Whenever I speak at colleges I begin by asking, “Why are you here?”
This catches the students off guard and after batting the question around for a bit someone says, “To find my passion.” The rest agree and they imagine they are done with the topic.
But I am not done with them.
I ask them to define “passion” because if you cannot say what a word means then you are shooting the shit rather than answering a question.
So they discuss that for a while longer and eventually settle on some variant of, “I don’t know what passion is but I’ll know when I have passion for my work because I won’t have to motivate myself to do it.”
“Really?” I say, “Where I come from we have a word for that, and it is ‘like’ as in ‘I like my job.’ But I know I am passionate when I do something even though I hate every second.”
“Why would anyone do a job they hate?” someone asks.
I want to say, “It might be because you have bills to pay and you don’t want to live off your parents or the state.”
But, instead I say, “I don’t know. Why did my dad lie about his age so he could enlist a year earlier than allowed by law to become a paratrooper and jump out of airplanes while the Japanese shot at him? That was something he hated to do, but he did it anyway, and he did it because of something called passion.”
At this point the class looks flummoxed but intrigued.
I explain that my father’s uncle, Brooke Cadwallader, was taken prisoner by the Japanese and interned in the Santo Tomas prison camp. My dad imagined that one day he might rescue his uncle, and indeed, he did just that when he was dropped into the camp to keep the Japanese from killing their prisoners as they retreated ahead of the Allied advance. Brooke made it out alive and I am named after him.
My dad was passionate about saving his uncle in a way that most accountants who “like” their jobs are not. My dad did not love the Army or even like it. He hated what he had to do; what he loved was his uncle.
Passion, the way I use the term, is a composite emotion; an admixture of love and hate. That is why we call it a ‘crime of passion’ if you kill your lover’s lover and then your lover before turning the gun on yourself. We don’t call that a crime of ‘like’ or of ‘love’ or even a ‘hate crime.’ Nope, it’s all about passion, pure and simple.
At this point I’m fairly loud and emphatic and the class is in shock. Someone says, “You sound angry.”
I’m on a roll. I say, “Damn straight I’m angry. If your lover cheats on you, don’t whine to me, and certainly don’t be unfaithful just to get even. Instead just dump the two-timing cheat and work on being successful, fit, kind, and attractive. That way the next time you are in the market for a mate the candidates will be lined up around the block begging for your attention. Your only problem will be to choose wisely.”
Then a young woman in the back whimpers, “But I didn’t cheat on you; I don’t even know you. Why are you angry with me?”
My heart melts. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I’m not angry with you; I don’t know you either. What makes me angry in general is that when people talk about not finding their passion they are really bemoaning the fact that they aren’t getting what they want. But that is because they aren’t doing the hard stuff – the stuff they might hate doing. Many of you will graduate from this school deeply in debt with no marketable skills and blissfully unaware that you have gutted your parents’ retirement accounts. And yet you will think your only problem is that you haven’t found paid work worth your time.”
I let that sink in and then I say, “I’m here to tell you all this now so that later you can’t say nobody has.”
So, now you know why I am often invited to speak to college students and seldom invited back.
And you also know why the person who has never known hardship might find it easy to like a job but hard to get passionate about it. You are not passionate until there is some part of what you do that is so hard you hate doing it but you do it anyway because there is something about the status quo that you hate even more.
The love comes when you fall in love with the process of doing something worthwhile and that is when you will fall asleep exhausted rather than stay up anxious and angry. And you’ll wake up early ready to tackle a polar bear rather than wishing it was a snow day so you can sleep ‘till noon.
So, if you want something worthwhile to do with your life and you haven’t found something to love then start looking for something to hate.
Photo Credit: Marek Bernat