This week I had dinner with friends. She’s the casting director for The Hobbit movie. He’s the man who created Gandalf’s nose and King Kong’s hair and who invented the process by which the Navi in Avatar had such extraordinarily life-like faces. These two are, as you might imagine, passionate about their work.
So you might be surprised to learn that our conversation was about the fact that passion is not enough. Nor is enthusiasm. Or persistence. Or even good intentions.
As the woman who is at the receiving end of many thousands of impassioned emails, letters and parcels making that case that 16 year old Pierre of France is, in fact, the incarnation of Gloin, or that 58 year old Ravn of Norway is the very epitome of Aragorn, my friend has some idea of the power of passionate persistence.
What she also knows, however, is that passionate persistence will not get you a part in The Hobbit. Not unless you are a skilled professional actor (she does make an exception for children) represented by a reputable agent.
I’ve been thinking about the limits of passion lately because I see the same thing come up in all the spheres of my life.
In humanitarian and aid work it takes the form of the debate about the potentially harmful impact of enthusiastic amateurs in the aid sector, and the mantra that ‘good intentions are not enough’, which I’ve written about here before. Just as passionate persistence without professional skills won’t get you a part in The Hobbit, good intentions without skillful means may not do the good intended. In fact, it may even do considerable harm to the very people it is trying to help.
In writing and publishing, we talk about building our online platform, and using tools like Twitter to connect with agents and publishers. All of which is good (and helped me find both my agent and my publisher), but are we directing as much emphasis and energy to the practice and craft of writing? I know in my own case it often isn’t.
In yoga, the potentially harmful impact of passionate persistence without appropriate skill was explored in an article in the New York Times this week. While the article, in my opinion, unfairly emphasised the risks of yoga without explaining that any well-trained, professional yoga teacher will take precautions to ensure that every student in their class is safe, it does make the very valid – and important – point, that yoga practice without skillfulness may do as much harm as good.
Over dinner this week I proposed to my passionate friends that there is an over-emphasis – in contemporary, popular thought – of the value of passion and perseverance. People are being sold the idea that if they feel passionately enough about [their writing/saving lives in Haiti/Peter Jackson’s films] then all they need do is follow their passion, and never give up.
And I don’t think that’s true. I think people are being sold short.
They are putting their time and energy into sending their unpolished manuscript to publishers whose websites clearly state that they do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Or they’re sending their tenth email to the casting director for The Hobbit, telling her that she clearly doesn’t understand how passionate they are about the book. They’re setting up new not-for-profits that replicate the work of existing, more experienced organisations, or sending second-hand shoes to a country where local shoe-makers need the work themselves.
Their persistence is NOT translating into them making the changes they are passionate about. The things they want to say are not being heard by the people who they passionately want to communicate with. Why? Because they lack the skill to know the best way to translate their passion into effective action.
Which is not to say that passion and perseverance are unimportant. They are essential. But passion + persistence have to be employed with skill.
Skill doesn’t have to require a masters degree in fine art, or development studies. It may be as simple as checking the publisher/casting director/not-for-profit’s website before you hit send on that email. It might be as humble as accepting that when they say “We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts/resumes/gifts in kind” it does apply to you.
It’s means doing your research. Studying your chosen field. Finding, and learning from, a skilled teacher or mentor. This applies as much to the processes by which your work gets done in the world as well as to the craft of the work itself.
Passion and perseverance need to be directed towards something. They need to be directed towards becoming more and more skillful.
This morning I sat in on a yoga class taught by a friend, a teacher whose technical skills I deeply respect. After class I asked her to explain to me exactly what I should be looking for in one particular pose, what common misalignments I should be aware of, and how to teach the pose safely. Every week I read new articles about developments in human rights, humanitarian and development assistance. I’m always learning, always testing my theories, always exploring new debates.
And when it comes to writing, like yoga, I practice every day. My aspiration is to develop increasingly skillful means to communicate through my writing and to serve through my teaching.
The challenges facing our planet are not trivial. The opportunities to tell new stories and find new solutions to old problems are unprecedented.
The world needs your contribution.
May you find your passion. May you build your stamina. And may you become increasingly skillful, so that you make the unique contribution that only you can make in this world.