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Passion is merely an illusion


I come across a lot of advice that falls in the broad category of "Follow your passion". This is the justification that a lot of people starting businesses, or producing music, or writing books, or doing standup comedy use. They tell themselves and those around them that they are following their passion and encourage others to do the same.

The people who most readily take this advice to heart are the ones that are either frustrated about what they're currently doing or have no clue what they are currently doing. Those following more well defined goals or those doing well in what they are currently doing don't buy into the whole "Follow your passion" thing that easily, even if they aren't really passionate about what they are doing right now.

So, does that mean it is good advice for the first set of people to follow their passion?

Before I answer that, I wanted to understand how one becomes passionate about something. Over the past twenty years, I've been passionate about many things - astronomy, stock trading, football, acting, writing, tech startups, travel, food, standup comedy, languages, murder mysteries, podcasts, fitness, Spanish guitar, Woody Allen movies, and maybe a hundred other things.

When I ask myself why I was passionate about any of these, it is because of something that I had read or seen or heard about or imagined.

Everything that we see and experience, even if it is only in our heads, it evokes a reaction in us. The reaction can be anything between -1 and +1, where -1 is a feeling of utter disgust, +1 is a feeling of unrelenting inspiration and 0 is colossal ambivalence.

Of all the things I have been passionate about in my life, I can identify related experiences that ranked closer to +1 on the inspiration scale. Of all the things I have experienced and am not passionate about lie closer to 0. The experiences that lie close to -1 can flip us both ways. They can either build up anti-passion, so to say, where we want nothing to do with that act, or they can trigger passion for the opposite. This is the case of the frustrated people from above. For example, someone who hates her day job and reporting to someone (an experience closer to -1) may turn passionate about starting up on her own (passion for the opposite).

So, that is how we become passionate about anything.

Now, "Follow your passion" is supposedly good advice because, the thinking goes, we will be good at what we are passionate about, and will enjoy doing it.

If our passion is derived from the experiences we have, and the experiences we have are comparable to what most other people like us have (the world is becoming smaller every day), then statistically, a lot of us will be passionate about very similar things.

This being the case, we can't all be good at it. Since being good at something means we are above average, and if we need to be above average to be good, that, by definition, puts more than half the people in the 'not good' bucket.

A big part of the reason we were passionate about something in the first place was because we saw ourselves as an above average performer in that act. And that is a safe assumption, because, I haven't been able to find a person that has been inspired to become like someone who is below average.

So, majority of the people (the ones below average) won't end up being passionate about the thing they were initially passionate about. They slowly shift over to the 'frustrated with what they are doing' bucket and the cycle repeats all over again when they pursue the next thing they are passionate about.

So, the more practical thing to do is to get good at what we do. As passion is merely an illusion, a picture we paint where we are above average at something. And our passion dries up the moment we slip below average.

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