“Trust your heart and follow your passions.”
From childhood, society influences young people to live this way. But mantras like this, while well intentioned, can often lead to false expectations and negative consequences without the presence of purpose.
Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of what passion truly is. Defined properly, passion is a seizing impulse that overpowers all others. Passion drives you zealously forward without hesitation or consideration. Interestingly, these words also define madness.
Our perception of reality can become distorted in a passionate state. In passion, we might ignore dangers. We hope to bowl them over by sheer velocity rather than foresight. Wrapped up in an idea, consumed by realizing it, we fail to see anything else. We can end up throwing ourselves against brick walls.
Ultimately passion will fade, leaving behind weary people empty of energy and results.
In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday recommends supplanting passion with purpose:
“We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.”
Purpose is what will keep you going, regardless of your passion or energy. It is not a mere excitement that passes with the new dawn, but a sense of destiny that comes with a defined goal to achieve.
Among the many examples of history, we see few who embody the purpose struggle better than George Washington.
Given to great passion and outbursts as a young man, Washington, by the time of the Revolution, was finishing his education in self-control. When war had broken out it was not a man of great passion who would lead armies against the British, but one of purpose. He knew that to be a leader of men he could not be seen ranting or running about hither and thither. Being a leader takes discipline and determination.
For the first portion of the war, we can observe Washington’s passion in play. In his letters to friends and Congress, he continually expresses a desire to face the British in open battle, to fight and fight hard. Yet, as early defeats demonstrated, this approach was flawed.
By 1776, Washington recognized his folly. All out pitched battles would only wound his army and his cause. Their battle needed to be a war of attrition, a war that involved retreating more than fighting and receiving more mockery than glory.
By holding onto the purpose of the war and the army, Washington had a determined focus that went against his natural inclinations. Purpose allowed him to keep the army together to fight battles they could actually win.
How Purpose Prevails Over Passion in Foresight and Goal Achievement:
Purpose Grants Foresight
As with George Washington, external factors sometimes force us to humiliating retreat after retreat. While passion becomes frustrated with such moments, purpose allows you to look beyond the here and now to the completion of your goal and the satisfaction of a job well done.
Purpose Advances Your Goal
Though following your passions is shaky advice, nothing is wrong being guided by your purpose. When your purpose is set it allows you to make decisions based on the question: “Does it advance my goal?” Purpose keeps you focused and prevents you from being thrown to the winds or the whims of the day.
At the end of the day passion is volatile, creating spikes in energy and emotion that disrupt both your life and the lives of others. Purpose is steady, holding to a definite plan of action, tranquil but resolved. Like Aesop’s fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, we see that while Purpose is less energetic than Passion, it has the determination and grit to make it to the finish line first.
There once was a speedy hare who bragged about how fast he could run. Tired of hearing him boast, Slow and Steady, the tortoise, challenged him to a race. All the animals in the forest gathered to watch.
Hare ran down the road for a while and then and paused to rest. He looked back at Slow and Steady and cried out, “How do you expect to win this race when you are walking along at your slow, slow pace?”
Hare stretched himself out alongside the road and fell asleep, thinking, “There is plenty of time to relax.”
Slow and Steady walked and walked. He never, ever stopped until he came to the finish line.
The animals who were watching cheered so loudly for Tortoise, they woke up Hare.
Hare stretched and yawned and began to run again, but it was too late. Tortoise was over the line.
After that, Hare always reminded himself, “Don’t brag about your lightning pace, for Slow and Steady won the race!”