers in her recent piece, Placing Too Much Emphasis on Passion. Friedman wrote: Passion plus commitment is not too common in my experience. More often you […]

[…] That never happened. And I’m glad it didn’t, because it wouldn’t have been enough. Nothing is ever really enough. (And talent or passion aren’t enough.) […]

Eden Mabee
3 years 10 months ago

I’m afraid that too often people mistake desire and joy  as “passion” and, in doing so, dilute the meaning of all three.  Just as all successful things (communities, organisms, buildings, industries, etc., rely on (at least) a few specialized elements, so does a successful career, be it in writing or selling hamburgers.  Passion should have a few elements, but that’s not what I see lately.

[…] surface it would appear to go against everything I’ve mentioned so far. The post is called Placing Too Much Importance on Passion. I found this post many, many months ago, but I bookmarked it because she brings some balance to […]

[…] recall one of Ether host Jane Friedman’s best posts being Placing Too Much Importance on Passion. It’s from early last year and in it, Friedman […]

[…] Another of my favorite colleagues, Jane Friedman (whom at times I’ve credited as “Porter’s Brain”) has written very compellingly about Placing Too Much Importance on Passion. […]

[…] Another of my favorite colleagues, Jane Friedman (whom at times I’ve credited as “Porter’s Brain”) has written very compellingly about Placing Too Much Importance on Passion. […]

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