In Deep Creativity, I identified passion as one of six qualities associated with creative inspiration. To lead a life of inspiration, it helps to find the people and things you’re passionate about so that you can you can immerse yourself and be inspired by them.
A recent study coming out of Yale and Stanford has opened up a new public debate about passion, at least as it pertains to careers and the workplace. The debate revolves around this question: Is it better to follow an existing passion or to learn how to cultivate a new one? The researchers conclude that people are better off learning how to develop their passion as opposed to just following it. One of the investigators, Paul O’Keefe, explains, “Parents, teachers, and employers might get the most out of people if they suggest that interests are developed, not simply found. Telling people to find their passion could suggest that it’s within you just waiting to be revealed. Telling people to follow their passion suggests that the passion will do the lion’s share of the work for you.”
From what I have observed and experienced in the past three decades, both sides of the debate are correct: Passion has to be found AND cultivated. You are unlikely to cultivate a passion for something that does not interest you or that you may even find repulsive. For example, I have never been drawn to microeconomics. That might change if someone close to me is passionate about the topic. Their passion could rub off on me to a certain extent, because nothing is more infectious than passion. For years, I have tried to adhere to the following philosophy when it comes to the people in my life: Show me what you love, and I will love it. That is not always easy to do, but I consider it to be a wonderful challenge.
Throughout my teaching career, I have often asked students about their areas of passion. One of the things I discovered is that most of them could not answer simple questions like this: What do you love to do? What excites you? Where does your passion lie? It could be that college students just assume their professor wants to know about their career choices, like most other adults in their lives. Or they may feel uncomfortable telling their professor about their passion for sex, drugs, music, or video games. But I also wonder if perhaps some of them have never given these kinds of questions much thought because nobody ever asked them.
The researchers in the Yale-Stanford studies seem to have assumed that passion is static and that identifying an existing area of passion requires relatively little effort. I think that neither of these assumptions is right. For me, connecting with passion is a daily occurrence. Every morning, when I wake up, I ask myself: What am I most passionate about today? That can change from day to day. I feel that if I follow what I am passionate about today, it will lead me to what I am passionate about tomorrow.
The thing that evokes passion in you does not have to be huge or Earth-shattering. Smaller passions can open the door to bigger ones. So, just start with the tiny, simple pleasures. Right now, I am excited about writing this blog and about the fresh cauliflower that I am munching. When I throw myself into these passions, they draw my awareness fully into the present moment, which is where I want to live. That is where inspiration lies. Later today, I will give myself over to whatever is in front of me then: an afternoon bike ride, my sweetheart’s soft kisses, or finding just the right gift for my father’s upcoming birthday.
Cultivating passion means fanning a flame that is already burning inside of you. Maybe that flame is nothing more than a flickering ember right now, but that is enough. A raging inferno usually starts off as something small and weak. We all know that a smoldering cigarette butt can be enough to burn down an entire forest.
Stay open to new areas of passion. Be willing to try something you never have before, without any prejudgment or expectation. The whole world is filled with people and things that can inspire love and joy in your heart. You can focus on negative forms of passion, like hate and anger, if you choose. These can be powerful motivators, but they are rarely beneficial to you or anyone else. I have known a few people who turned anger into a force for good in their lives, but I have also seen too many others lose control of their anger until it crippled or destroyed them.
Inspiration often starts with the littlest of things. Find those tiny passions, give them room to grow, and let them take you to new heights. When you follow AND cultivate these small passions, they will steer you towards exciting new avenues of exploration. Every major development and breakthrough in my life began because I was passionate about something or someone. Even the most seemingly frivolous trivial thing can make a difference if you open yourself to it. So I say: Long live passion!
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