We should stop telling ourselves to follow our passion. Passion has no GPS signal.

By March 22, 2019 No Comments

[This is inspired by Rich Roll’s conversation 429 with Steve Magness & Brad Stulberg]

I attribute it to middle age. My antennas have become finely attuned to picking up certain “drop-everything-and-leave-the-scene” signals. Much like Google alerts, I have my own key words —sentences— that set off loud internal alarms. At the top of the list come “clear your mind” and “follow your passion.” For those meditation and yoga teachers trying to help their students find mental space, suggesting to them to clear the mind is like telling someone morbidly obese to lose weight, or someone with a drug addiction to stop taking drugs. [No shit Sherlock. Thank you for this breaking news.] “Follow your passion” is the hot one of the moment as students prepare to graduate, commencement speeches are drafted, and inspirational quotes are carved into wooden plaques.

To Sherlock the middle-aged cynical “I” says: passion has no GPS signal. You need to divert.

I remember reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic a few years ago and being truly intrigued with her thesis that great ideas were floating around in the stratosphere waiting —searching— for the right host environment to signal. It made sense and served me for a good number of years. I often caught myself visualizing my brain literally opening up and extending a hand from the crown of my head to ideas floating around me. It has worked a few times. Those ideas that fell out of my grasp did end up finding refuge in the minds of others. Careers around me flourished. Books were written. Podcasts launched. Empires built.

I am over it today. I don’t believe passions —nor ideas— are outside of me and I certainly don’t believe they need to be chased. A passion is cultivated from within by doing very unglamorous work consistently over a lifetime or more.

I had the good fortune of launching my latest venture —which may or may not have been an idea floating in the air— with a conversation with Maen Odeh, one of two Jordanians who made it to US college basketball [the legal way, with no bribes or photoshopped pictures and a pair of worn out basketball shoes worn for years]. Maen was also the talent who scored Jordan’s winning basket in the last second to qualify Jordan for the first time in its history in a team sport for any World Cup event. (Very recently, Jordan’s national basketball team qualified for the World Cup for the second time.) Our conversation was about passion and the lessons learned along the way.

Maen’s story is extraordinarily ordinary. From a young age, he was obsessed with playing basketball. He “chased” his passion with fervour, at the expense of his education and health. Eventually, he was confronted with the sobering reality of losing the passion signal: eroded knees and a skill not good enough for the NBA. Fortunately for him, and my point for writing this blog, it was the work, the ethic, and the discipline every day off the basketball court that was slowly paving the way for his new life that wasn’t “chased” but “cultivated.”

Interestingly, the meaning and use of the word “passion” itself today is very different from the origin of the word. It comes from the Latin root patior which means “to suffer”. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that its use gave it the new meaning of desire and took the suffering out of it —at least on the surface.

I am wondering if part of my disillusionment with the current concept of passion is that it has been deeply attached to outcome. Middle age has shown me that outcomes are never guaranteed no matter how fast or hard we chase them. Take Maen’s story as an example. In chasing his passion, he overlooked the day-to-day process. So too did his coaches, teachers, and mentors. When that door was shut in his face, he dropped basketball —and sports— all together.

I learn so much about life from athletes. I have always said that I believed an athlete is a frame of mind. Athletes have a work ethic that resembles none. The stronger the work ethic, the better the athlete in the human sense regardless of wins and achievements. This is the essence of the cultivation process that is so unique. When coaches, teachers, and mentors lose sight of the day-to-day ethic, commitment, discipline, and pure love  —and only focus on the result, the athletes cannot be blamed for dropping their “passion.” Skill is a natural by-product of those 10,000 hours of work that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The Outliers, in which he argues everyone can be an outlier with 10,000 hours clocked in.

The work ethic, discipline, and cultivation process are the passion incubator that nurtures awakened, connected, inspired, passionate humans who can impact the world. The rest are race dogs chasing a stuffed rabbit. Eventually, they stop and realize the rabbit is not real and their knees are busted.

Basketball drilled into Maen a work ethic, discipline, leadership, and service to others while his eyes were on the height of his jump and the speed of his legs. When he stopped and looked in the mirror, he saw a team player, a role model, and dedicated player whose services were needed off the NBA court.

As my daughter returns her library books and closes her high school chapter, I want her to know there is nothing to chase outside herself. There are no rabbits or ideas she needs to grab. I want her to work, work really hard. The choices she makes every real, non-Instagram day cultivate the passion and the ideas that reside in her heart and mind. The clearer (and cleaner) she is, the brighter they are. That’s all.

Start with the dishes, I tell her. Wash dishes like you are the best washer in the world. And when you rest your head on your pillow at night, sleep with a smile on your face because you did your best. Then start over the next day.

My other piece of advice would be to run like mad if anyone suggests to you to clear your mind or follow your passion. Your mind does not need clearing, it needs you to acknowledge its existence and commend its work ethic. And your passion? It is right there in your heart waiting for you to get on your feet and wash dishes.


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