Curiosity Over Passion

January 03, 2016

From strangers on the Internet, from my mother and my friends, to hiring interviews in startups and just about every blog post nowadays, comes the question that makes me fumble for words every single time I read it:

“What is your passion?”

Passion. Paixão. Pasión. Leidenschaft (what the heck, German). Asked always in a singular, interrogation form, and almost always used as a declarative, implicit fact. What is that one passion of yours, and what are you doing to pursue it? — oh, don’t you even dare to even consider answering this question with a “I don’t know yet…!”, because I’m sure that cost me the chance of working with a startup in London in 2014, after being told that it was an answer from someone who didn’t have his priorities figured out. I like to think it was their loss.

However, since that moment, I became a man on a mission: I’d stop screwing around and find this godforsaken passion of mine. Focus, Ricardo, focus, there’s a passion to be found out there! I sometimes find coins on the street. How much harder can this be?

Luckily it didn’t take me long to realise I was on a rather pointless mission. Cal Newport has written beautifully about why this is the wrong question to ask to begin with; he calls it the passion trap, a path to an endless spiral of uncertainty, an expectation in desperate need of attention. After 3 weeks of self-inflicted emotional pain for not having my life figured out, I really felt like I was chasing my own tail… even worse, a tail that wasn’t even mine to begin with.

The more emphasis you place on finding work you love, the more unhappy you become when you don’t love every minute of the work you have.

And yet, knowing this, something was still missing. If pursuing the promise of a passion is the wrong path to take, what course of action to take, then? What’s the right question to ask, if there even is one? Well, my lizard brain has lead me to this other word: Curiosity.

Jonathan Fields once said on one of his podcasts that the opposite of happiness isn’t sadness. Sadness is, for better and for worse, a natural part of life that we all should expect and learn how to deal with at times. He wisely mentioned the lack of curiosity as being the very opposite of happiness; the unwillingness to learn, to listen and discover what’s around us at every moment can be a slow, silent killer of empathy. Being in a curious state of mind makes us ask (silly) questions, experiment and tinker with the building blocks of life. And this is the state of mind that enables opportunity, allowing for passion to flow through without even being aware of it.

Thinking back, when I was 13 and in school, I didn’t plan my play and recess time based on my passions… I did things because I was curious about them. So did you and just about everyone else. What changed, then?

Letting go of my Passion Driven Development mode has made me pursue the things I naturally know I’m curious about. Examples? Well, I now walk to work, because I’m curious about the mundane daily life around me. I’m also photographing more, not because I’m questioning whether or not I should make a career out of photography, but because I’m interested in experiencing the world through the lens again. I’m reading more about Stoicism and Buddhism knowing well that I won’t become a monk; accepting my curiosity about these topics is my green card to create the opportunity for them.

And as for passion itself? Phil Tippett, the mastermind behind the stop-motion animation on the first Star Wars and Jurassic Park movies, recently summarised his 40 year career by quoting Mark Z. Danielewski:

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.”

Before being “hungry and foolish”, adding “curious” to this array of soul states is probably a good idea. Passion can wait, in the meantime please do whatever you feel most attracted to.

Profile picture

Written by Ricardo Magalhães who works for the Internet. By day, a front-end web developer with a passion for typography and design. By night, he sleeps. Follow me on Mastodon.