How many times have you heard the following phrase related to not just creative endeavors, but just about any venture that requires human effort and will to accomplish?
“All you need is passion.”
Hearing this phrase always causes me to scratch my head. Because the way I understand passion, giving it control of any aspect of your life is like driving on a narrow road with a cliff to one side… and then giving the steering wheel to a crazy person.
What is Passion?
Passion is basically defined as a very intense emotion towards a person or thing.
It has served as the catalyst for a million stories. It gets human beings in more trouble than probably any other emotion we have in our cranial toolbox. And yet we’re drawn to its fickle power like moths to a flame.
There is a duality to it… passion can describe strong feeling of either love or hate. Because of its capricious nature, passion is often not far from either… a feeling can turn on a dime. What we love one minute, we might hate the next.
Passion is an unstable compound that is both hard to handle and dangerous. Like some kind of exotic fuel, it makes a loud sound while also making stuff go really fast for awhile. But like a combustible fuel source, it can also explode without warning. It also doesn’t tend to last at that speed… eventually it will burn itself out, stranding you in the middle of nowhere.
And yet, even with its many dangers and quirks, we seem to value passion as an essential ingredient of our creative business. Why?
Why We’re Crazy For (And Driven By) Passion
For those of us driven by our feelings, and a need to have feelings, passion is like an intoxicating drug. We seek after it like an addict. We feel that if we don’t have passion for what we’re doing, then it’s not worth doing at all. If we think this way, we’re likely to go through life constantly dissatisfied and always restlessly seeking.
Passion is much more sexy than the normal day to day existence. It gets attention. Chronic passion seekers hate boredom in any form, even if it’s boredom masquerading as peace and harmony. People who expect a constantly charged working environment where they are always inspired and motivated are going to have a tough time when it’s time to buckle down and work through problems… because when it gets difficult, they can’t hang in there and tough it out until the problem is worked through.
In the creative world, passion is considered a badge of honor. A popular belief is even if something didn’t succeed, at least you had passion for what you were doing. Many creatives work themselves into the ground, sacrificing their physical and emotional health, as well as their relationships, placing it all on the altar of passion.
There is an erroneous thought that in order for an artist to be a true artist, they have to place their emotional whims first. Many consider it a prerequisite. For centuries we have tolerated the harmful effects of unbridled passion from artists who claim that to temper their personalities would be compromising their core creative values.
In fact, not only is this tolerated, it is expected and valued. I have seen this even in the commercial world, where egotistical creative directors stand at the top of the creative food chain, dictating the course of the entire team carrying out the project. In the worst cases of artist-worship, the director is obeyed like a maniacal dictator, even if it means excessive overtime hours and cost overruns.
Passion is a Fickle Muse
The popularity of passion as a fuel source for creative output is misleading to artists who are just getting started. If they think that passion has to be present all the time, the will soon be disappointed. They will get into a project or long term job and run out of motivation, and then be lost as to what to do next. They may then slog through it in misery until the next job comes that they’re passionate enough about. Or, they may decide to follow their passion immediately and when it leaves, they leave to go find it again. This will soon leave them with a reputation of being flaky and hard to depend on.
Passion vs. Emotion
There is a difference between passion and emotion. While emotion can be simply described as a feeling, passion is feelings in overdrive. They are feelings that have been turbocharged to be stronger and more volatile.
Emotion in its many forms can be seen as the currency of art. Artists understand and wield the different creative tools at their disposal in order to express ideas through emotion. This is a good thing. But If emotion is the currency of art, giving passion priority is like playing the stock market. And like the stock market, there are drastic ups and downs. There is a titillating possibility of great gain, but at the expense of a great deal of uncertainty and wild fluctuation.
Can passion be controlled?
Okay, so I may have been a bit harsh on passion. I’m not saying we should not have passion at all. I’m also not saying it’s a bad thing… but like strong substances, it requires responsible handling if it is to be used properly.
So how do we use passion? Can we tame the beast? Can we harness its power without getting burnt, exploded, or immolated?
