Passion Is for Amateurs
Kelsey Grammer in Money Plane (2020)
“It’s a project I’m very passionate about” is a euphemism for “It’s something I daydream about, but don’t plan on ever accomplishing”
Passion is for amateurs. Passion is poison to productivity.
When it comes to achieving goals, and moving projects forward, passion is an impediment. This may sound counter-intuitive as passion is often touted as a driving force in development, but that unbridled zeal is like gasoline thrown on a fire. It will put on a show, but be gone in a flash. A passionate person will show enthusiasm and energy in regards to their ambitious project but will be vague and directionless in how to actually achieve it. The passionate are somehow always busy yet never seem to accomplish anything. They hear what they want to hear, focus on the information that supports their pre-existing beliefs, and are unwilling to deal with the complicated realities of pushing their creative vision forward.
Passionate people will go into detail on their grandiose plans assuming success is assured. A passionate filmmaker will be practicing their Academy Award acceptance speech or will be talking about the fortune that will be made off of merchandising before a script is even finished. A passionate startup founder will be planning an IPO before completing the business plan. The necessary steps of actually making the project seem like a minor inconvenience. If pressed to outline concrete actions that have been taken, or to provide evidence in support of their statements they fumble because no measurable progress has been made towards their goal. Some passionate people get defensive when asked to get into details, and will lash out instead of offering backup to their statements. “Do you think I’m all talk” and “I don’t owe you evidence” are two lines recently angrily spoken by a well-known Hollywood actor/producer when asked to provide documentation on all of the sales figures he was spouting off confidently. “You fundamentally don’t understand the design process” a startup founder spouted as his company spiraled towards bankruptcy, their funds being spent on fancy offices and public relations experts instead of on the product.
Remember, “zealot” is just a nice way to say “crazy person.” — Ryan Holiday, Author
Passion, like motivation or inspiration, is a fleeting thing can be a spark to begin great and wondrous things. But passion is a poor substitute for Performance. Prolonged passion is poisonous. It is generally the outward symptom of deeper failings. Passion is often used to mask a lack of discipline and conviction. People who are passionate about a project use that passion to avoid having to commit to decisions and make actual progress. They use the passion as a shield so that their glorified ideals are not put to the test where they will perhaps fall short. Passion used in this way displays as frantic bouts of energy and false bravado that do nothing to advance the project towards completion.
“Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.” ~Chuck Close, Artist
To clarify, when speaking of passion in this way it is not synonymous with enthusiasm or caring. People should care about their projects and they should be enthusiastic about the process as well as the finished project. The passion that is harmful is the unbridled enthusiasm that sees only a single path and daydreams about the end result without focusing on the necessary effort and flexibility to the steps of achieving that goal. Andy Lawrence, the director of The Office Mixup and Money Plane, is affectionately referred to as a “golden retriever” on set for his constant upbeat energy and enthusiasm. No one who has worked with him would question his care and commitment to the projects he works on. But his enthusiasm is not unbridled passion, it is energy applied during the creative process to help take the necessary steps to get the project complete. The initial script of Money Plane (that Lawrence co-wrote with Tim Schaaf) differs wildly from what ended up getting filmed. These changes didn’t happen all at once, but came about through the iterative process of taking steps to get the film made. Location considerations changed parts of the script, casting changed others, and new ideas sprung up as filming was underway. The passion of an amateur would have demanded the initial vision be held above all others, but a professional knows that taking steps in the direction of completion is more important than an ideal, and the process of creation will get to a better end product.
If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late. — Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn)
The process of creating is a complex one that does not often have a clearly defined roadmap to follow. The opportunities available are not vast blank canvases ready to receive a person’s brilliance. Rather they are full of limitations and constraints that must be worked around and adapted for. Passion for an ideal here is more than just foolish, it can be a death sentence for the successful completion of the project. Bringing a project to life in the real world involves compromise and adaptability. Compromise and adaptability are served by commitment to progress, clear understanding of the realities of the situation, and a methodological and iterative approach to achieving the goal.
This flexible and iterative approach is not the romantic view that many have of the creative process. There is this vision of the passionate independent filmmaker that battles the odds and risks it all to create the film of their dreams, eventually putting all of the naysayers and Hollywood insiders to shame when the film becomes a box office sensation and is universally adored by the public. Or the diligent startup founder who eschews selling out and instead bootstraps his way to success. But these visions are fantasies. That passionate filmmaker who battles the odds will most likely never get their film made, the startup founder who never pivots will have a product that is never released. Not because they were stopped by the establishment, kept down by ‘the man’. Rather they never put their passion to the side to take the necessary steps to push their project forward. Getting a project completed is not a grandiose affair, but rather a series of steps that are closer to work than art.
“Producing is blue collar work” — Richard Switzer, Hollywood Producer
Passion is a focus on a desired outcome, not on the process of how to achieve it. In order to get to an outcome, deliberate and purposeful steps must be taken. These steps require focus, consideration, and effort. They require a clear understanding of the realities being faced and what can be done to overcome them. Being passionate is to be naïve to the obstacles that must be overcome and the work that must be done.
In order to bring a creative project to completion, passion should be put aside. Questions should be asked; options explored; contingencies planned for; and above all else, steps should be taken. As the questions are answered, new options arise, or contingencies happen, the project as a whole can be adjusted to compensate and to ensure that the following steps are even better. Where possible, benefits and gains will be enjoyed and the lessons learned will be applied in the next iterations.
“Success caused passion more than passion caused success.” — Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert)
It was previously mentioned that passion is not the same as caring or enthusiasm. In the same vein, passion for a completed project is not a bad thing, it is a mark of a job well done. When a creative project is brought across the finish line, and the creator is proud of the final project, passion is expected and applauded. In these cases, the object of the passion is not a fanciful dream of something that is only wished for. The object of the passion is the end result of determination, commitment, and hard work.
Pagani Zondas being rolled into Grand Central Station for “Story of a Dream”
In late 2019, at New York City’s Grand Central Station, famed auto designer Horacio Pagani was extremely passionate about the 20th anniversary of his legendary Zonda, and he had earned every right to be passionate at that point. His dream of designing automobiles was not fueled by passion, but a determined desire and sense of purpose. He focused on the process and steps necessary to achieve his dreams, first opening a small shop in Argentina before being hired by Renault, then Lamborghini, then opening his own shop selling parts to the supercar manufacturers, before finally designing and manufacturing his own hypercars.
Creatives and founders should embrace their enthusiasm and care for the projects they work on, but should put the passion aside. Understanding the realities of the environment in which they are working, and focusing their efforts on moving their projects forward will have much better results than relying on passion to carry them forward. When one project is successfully brought to completion, the lessons learned from it can be applied to the next project, and the next.