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On Not Being Passionate

The singer’s face is intense, flushed, contorted with emotion. It’s Saturday lunchtime in the centre of Kingston upon Thames, and she’s singing to a backing of bass-heavy pop standards while a small crowd listens.

These days the street singers I walk past invariably strain, emote and grimace as they force their voices into acrobatic displays. Every song an exercise in purple-faced histrionics.

In part it’s the fault of the TV talent shows: The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor and the like. If you want to be noticed, you have to stand out. A decent voice and agreeable smile aren’t enough: judges go for the person who squeezes out every last drop of emotion, the one who strains to make the most banal tune soar as if sung by a gospel singer in rural Alabama transported by the Spirit.

No coincidence that Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury is now widely hailed as the greatest pop singer of all time. He embodied the vocal gifts our culture admires, with his acrobatic soaring through wide vocal registers, his ability to convey extreme emotion, his flamboyance.

We expect our singers to convey passion, ecstasy and intensity. It’s part of the passion script.

Today’s world of business and commerce follow the passion script too. Yogurts, craft ales and loaves of sourdough are all made with passion. Soaps, candles and greetings cards are products of passion. Accountants, cycle repairers and makers of chemical toilets do what they do out of passion.

The other day I signed up for an online course. The organisers emailed me to say they were passionate about my data. Bless.

Above all, job ads prioritise passion: Are you passionate about child-care? Customer service? Graphic design? Grouting? The most mundane of tasks is expected to be carried out with wild-eyed fervour, unstinting dedication and long hours.

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Deeper Malaise

Frankly, it’s exhausting – this charade that as we send in our application to be an actuary, project manager or quality controller at the pork-scratching factory, our whole being tingles with the frisson of it all. Yes, yes, yes…!

I’m convinced our passion for passion is counter-productive. Those who fail to learn the lessons of histrionics are doomed to repeat it.

I’m convinced the passion script is damaging. I believe it points to a deeper malaise in our culture, a crisis in what we value.

There are three main reasons I’m uneasy:

1) The Passion Script is an Arms Race

In the TV talent shows each singer tries to outdo the last in passionate intensity, to grab the attention of the judges and the audience at home. When passion is the currency, an inflationary cycle sets in. You have to be rawer, more emotional, with a wider and more melodramatic range than the next person.

When passion is the currency of the workplace, the result is longer hours, fewer breaks and greater demands to show sacrificial commitment to the cause. When Elon Musk took over Twitter in 2022, those who stayed were expected to be ‘hardcore’, meaning ‘working long hours at high intensity’, like Musk himself. Musk even converted offices and conference rooms at Twitter HQ into sleeping quarters. To work sensible hours and aspire to a well-rounded humanity was deemed unacceptable. It failed to demonstrate passion.

When passion is the currency of a faith group, it results in ever-increasing cycles of intensity. The preacher makes ever more extravagant claims, at higher volume. Younger ministers learn that the shoutier they get, the more conviction they seem to carry. Worship services are geared round evoking tidal waves of feelings, which in turn are seen as the evidence of having met with God.

Excessive passion and exorbitant claims are hardly the besetting sins of most parish churches. But in some faith settings, in the UK and around the world, it is has reached toxic levels. When I lived in south London, a range of independent churches vied to make ever wilder offers to draw in an experience-driven audience in search of stimulation: Miracles! Curses broken! Demons expelled! Raising the dead!

In 2008 I attended a church leaders’ conference in Harrogate. The speaker was a high-profile Californian pastor who made extreme claims with passionate intensity: The only reason we don’t see people regularly raised from the dead is because we don’t have enough faith; suffering and pain are sent by the Devil – it’s essentially our own fault if we don’t claim victory over them and enjoy fullness of life and health.

When I suggested to a group of fellow delegates that these claims were clearly wrong and pastorally disastrous I was told I was in the wrong for being sceptical. The pastor’s passion, his vision of faith-as-extreme-sport, were evidence that he was the real thing. Fire from Heaven.

Our passion for passion becomes an arms race, an exhausting cycle in which intensity keeps having to be cranked up. Each employer, employee, speaker, preacher, turns the handle a little more to prove their greater passion for the cause.

After a time, lower-key alternatives begin to pale in comparison. Singing without vocal acrobatics seems dull; taking time to rest and have a fulfilling home life feels like lack of commitment; thoughtful faith and honest questioning feels like a quenching of the Spirit.

The passion escalator ascends, even though the alternatives may ultimately be more life-giving and better fitted for the long-haul.

One casualty of the passion arms race is truth. Reality is distorted, exaggerated. Moderation, nuance and compromise are seen as insipid.

Another casualty is society, particularly the world of work: a culture of drivenness leaves people burnt out, exhausted.

Another casualty is you and me. We come to value the adrenaline surge over the mundane, the extreme over the moderate and considered. Sooner or later we collapse. Sooner or later we become disenchanted.

2) The Passion Script is Adolescent

I’ve rarely felt as intensely as I did when I was 15. During the adolescent years, the body experiences massive hormonal changes. All feelings, positive and negative, are more acute. Teens have more frequent high-intensity emotions than adults.

A society that lives by the passion script is saying that it values the volatility of the teen over the maturity of the adult.

The early years of a relationship are described as the honeymoon phase. Typically the feelings of being head-over-heels in love last between six months and two years. Lots of people’s dating history becomes a saga of trying to recapture the intensity of this early phase.

