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Why your passion is not enough.

Friday, January 13, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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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.



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16 Responses to "Why your passion is not enough."

  1. Svasti says:

    Really, I can’t wait until OTM training makes it to Melbourne!

    I feel the call to serve, deeply. I just don’t know how. This post is wonderful food for thought. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Claire P says:

    Hhhmmmmmmmmhmmmmmmm…… so much truth here. Thank you!!

    My intentions/qualities/sankalpas for 2012 are the ideas of ‘humility’ and, I eventually realized, it’s ying-yang opposite and therefore essence, ‘infinity’, infinite possibility.

    Dan Pink argues that a pre-condition for SUSTAINED passion or ‘drive’ is ‘mastery’: which is NOT actually a place you ever reach, but a process you commit to being in for ever for the rest of your life. To work at getting better and better at something that matters to you. Forever. Humbly. Infinitely!

    To come to the mat each time with enough humility to remain genuinely curious and present, and to note and work towards a deeper/more refined/more fully embodied/more appropriate experience of the asanas. Infinitely. Infinite possibility!

    To come to the mat, or the canvas, or the students in your class, or the flood crisis you are working within, or the operating table, or your kid’s latest meltdown moment, or the piano, or the laptop or or or….Etc. Extrapolate, the same idea applies with every passion.

    Mastery. Yes. It calls for humility and offers infinity within that. This, I believe!


  3. Mark says:

    I believe like Claire. Following my passion over and over again returns to being an adventure in recursive humility. ~ Mark

  4. Christen says:

    Wonderful post. It makes me think of the broken hearts strewn around the world from passionate people who got crushed by the process of trying to follow their passion without knowing how.

    I’m thinking particularly of a well-known organization that uses short-termers, and basically tosses them into the deep end without adequate preparation or support.

    Young, passionate people want a place to do something now. But many of the places that they can access “now” are not the places that have the most impact, and some do more harm than good, as you said. I wish for more places that can take those young people under their wings to help them do good and not get crushed in the process.

  5. Mary says:

    You make some excellent points, Marianne, and I agree with you completely. The world is blessed to have your contributions.

  6. What a provocative discussion, Marianne.

    I love your call for integrating all these aspects in the making of our dream. Skill allows intention to become manifest. I feel that true passion has depth and takes you on that road of skill building and mastery. Otherwise it is not passion. Passion requires sacrifice, sacrifice of all the inessential. I remember all the all-nighters (countless) I pulled in Architecture school. Yes it was a sacrifice, thought it was made of sweat flowing with love and intention. I love the way you end with a blessing:

    “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.”

    Beautiful. May it be so, for the benefit of all. Namaste.

  7. Amen!! Beautifully and powerfully put.

  8. Abbie says:

    I love this post, and it’s full of so many truths.

  9. I can’t remember who it was that said often cynics are passionate people who have had their hearts broken.

    Seems likely.

    If we focused a little more on honing our skills/craft, maybe we would get our hearts broken a bit less, and be able to stay open longer.

    Good reminder and something I think about – balancing the apparently open playing field of the internet for the passionate amateur with the need to not do harm…


  10. Mary Parker says:

    I so totally agree with this post. Blind passion in our professional lives (as it is with love as well) is wonderful but can be destructive and dangerous. Recognising when passion is upon us, then breathly deeply and channelling it for good – now there’s a skill. (And probably one that can be aided by yoga I’m guessing!)

  11. Sara says:

    THIS is powerful. I agree completely. Thank you.

  12. Kimberley says:

    Great and insightful post, Marianne. You see so many young passionate hopefuls going along every year to those reality singing shows, only to have their hopes dashed because they’re just not that good at what they are passionate about. There’s this belief that if you believe enough you’ll have everything you want. Just have faith, we’re lead to believe. Er, no. Add ‘work hard’.

  13. maggie doyne says:

    one of my favorite posts ever from you!!! xo

  14. megg says:

    Oh Marianne, I loved this. Loved. it.

    Thank you.


  15. pcat says:

    This is so true. I get tired of people who think that just having the passion is enough – it does require work and seriousness to put you in the place where you can best use your passion, where you are most likely to have the stroke of luck you need. just having passion without doing the work, sometimes making sacrifices, makes you into a victim when the world doesn’t respond as you wish, when doing the work gives you the power you deserve. So well said, Marianne!

  16. […] written about this before, the fact that your passion – alone – is not enough. Not enough for what? Not enough to shape your mission and your sense of purpose, and not enough to […]

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