These so-called passions show up in social media avatars and bios, on resumés and profiles, or as hashtags where someone has posed for some activity or other and tagged it #LivingMyPassion.


Stop using this word! Unless you deeply care about something

This word is everywhere. Everyone seems to be using it, without understanding it. What’s the word? Passion.

Every human, it seems, is passionate about something these days. I’m passionate about protecting the planet, say some. Others are passionate about social justice. In professional circles, many will tell you they are passionate about corporate governance, or innovation, or other buzzy topics.

These so-called passions show up in social media avatars and bios, on resumés and profiles, or as hashtags where someone has posed for some activity or other and tagged it #LivingMyPassion.

Nice. But I’m here this Sunday to ask you not to trivialise the word by slapping it on every endeavour, every mild interest, every fleeting pastime. Passion is not just enthusiasm, or even enthusiasm on steroids. It’s not about having occasional bursts of energy for something. Passion is also relentless pain. When you are passionate about something, you care enough to suffer for it. You are willing to forgo sleep, make major sacrifices, and suffer deep personal lows — because you care that much.

Nelson Mandela could claim to have been passionate about freedom for his people. He had 27 lost years to show for it. He suffered for his passion, because his passion was not a mere posture, not a form of personal branding — it was his life’s mission.

Vincent van Gogh had passion for his art. He led a life filled with mental anguish, deep poverty and critical disdain. He produced hundreds of works of art, but barely sold any while he was alive.

 He achieved neither commercial success nor emotional comfort from his passion. But wow, did he produce art. And we are grateful for his passion.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but she was not merely interested in her science; she was head-over-heels into it. She faced systemic sexism and very little recognition for her work. She even died from complications related to her research. The price she paid was very heavy, but she made ground-shifting breakthroughs which have benefited us all.

Malala Yousafzai cares about the education of women. How much? Enough to be shot in the head at the age of 15! She’s not indulging an Instagrammable hobby; she’s immersed in a life-altering passion. Her life is constantly under threat from primitive patriarchs. Does that stop her? No, because it’s not a career choice she’s made—it’s her whole life.

Why am I troubling you with this distinction? Because a shallow idea of passion expects some quick rewards, some applause, some gratification. Proper passion-pursuits are different. You don’t do them for the personal hits of dopamine; you do them because you have to do them. You don’t get puzzled and deflated when adversity comes; you expect it to come.

Real passion is an unglamorous grind, a commitment to doing something regardless of setbacks. It’s not a momentary enthusiasm; it’s an invitation to feel pain.

That is the nature of any great love. It brings pain and joy together, and often more pain than joy in our lifetimes.

You want to see true passion at work? Look at many parents. Their mission to grow their children is not some adjunct pastime; it is their fundamental purpose. They will suffer sleepless nights, poverty, even the ungratefulness and disdain of those very children — but they will not stop. They’re not interested—they’re committed.

I’m not asking anyone not to be passionate; I’m asking that we understand the difference between involvement and passion. We should all care deeply about something; and we should all be willing to suffer for it.

What are you most committed to being, or doing? I wrote here last year that there is evidence we can look at: The blisters, aches, bruises and scars that come from the work. Battling for anything brings battle wounds. Where are yours?

For me, my professional passion sits in words. I have always been intrigued by words and fascinated by word-play; over time, that interest has morphed into full-blown passion. I care too much about words: The right words, alternative words, words that fit together, words that clash and grate. I can spend hours wondering about a poet’s particular choice of words. Words can send my spirit soaring; words can sear my psyche. I create words every day; I sell them and live off them and provide for others using them.

That’s me. You are free to have your own passions. Your work or profession could be your fervent occupation. Your faith or spiritual beliefs could demand priority in your life. Your hobbies or pastimes could transmute into full-blown commitments, as mine did. Whatever you have as your passion, prepare for pain. That pain is good and necessary, though. No worthwhile achievement comes from a few chuckles and assorted hashtags. It comes from cracking yourself open.

Those who changed the course of things were not passing the time; they cared about the change, the betterment, the uplift. Let’s be grateful that they also accepted the pain.