A society that lives by the passion script values the adrenaline of early romance over the intimacy of the grown-up relationship, one that aspires to something grander and more durable than past infatuation. The passion script condemns us to nostalgia for a lost intensity that is unlikely to be achievable.

Alain de Botton’s School of Life contrasts two fundamentally different outlooks, which it labels Romanticism and Classicism (a).

Romanticism has its roots in 18th-century art and literature. Romanticism is a more than a style of art – it is a worldview, centred on strong feelings and spontaneity, on listening to the heart, on intuition. For the Romantic, the only authentic emotion is a passionate emotion. In our relationships, Romanticism tells us what matters most is the adrenaline surge of being in love.

The Romantic narrative dominates our culture – in movies, novels and songs. It scorns thinking, dry reasoning, practical considerations. Its mantra is ‘follow your heart’.

The Classical approach, on the other hand, is more wary of being swept along by emotions. It believes intuition should be tested. It’s not that Classicism doesn’t believe in feelings, intuition or moments of ecstasy – it just doesn’t think these should necessarily have the final word, or become an end in themselves.

It is Classicism and not Romanticism that points a way to healthier workplaces, more honest faith communities, more grown-up relationships. It imagines a life lived on a wider horizon.

3) The Passion Script is Arbitrary

Because passion is the script of today's culture in the West, it has come to have an air of inevitability. In the world of work, we expect to search for jobs we feel passionate about; employers want endless protestations of passion.

But this is a historically recent phenomenon. Back in the 1940s and 50s, the workplace ideal was not passion but stability, loyalty to the organisation, providing for one’s family. From the 1980s on, work increasingly became about self-expression. By the 2000s it was about passion.

This shift from stability to self-expression to passion was accelerated by changes in the world of work. Stable industries started to change and outsource work abroad; people no longer expected to work loyally for the same organisation for decades.

Another shift was the understanding of the self in society. An emphasis on respect for tradition and authority, duty and knowing one’s place was gradually replaced by a new focus on self-esteem, self-help, self-love. Much of this has been good and helpful; some of the consequences less so.

Similarly, our traditional politics with its roots in class has given way to a new politics of personal identity. The culture says ‘love who you are, be what you feel’.

In such an environment it seems self-evident that work, like the rest of life, should be about following our hearts and channelling our passions.

But the historically recent idea that work should equal passion is flawed and damaging.

Sociologist Erin A Cech (b) points out that the passion script assumes privilege. It is skewed towards the affluent middle classes who have financial safety nets, springboards and contacts. They can afford to sacrifice money and work stability to pursue their dreams and internships in a way others can’t. Passion is less of an option for the working classes, marginalised groups, ‘first-generation’ employees, or those with no inherited income or property to fall back on.

Similarly, Cech warns that passion can be a way for employers to take advantage of employees. Which employer wouldn’t want staff to be passionate about their work? Passionate workers are likely to put in long hours with devotion, and sacrifice other aspects of life for the workplace. Employers covet passion but rarely compensate for it. The risk of burnout is high.

Recruitment specialists Adzuna carried out research for the Guardian (c) on the language of job ads. They found a close correlation between the word ‘passionate’ and the lowest-paid posts. Adzuna commented that an applicant’s passion was being relied on to motivate them as a substitute for money.

I’m glad the people who make my yogurt do it with passion. But I’d rather they lived happy, balanced lives. I’d be content if they channelled their passion a little less into my yogurt and a little more into their children, leisure and communities.

In any case, why should work be the main vehicle for passion? Why can’t work simply be a source of income that frees someone to pursue art, travels, charitable involvement or time with family?

The passion script being acted out in our workplaces, arts and music, faith groups and relationships is arbitrary, not inevitable. It has its roots in a specific type of culture.

The passion script is about being true to myself, listening to my heart, loving myself and trusting my instincts. It is about feeling deeply – because that is where my deepest truth is to be found.

The passion script is focussed, confident and extrovert; it’s individualistic and driven; it’s about personal fulfilment and sees duty and routine as unhealthy and repressive; it speaks the language of therapy and follows its heart.

In other words, the passion script is Romanticism soaked in American-style consumer capitalism. It shares the DNA of the televangelist, shock-jock, motivational guru, tycoon, demagogue, huckster. It’s a cheesy B-movie script from Hollywood.

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Curiosity and Whispers

Don’t get me wrong. A big ‘yes’ to enthusiasm, joy and euphoria. But the passion script is something rather different: it’s unsubtle, exaggerated, immature, driven.

Of course, if you want that job you’re still going to have to emote about passion so the interviewer can tick a box. If you busk or enter a talent contest you’re still going to have to sing like an overwrought banshee.

At the same time, I believe it’s time to be counter-cultural and find a fresh script – in our own lives and families, even if society and the workplace remain trapped on the passion escalator for now.

Time to look for wisdom beyond intuition, celebrate nuance, live with unanswered questions, receive scepticism as a gift, cherish the life of the mind, prize truth over intensity, value small moments, appreciate the employee who is diligent and undemonstrative, rediscover community, whisper.

And cultivate curiosity – I’ll take curiosity over passion every time.

Say without shame or apology, ‘I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that’.

Time for a break from having to be so exhaustingly passionate about everything.

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(a) The School of Life: An Emotional Education. Hamish Hamilton (2019)

(b) The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfilment at Work Fosters Inequality. University of California Press (2021)

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© Mike Starkey 2022

Pic: Scott Murdoch, Creative Commons Licence


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