This post originally appeared on LinkedIn, August 16, 2016.
For a good many years now, we have been severely admonished by an assortment of social network peers, life coaches, mentors, therapists, leadership gurus - and a wide array of experts in the field of human resources management, that we need to follow our passions. If only we find out what it is precisely that we are passionate about, so the popular mantra goes, we will be able to choose a meaningful pathway through life, or make a career choice destined to deliver us into the blissfull nirvana of all-encompassing fulfillment.
Now I think this is a particularly unsavoury and blatantly ill-begotten piece of advice.
Most adamantly - now that I have reached a stage in life in which I am granted the space to blend my youthful enthusiasm with the lesser wisdoms of a slightly riper age, and now that I am equipped with a rather longish horizon of passed events to look back on - I would like to confess, here and now, that I have never ever followed anything at all in my life - and least of all my passions.
For passions are notoriously narrowing emotions.
Let us be clear: If you are passionate about a certain thing or idea and you are advised to go for just that, you will be ready to go through great lenghts in order to make your dream come true. This is a well-studied and amply described phenomenon in motivational studies.
What or who will you let stand in your way?
Take Abdulaziz, the guy from marketing who was in your cross-functional project team last month. He is so passionate about realizing a certain vision of how society should look like and be like. Go for your passions, his outplacement consultant said. He did. Look at him. He is on a bus, on the highway through Anatolia, heading for the Syrian border, his mind singularly set on the globalisation of paradise in Raqqa.
Take Susan, the girl down the alley. She is so passionate about looking like a Barbie doll and living in a Barbie doll world. Go for your passions, her teacher, meaningfully, said. She did. Look at her. She is in a hospital's pediatric ward, forcibly being submitted to nasogastric intubation, with her mother nail-biting in the corridor, wishing so hard to get back her erstwhile healthy and delightfully playful little daughter.
Take Anders, that brilliant looking boy in the school's debating club. He is so passionate about his community being threatened by the non-indigenous, having come to his homestead for whatever reason and now claiming equal rights and opportunities and citizenship. Temper your mind and go for your passions instead, his school mentor said, a wee bit worried. Make up your mind and go for your passions, the voice on the Internet repeated with every whatsapp message appearing on his smartphone screen. And so he took the advice of both. Look at him now. He is walking the street and loading his gun and aiming at his target. Watch out.
Or just take Anna, ray of sunshine at the office. She is so passionate about doing something with people. Go for your passions, the recruiter, and later her manager said. Now look at her. She leads a team in your company. She is really going all the way. Giving it every single spark. Yet, sadly, she is no leader and it looks as if she never will be. Her team is deserting her. The poor thing fell into the Peter Principle trap, her colleagues whisper - with contempt - and readying to take her place.
Indeed. If you follow your passions, you will only ever get where you already were before. If you allow your passions to thrust you forward, you will merely discover what you already knew. If you permit your passions to guide you through life, you are bound to remain within a confined space of predictables and find yourself boxed inside a limited number of points of view.
The problem is not so much with being passionate about something, the problem is with nuturing a desire to only do and solely discover and merely see the world in that perspective. The problem is with following your passions.
The narrow-minded, the fundamentalists, the extremists: those are the passionate people who follow their passions. The dilettantes, the charlatans, the self-proclaimed geniuses, the deluded: those are the passionate people who follow their passions.
The wise are those who bridle their passions. Because the road ahead contains a myriad of incertitudes, unknowns, possibilities, opportunities, unexpected choices, promises and off-track chances for development.
Are you a parent? - If your child is passionate about people, help her discover mathematics and physics. If he is into nature and biology, feed him with the wonders of technology and engineering. If he is singularly addicted to Bollywood did-you-know-thats, feed him Satyajit Ray and Michelangelo Antonioni. If she is into video gaming, make her climb a mountain and lean into the wind on the summit.
Of course your child is passionate about play with peers of her own age group and from her own community. All the more reason to create a world for her in which to share her insights with the other: the aged, the elderly, the wise - and preferably those coming with another culture, an alternative belief system, and an at first sight incomprehensible set of values.
The wise are those who go through life with a mind open to any event or idea that might come their way - those with the talent to be enthusiastic about anything at all, and with the skill to deflate their passions and see that the passionless space beyond is where one learns the most, where the real thing is happening and where the genuine attraction is hidden.
Do not find your passion, lest your passion takes hold of you.
Instead: Mingle with the wise, create for yourself and the others a genial environment, groom discipline on the way to erudition and skill, always have words pleasantly spoken, tend your parents, treasure otherness in the other, nurture unconditional respect and kindness as key, exercise liberality and righteousness.
In lieu of steadily searching to realize your passions: practise virtue, dignity, humility, contentment, gratitude, patience, courtesy, austerity.
With a mind broad and open, but unruffled when touched by worldly happenings, one learns to be free from being passionate, from raising passions in others, from experiencing sorrow and from causing pain.
And this state, passionless and secure, is for sure the highest blessing.
Anything. Go for anything at all. But by no means follow your passion.
Abdulaziz, Susan, Anders and Anna are fictional names. Their stories are merely meant to illustrate my point. The concluding recipe of advices is partly inspired by mahamangalasuttam (suttanipata 2,4).