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All Passion Spent

Have a passion for learning? Well, maybe. But it’s possible you have some other more nuanced responses, too.

Remember  the scene in Some Like It Hot where Marilyn Monroe sings that she’s through with love? Me, I’ve had it with passion.

Not strong feeling or romance, just passion, this multipurpose, newly purposeless word that is—if you haven’t noticed—engulfing us. Students and professors, workers and managers, politicians and citizens, parents and children, and those personlike things called corporations.

Passion is the emotion de nos jours. We’re passionate about things we do and things we like and things we hope for. We’re passionate about big things and small, things we make and things we sell.  

The p-word is everywhere, from business-school argot to commencement-day exhortations to promo copy for almost anything. There are Web sites for passionate design and passionate nutrition. There are sites for passionate vegetarians and another for those who are passionate for pies.

There’s a site for passionate homemaking. (I guess this is an improvement over sensuous —remember The Sensuous Woman?—though I’m not exactly sure what passionate homemaking might be.)

There’s a site called passionate-for-Paris through which you can arrange rental properties in the City of Light. (Let us agree that if a city can claim passion, Paris is that city.) 

There are various Web sites that deploy the phrase passionate pet. I don’t want to be thinking about passionate pets.

Writers can google sites for the passionate pen or passionate ink. Somewhere there’s probably a site for copy editors devoted to passionate paragraphing.

Of course, passion hasn’t been entirely hijacked. It’s still a good, old-fashioned word for love or agony, or sometimes both together. Easter and the St. Matthew Passion sustain the devotional sense of the word, but I’d guess that these are now the less frequent usages.

In its new, overexposed phase, passion has come to mean something else. I’d hazard the definition “an outsized, all-consuming enthusiasm that leads to achievement.” That seems to be where passion is drifting in our outcome-driven society: It’s become a word signifying the precondition of success.

Such a sense of passion has broad consequences. I am familiar with a firm that had as its marketing mantra “Passion to please customers.” (The phrase—all earnest ache and alliteration—sat at the top of a full-color Value Pyramid in the conference room. Yes it did.)

Passion has become a recruiter’s desideratum, too. This scenario may be eerily familiar:

[Addressing the candidate with an air of studied casualness:]

“What’s your … passion?

[ Meaningful pause. Then slightly more earnestly:]

“Could you to tell us what you feel passionate about?”

The interviewer  probably intends something like “What are you enthusiastic about in relation to what this company does and what you might do here?”

The applicant may have a lot to offer—energy, attention to detail, ambition, inventiveness, determination, the competition’s secret formula—but maybe not something both parties to this conversation can agree is passion.

All this talk about passion may offer some tricky lessons to the generations we educate.

Must high-school students really have a passion for economics or political theory or chemical engineering? Should they graduate from college with a passion for kickboxing or lighting design or tort law? And more important, have they failed if they don’t?

I don’t doubt that the repetitive chorus of speeches about passion is meant to be inspirational. But these same speeches can work to undo some of education’s most important lessons, among them the need to keep creating yourself, and the ability of an educated person to keep on growing.

People are different. Some people do have passions, and feel passionate about the causes and ideals and labor to which they commit themselves. But we’re not all demonstrably passionate in an easily exteriorized way.

Not every hard-working person is driven by a passion. Nor would every form of employment benefit from such a person. You probably have no need to be operated on by a passionate surgeon, for example. You just want a technician—brilliant, capable, reliable, deft, sober, and in-network. That he or she is  deeply committed to the life of a surgeon would be a good thing, but no substitute for skill.

I’d be happy to keep the word passion in reserve for romantic folly, a condition you can still find if you look hard enough. There’s a popular telenovela called Abismo de pasion. “The Abyss of Passion.” It’s a show in which people with beautiful hair smolder and glower at one another in Spanish (clearly even better than smoldering and glowering in English). Cuidado! pasion! Watch out for passion!

What to do? On the question of passion we might want to take advice from an unlikely pair: Microsoft and Dr. Johnson. In 1751 the gentleman in the wig wrote that “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”  In 2002 the multinational adopted as its slogan the phrase “Your potential. Our passion.” In 2010, Microsoft —catching the wind about the p-word, I suspect—dropped that slogan in favor of “Be what’s next.”  Curiosity about what’s next—there’s real nourishment in that.

Of course, Marilyn wasn’t through with love at all. At the end of the film she runs off with Tony Curtis (and Jack Lemmon, still dressed as Daphne) in Osgood’s speedboat. That was passion of the crazy-love kind.

So here’s to curiosity, drive, ambition, risk-taking, inventiveness, and idealism.

Now if we can only get passion out of the boardroom and the HR manual, away from the foodies and the entrepreneurs and the board of education—and back into the speedboat where it belongs.

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