That Fickle Mistress We Call Passion


Black Rock City, 2013, Photo is mine. Look at me taking pictures.


And now, continuing with the meditation on why I love Elizabeth Gilbert.

In this week’s episode of On Being, Krista Tippett interviews Elizabeth Gilbert. Two of my favorite voices streaming through my head at the same time?! Oh, lovejoy! Liz, you keep popping into my life and saying things that I need to hear at the precise moments that I need to hear them. Forgive me, I repent my sins of doubting your magic in the last post. I will follow you to the ends of earth. Lady crush in full effect.

I copied a snippet of the episode’s transcript below, the part of the interview that struck me the most given the current existential struggles I’ve been swimming in.  Is there anything more maddening than hearing the advice to “follow your passion,” particularly for those of us whose capital-P Passion remains a stubbornly elusive concept?

Throughout my life, I’ve had brushes with something akin to passion. Sometimes it comes in the form of ideas (feminism, atheism, antiwar activism), people (friends, family, partners), lifestyles (veganism, traveling), hobbies (painting, writing), and even vocation (public health). All of these things have lent a spark to my life, but none have sunk their teeth into me and drug me down a clear path. I often find myself envious of those who have the drive to pursue one passion with a single-minded fury, particularly if they’ve found a way to make a living off that pursuit. Usually it’s the artists who manage to pay the bills by selling their art, but it can also be someone who just happens to love something employable like being a teacher, doctor, computer person…hell, even like a stockbroker or corporate something-or-other (for a lot of people seem to be quite taken with that game.) Many find it in parenthood, although that one seems tough as parenting typically isn’t a financially viable option on its own.

As Gilbert and Tippett discuss, there’s a pressure to find that passion and then to pursue it, all else be damned. If you find your passion, but don’t drop everything else in your life to chase it – perhaps risking your livelihood, community, and so on – then you’re a very sad person indeed. Kind of a loser, actually, someone with no guts to live life to the fullest. Go on with your very typical and boring existence where you follow the rules of your time+place to survive and maybe even succeed if you’re good at it.

Not only is there pressure to find the passion, but there’s also pressure to make that passion something big. Something with an impact. Something tangible that you can point to when you’re on your way out of this world and say, “See, look what I did!” and everyone immediately gets it and agrees that you’ve contributed to humanity. The small acts of creativity, discovery, or kindness don’t mean much.

I don’t like these dichotomies – passion-driven life vs. boring life; big impact vs. no impact – they don’t ring true to me. There’s not enough nuance. Not enough room for real human lives governed by a complex myriad of circumstances, events, pressures, desires, opportunities, and randomness. Life doesn’t follow neat narratives like find passion – live passion – achieve fulfillment and happiness. Instead, it’s a big, messy experiment in improvisation. We may seek out defined paths and examples to guide us, but really we’re all just making this up as we go. What has worked for others won’t necessarily work for you and the unique place you find yourself. That’s kind of terrifying but also very exciting. If you accept the idea that there isn’t a clear path for you, that instead you’re just clumsily forging a path as you go, then you can’t mess it up. What exactly would you be messing up? It’s not like you didn’t find the path. Or you were on the path and fell off of it. There isn’t a path, so just keep going. Change directions if you don’t like it so far. Uh oh, you fell asleep on the trail! Don’t worry little monkey, it doesn’t matter. Just wake up and keep going. (Yes, I know, it’s also kind of terrifying that it doesn’t matter, ack, but it doesn’t!)

My favorite part of the interview was Gilbert’s conclusion that, by following curiosity instead of passion, “your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.”

Ugh, Liz, marry me! It’s such a generous idea that you can lead a life with value and beauty that doesn’t necessarily resemble anything you’d see on a movie screen or in a bestselling memoir. I read it as a message for everyone to please chill the fuck out already. Leave your house. Explore the world. Talk to people. Make things and do things (big things or little things, really anythings).  You don’t have to find anything, you just need to create a life, and basically any life will do as long as you’re following curiosity and not fear.

On with the interview:

GILBERT: We’re not just here to pay bills and die, and we’re not just here to make great things. We’re here to co-create our lives in accordance with and in concordance with the creation that’s going on all around us, and that is holy and also cool and also fun and also not a big deal.

TIPPETT: So I think one thing — and I think you also — it took you a little while to come to this. One thing that you have started to say that is really helpful is that you’ve started to see the danger of this refrain that’s everywhere out there in our culture to follow your passion, follow your passion. And that that also becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded because they’re not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it’s their passion, can they really measure the value they’re creating?

And I love the language of “curiosity” you use, and I’d love for you to talk some more about that. I mean, one thing you’ve said is the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.”

GILBERT: Oh I love curiosity, our friend. I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.

TIPPETT: Yes, exactly.

GILBERT: And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word “passion” has this sort of sexual connotation…I’m much more interested in intimacy and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you.

And it may not set your head on fire. It may not change your life. It may not change the world. It may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so — almost nothing, right? It’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.

TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. As you said, it gives you — curiosity gives you clues…Doesn’t necessarily give you a destination at all, right?

 GILBERT: It doesn’t. And here’s the thing. Sometimes following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t, and then guess what? That’s still totally fine. You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.





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