2020 is almost over. Here’s what I learned about “Passion”.

Personal takes (some researched) on Passion; let this be a guide to 2021.

elieve it or not, there are two kinds of babies born to this world: the ones which are told “Follow your passion”, and the ones whose fates have already been sealed and labelled. After those babies grow up, one group of people, hence, are told to follow a certain path, and they’ll earn bliss, while the rest of them are guided to a certain destination, which can be a lesser peak than the former group or higher. Nevertheless, we observe, that it is always the latter group who gets to enjoy the walk.

The word “Passion” is of Latin origin. Its root is “pati ”— Latin for “suffer”. This word is frequently used these days in a multitude of books and speeches. But never we thought that the word has got a root which is quite the opposite to our idea of what passion is. There is almost no career guidance program which does not speak of this word. Every self-help guru puts quotes and quotes to make the word never leave our “consciousness”. Van Gogh’s quote “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke” is frequency cited in many books, and speeches. So clearly, this word has an immense significance to one’s life.

What is “Passion”?

One close definition I could extract from Merriam Webster was “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept”. Oxford’s got a very similar definition: “a very strong feeling of liking something; a hobby, an activity, etc. that you like very much”. We observe the term “strong”, is common. Thus, in order to cultivate passion, one must have a strong desire to an entity — be it a person, an object, or a career. Now, shall we go a little bit far, as Van Gogh did, and replace the term strong with burning? Steve Jobs put forth the quote “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”. The terms strong and burning give us a magnitude of the sense of intensity. This magnitude is differed in the aforementioned point of views. The former gives sort of a solid, gritty and long-term feeling while the latter gives us a highly-motivated, intensive, and tempting feeling to act.

In spite of the textbook definitions, we already have some idea on what the term “Passion” actually mean. If I am not prompted with multiple textbook definitions, I would have explained the word in a similar way that most people do — a burning, never ending and highly productive desire to drive through to a specific, profitable and effective goal. This may depend on the context (environment — culture and relationships— that you live in), but nevertheless, the term passion heightens sort of an intense desire to pursue a worthy goal. Specially if you’re in a corporate environment, and you’re bombarded with a plenty of self-help jargon, this might be evident to you more than enough.

The Longevity

When it comes to goals, there are long term goals and short term goals. They form a hierarchy — a binary tree-like structure — where the short term goals are the leaves of the tree and the one grand long-term goal is the topmost node. The tree is all about the levels of abstraction — down you go (i.e. to the leaves) you get less abstraction i.e. more specificity in the goals. The low-level goals (leaf-level goals) are aligned in a way that they help you to attain the goal at the topmost node.

It’s December already. 2020 is almost gone. It’s high time to evaluate the goals we had set at the beginning of 2020. How many of them you can tick off (i.e. completed), and how many of them you cannot (i.e. not completed)? I was graduated from the university at the beginning of 2020, and my topmost node at the goal-tree was to cultivate my skills (both technical and non-technical) so that I could compete my older self and topple my older self by a quite significant margin. I’m certain I have achieved my top-level goal, because I have a habit of keeping track by writing an article on how the year went at the end of the year. I can compare myself with my older self, and I’m way above my older self.

Now, if we traverse down our goal trees, we can find more specificity in the goals, and we can reminisce the extents to which the mid and lower level goals helped us to achieve the topmost node(s). And if we couldn’t achieve the topmost level, we can find out why. When I traverse my goal tree, I find one node which I failed to even look at when the year 2020 progressed on. I am quite adept at music (well, not proficient but I feel I have some sort of a born-skill set towards it; this was evident to me specially in my younger days when I used to play the violin — many of my teachers used to say that I was quite skilled. I’ve never played the violin since I was 15), and I resolved to practice guitar finger-style patterns (not the violin). I did practice it at the beginning of 2020 for a month, and it did not became a habit, since it was replaced by reading. I love to read, and I am constantly on the “50 books a year” challenge. But still, I wanted to practice the guitar, and the lack of it made some aspects of my topmost goal fail. That is, I cannot challenge my older self because my older self was miles better at aesthetics than I am now.

We’re not bad at resolving on to something. We all are quite good at setting goals. In fact, we all make goals on the 1st of January every year, and when we reconcile them at the end of the year, we find loopholes. Therefore, it is evident that enthusiasm is common in setting goals. We all get pumped up when we set the goals. But the endurance it takes to achieve the goals is the most striking aspect most of us lack. If we define Passion as the enthusiasm (the intense feeling we get when we set the goals) at the beginning of a goal, it is an inept definition. As Angela Duckworth states in her book “Grit”:

“Fireworks erupt in a blaze of glory but quickly fizzle, leaving just wisps of smoke and a memory of what was once spectacular …. Instead, passion [should be regarded] as a compass — that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.”