Putting passion in its place
What if we were to use passion for what it’s best at… quick results? In continuing with the analogy of passion as a volatile fuel source, there is a time when something needs to be kickstarted. We all need a strong push to get started with something, because it’s much more difficult to start from nothing than to start when something’s already in motion. So using passion for something as a way to get started is fine… as long as there’s a plan in place to continue after passion has already burned itself out.
Passion can also provide a little spark when we need it. Sometimes the day to day efforts of having a creative business or job can get tedious, and it’s important to be able to stop and reflect on why we started on that path in the first place. Many times a few minutes of thought on this is enough to get things going again. Other times, we may need to tap into inspirational sources to get things fired up. However, if we reach and there’s no passion left at all, then maybe it’s time to think about doing something different.
That may sound like a contradiction to what I said at the beginning of this article… didn’t I state that passion shouldn’t be the thing that steers the ship? Well, it shouldn’t be… but it also shouldn’t be completely absent. The total lack of passion for what you are doing should be a red flag that things have fundamentally changed for you relative to your current creative pursuits.
Passion can also be unleashed when it’s time to take a risk or find a new path… when you tap into it, you can find new insight into a creative problem. It can help get you unstuck and give you a little burst of inspiration when you need it.
Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.
– Yo-Yo Ma
Who’s In Control Here?
The main question to ask yourself is, “Do I control my passions…or do they control me?”
Those who are controlled by their passions are characterized by the following:
- They are difficult to trust
- They are flaky and undependable
- They don’t stay committed to a project for the long haul
- They change their mind frequently
- They are absolutely certain one moment but uncertain the next
These are characteristics that others see in creative people that give us a bad stereotype… and this is the kind of thinking (and resulting behavior) that holds us back. This is what keeps creatives out of true leadership positions and not in true control of our lives.
On the other hand, people who are in control of their passions, and know how to use them, are characterized by the following:
- They are innovative but responsible.
- They are creative yet dependable.
- They can think independently, yet work with a group.
- They are self-motivated but can also adhere to a common vision.
- They are full of new ideas but they are also consistent.
If any of the following statements about creatives who are in control of their passions sound like contradictions, they are not. They just put passion in its place.
Passion in Proper Proportion
If you’re having trouble comprehending this, think of the classic design principles of dominance vs. sub-dominance in a work of art, also referred to as the golden mean of composition. The dominant theme provides structure and form to the piece, but the sub-dominant one provides the excitement, the flavor, the uniqueness. It’s the same way with your creative business. The emotional charge of passion is essential… as long as it’s in a pleasing and manageable proportion to the rest of your art.
Don’t get me wrong… Passion has it’s place. In fact, some passion is absolutely essential. Buy it’s not everything. And it’s certainly not reliable enough to be the chief energy source for your creative business.
Deep Thoughts on Passions and You
As artists, it’s sometimes tough to think about taming those volatile emotions that we may have come to depend on for inspiration and motivation. But for those of you who do, all I ask is that you reflect on the following questions:
- Have your runaway emotions gotten you into trouble?
- Have you found yourself in the middle of a project and suddenly lost motivation?
- Have you gotten stuck in your art with no way to proceed, and then spiraled into depression as a result?
- Has it been said that you’re undependable, flaky, or difficult to work with?
If any of those apply to you, then you may be putting passion in the driver’s seat too often. Seek out the reasons why this is the case, and if there are underlying problems or issues there, make it a priority to deal with those. You may even need to seek professional help if it’s too much to handle on your own.
Artists do society no good when they’re on an unsustainable path – and a creative career driven by passion is unsustainable.
I wish only the best for you and your creative endeavors. May you start each day motivated, find adventure and excitement in creative work you love, and be able to sleep soundly at night. May you be able to surround yourself with people who can say with certainty that you have your priorities in place while still being astoundingly creative and proficient.
What are your thoughts on this article? Please share them with me and with the rest of the creative community of Artist Myth readers in the comments section below. I’d love to hear them!
All the best –
Passion is a good jump-start position but trying to sustain a career based solely on passion doesn’t work. I wrote an article about this subject recently. Take a look: http://alturl.com/9rn8j
You’re absolutely correct, Wendy. I wholeheartedly agree! Passion is great for kindling, but alas, it doesn’t really sustain a burn for the long term.
Great article, by the way, thanks for sharing it! You have a great blog as well, very well written.