The pursuit of passion (part I)

May 22, 2014, 12:43 a.m.

This is the first installment of a two-part op-ed, and the second part ran the next day. You can read it here.

The word “passion” is thrown around without much thought. Young people, especially Stanford students, are expected to have a passion—whatever that means—that clearly defines their motivations, decision-making and ultimately, their lives. Warren Buffet repeatedly tells college students, “Find your passion in life and never stop pursuing it. If you haven’t found it yet, don’t stop searching.” Steve Jobs famously implored students during his 2005 Stanford Commencement address, “You’ve got to find what you love…the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”

The narrative that we are told—for many of us beginning at an early age—is that passion is the only road to happiness in our careers. Find a passion—and then find an occupation that matches that passion. We lionize the great iconoclasts of the modern era who built empires by pursuing their passions. If only we can find our true passion, the narrative goes, then inevitably, happiness, contentment and success will follow. This is the American dream, we are told. This is the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On the surface, passion appears to have a relatively simple definition: something you want to do because it brings you joy. Most often, the term “passion” is found in phrases such as “find your passion” or “do you have a passion?” However, these are loaded phrases that carry a variety of connotations and meanings. Throughout this discourse, I will employ a working definition of passion as an obsession, infatuation or ardent pursuit of a certain interest, activity or goal.

In order to dig deeper, I positioned myself in Starbucks, buying random people drinks in exchange for conversation. I began by asking my new friends what they thought passion was. The responses initially focused on how a passion should bring you immense joy—an activity that you want to engage in regardless of pay. However, as the discourse between us developed, the definition of passion became muddier. One person noted that he “feels passionately about many things” but thought that “feeling passionately” is different from having a passion.

Additionally, when I asked my conversation partners to describe someone in their lives who had a passion, they described a person whose life was consumed by it. These people were focused, determined and willing to place their passion ahead of all other commitments. So the question remains: Is “passion” born out of something more than just an emotional attachment to a favorite hobby?

The word passion is derived from the Latin stem “pati,” which means “to suffer or endure.” If we look at the decisions and patterns displayed by those who we believe to have an obsessive pursuit, we can see a theme of sacrifice and suffering as a result of prioritizing that passion over everything else. It is clear, for example, that Olympic athletes, or aspiring Olympic athletes, make daily sacrifices in order to reach their goal. Their training, sleep schedules and constant work ethic take priority over social life, comfort food and other hobbies. The amount of obsession and dedication a person gives towards an activity or goal is indicative of how important it is to them.

One of the questions I asked some friends regarding this topic was: “What do you think my passion is?” The friends that I knew through a certain activity usually replied with the title of that activity. Some said that I was passionate about investment or venture capital, because of my work in those areas. Others answered “computer science” or “photography.” However, when I asked the people who were closest to me, the people I live with and the friends I see regularly, they all tentatively answered, “I don’t know if you have a passion.”

I actually agree. But most people I conversed with shared the same conclusions about themselves after introspection. There is an inherent time component to developing a passion; someone who starts to enjoy an activity immensely for a week cannot say they he or she has found the endeavor that they want to pursue to no bounds. True passion is put to the litmus test of time, which introduces a myriad of challenges and hurdles.

Through these challenges, a person can prove that they have a passion. Are you willing to make sacrifices for your passions? Do you find them changing regularly? What does time say about your passions? See, passion isn’t just something you can do in a state of flow. Rather, passion is something that requires dedication, perseverance and time-independence.

You can read the second part of the piece here.

Contact Jason van der Merwe at [email protected].

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