What is passion?

Rob Archer over at The Career Psychologist has written a post about finding your passion at work. He has this to say:

“The thing about passion at work is that it is rarely characterised by feelings of passion. It is, if anything, characterised by feelings of anxiety and doubt, particularly in the early days. For me those years were filled with thoughts about whether this was really the right thing, whether I could do it, whether I was falling behind my peers.”

When I read this post it resonated very deeply with me. Yes, passion at work (or anywhere else) can’t be about constant feelings of exhilaration and enthusiasm, can it? It sounds unsustainable. And indeed it is. The emotional ebb and flow of life is something we all experience. But still, like Rob found, there was something lacking when he didn’t have the passion for his career that he was looking for. So what does experiencing the kind of passion Rob says is good (even necessary) look like if it’s not a constant and unmixed high?

Well, let me approach this from a personal angle. If there’s one thing I know I am passionate about, it is health and fitness. Hmm, that brings up an interesting question: how do I know I’m passionate about health and fitness? Well, when I think of it there is simply a deep conviction around how I feel about working out, eating nutritious food and having the kind of body I want. There is also ample evidence that my body is important to me; I run, I do resistance training, I make sure I’m eating the right amount to lose weight and that I’m putting high quality food in my mouth. But even before I was doing these things, when I was 335 lbs. and feeling miserable, the spark of passion was there and growing. In the soil of pain it took root and has started bearing some delicious fruit.

The taste of sweet victory in my mouth when I complete a run or a workout is passion. Passion is the sense of power and exhilaration that I am achieving my goals and becoming the person I wanted to be, that I had envisioned for myself. Passion is when it is so important for me to succeed that failure is simply not an option; giving up is not an option; not putting in the time, effort and energy required is not an option. And this sense of passion, in my experience, snowballs over time. You start by taking small steps to move in the direction of your values, your deepest desires (for me, feeling vibrant and looking fantastic), you start to see the results come in, and a positive feedback loop is created. Every small completion of a goal (even if it’s just a daily completion of a workout or eating within your calorie budget) is a little shot of passion.

I think if these things aren’t being experienced to some degree, you’re just not passionate about what you’re doing. There’s a subjectivity, a kind of skill to learning what the feedback you’re getting is saying to you. You have to be the judge of whether or not what you’re experiencing is worth it to you. Is the hard work, the hours put in, the miles logged all worth it? Is it moving you in a direction you really, deeply want to go?

I talked about the positive feelings that let me know the work I’m putting in on my body is paying off for me. But what about the negative feelings? Rob mentioned doubts, anxieties. I’ve had my own share of anxiety and negative feelings about my fitness efforts. To start with, working out is hard. Pushing yourself hard to complete a run or squeezing out those last few reps of squats is painful. Restricting what you eat or how much takes a lot of focus, planning and effort. Going out for a walk in the rain or snow is extremely uncomfortable.

There are many days (such as today) where I have felt too tired to exercise, demoralized by cold weather, or frustrated by lack of progress, questioning all the hard work I am putting in. I have also been assailed by anxieties about my appearance. What if I lose all this weight and I still hate the way I look? What if I put in all the work, suffer through these many months and end up having lots of terrible-looking loose skin and need surgery? What if that makes me unattractive, unlovable? What if people judge me for who I used to be instead of seeing me for who I am now?

These are the dark passengers (thanks, Dexter) that are always with us. Whenever we attempt to move in the direction of our values, negative and unhelpful thoughts and feelings inevitably come. Part of being prepared to undertake any project, goal or activity is cultivating a willingness to accept what comes up as we do, the good with the bad. Ecstatic feelings of passion, just as in a new love affair, wear off. Thankfully that doesn’t mean passion has to die. The deep undercurrent, the knowledge that your behavior is in alignment with your truest self, the sense of accomplishment that each small win brings, this is real passion. The kind that can last a lifetime, create massive shifts in your reality and bring meaning, purpose and vitality to your life.

But what does passion mean to you? How can we discern what we’re truly passionate about? What about when that passion is clouded by negativity? I’d love to hear your thoughts.