Intensities that “quickly fizzle” —like sudden rushes of dopamine — shall not be regarded as passionate enterprises. Instead, we must regard the term Passion as a long-term endurance, a constant struggle to achieve something which challenges us to our very core but still does not lead us astray from the topmost goal. The longevity of the effort we put, is what defines how passionate you are towards the goal. The graph of effort against time should be a constant vertical line at best (better if it has got a positive gradient). When our goals lead us to dead-ends (they will), it seems that Passion is the only genuine agent that takes us aback and encourages us to push on. One cannot simply say that another is passionate towards something if he/she has not seen the other fail in the goal at least once. I think this is how the word was formed, and this is why the word’s root is “pati” (i.e. to suffer).

On “Follow your passion”

I am in that category which people are born with their fate labelled. This is the primary reason why I took my advanced level examinations twice — to achieve my label. I had no idea which stream of Engineering I was to take (our university had 8 streams), so I took the one which was there in my label. Quite spontaneously (miraculously), the stream I chose fitted me and ultimately I became passionate towards it. It did not fit me perfectly; I had to work hard (very hard) to get the basics right, as most of my colleagues had done courses before the university. It made me a Geek, and I’m proud of being a Geek because of — as I call it — the “cultivated passion”. It involves reading what other people had done constantly, how other people think and design their codebases and appreciating them, what alternative technologies you can use, how the trending technologies work, doubting the existing codebases (and sometimes get scolded for it), and reading books on subjects where one can learn them through an easy online-course. These subtleties made me desire the work more that I refused a high-paying employment just to be in the framework I made to achieve my goals, and I never regret the decision one bit.

The continuous utterance “Follow your passion”, heeds differently in different contexts. In certain circumstances, people cannot afford to find their passion, and they have to resolve into something much less — or something of a higher status but something they don’t want to do. On the other hand when opportunities are plenty, it might also be difficult to find one pursuit. My situation was more towards the latter, but not entirely the latter. However, as they say, “you cannot always get what you want”. Now I trod on grounds where Self-Help books abolish you from stepping into. Nevertheless, it’s true. Setting a goal, and achieving it is one thing, but thinking you can achieve all the goals is another. Not everybody has to become a Steve Jobs; not everybody has to become an Elon Musk. If you look at the two personalities, one has traits that the other does not have. I think, in my experience from what I have observed (my colleagues and from what I have read), this is one reason why Passion falters: having too much diversity in goals, thinking that you can achieve all your goals, and expecting short-term fireworks.

There are people who once faced dire circumstances but climbed out of the pit precisely because of the unending persistence they had because they had cultivated passion towards some enterprise. They came out because they did not expect short-term fireworks. They always believed that it would take time, and it was those dire backgrounds that made them persistent. Quite often, people in the pit have one selfless long-term goal — no multitudes of diverse goals. Their intentions are not for an individual, but for a whole community. Hence, their passions are backed by an entire community than one individual. Therefore when one climbs out, he carries a whole society with him. That passion never runs out — it always recovers.

It is thus evident that the utterance Follow your passion is easily said than done. There are a lot of signals at play, when you try to find your passion. It’s not as straight-forwards as the Self-Help books depict.

Simon Sinek’s take on Self-Help

My Key Takeaways

2020 was a pivotal year for my career. I was not alone. I saw my colleagues step into their careers as well. I saw some of my colleagues pursue different goals than I do, which is a good thing. Some went for entrepreneurship, some — like me — went straight for organizations to work, some went abroad for higher studies (and work) and some stayed in University as grad students. It has been over 10 months we’ve been at our careers — a short term and very long days to come. How we’ve spent our post-university life might be the same for each profession we’ve been in the 10 months, but I think how that time affected each and everyone of us is completely distinct for each of us. All of us, at the start of our university, were told the same “Follow your Passion” story. When I think of it, it seems that how each of us reacted to differing circumstances in the past 10 months emphasizes and heightens our passion towards the work that we do. I know people who worked around the clock but still hold their work to the highest standard, never complain (A healthy discussion is not a complaint) and in fact, rebut the naysayers. I also know people who directly told me that what they do now is not what they wanted to do and thus it seems impossible for them to cultivate the effort it requires. I regard the former group of people as equipped with the highest form of grit which aids passion to cultivate among themselves. The latter did not fail at work they do. But for them, it seems it is not possible to continue in the long run, which would cause strain and fatigue onto their own careers. Quite often, the latter group are subsets of the “labelled” group we’ve discussed before.

Millennial Talk — Sinek

We are from the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996). The traits of Millennial generation generally come from the attitudes towards what we do. Quite often, as we’ve discussed before, we expect quick fireworks, which do not happen in the real world. We want quick success. I think the term passion is paradoxical when it is used with quick outcomes. It demands long-term stances, arduous effort and strong will. It seems that Passion is a recovery agent, a compass, but not a genie in a bottle that suddenly pops.

Software Engineer, CSE Graduate @ University of Moratuwa