why passion is sometimes overrated (how to develop your own interestingness, part four)





When I first tweeted about my post the importance of being interesting(the first in this series), one of my followers/followees responded

I’m pretty sure I’m the most boring person on the planet.*

And in the comments section of my most recent post, Irving Podulsky asked the very valid question: Can one LEARN to be unique and deep? (As Irv pointed out, he was asking himself this and not me, but I’m going to take up the question anyway.)

My answer to that — and please cover your eyes if profanity offends you – is this:


As many people pointed out in both the comments section to this blog and related tweets and retweets, the key to being interesting, or having interestingness (my new favorite noun) is being passionate about something.

And this is true.

But it’s also kind of not true.

Let me explain.


Passion is one of those words that gets used so often we’re beginning to lose any real sense of what it means. So when in doubt, go to the free online dictionary:

a. Ardent love.
b. Strong sexual desire; lust.
c. The object of such love or desire.

When cast in those terms, there’s no question why passion is one of the most exquisite pleasures in the world, and key to a dynamic and exciting and meaningful life.

And yet, have you spent a lot of time around a friend who is so passionately in love that he or she talks about the beloved all the freaking time?

Would you consider that person, at least in those moments, to have interestingness?

(And if you honestly answered ‘yes’, then hell, you’re a better friend than I am.)

Enthusiasm is charming, but we tend to find it interesting when it’s connected to something that gives actual value to us: when it informs or entertains, or makes us see things in a new way.

For that to happen – and to keep happening (which is a defining characteristic of ‘interestingness’) – passion usually has to be connected to some kind of skill or knowledge that is greater than what we already possess. What maintains our interest isn’t so much that person’s enthusiasm but their enthusiastic excellence (how long do those contestants in the American Idol audition episodes keep our interest, no matter how enthusiastic they happen to be)?

But people also know that in order to master anything, in order to develop expertise, you have to put in study and practice. Which is hard to do when you don’t like what you’re doing. People also know that we tend to be passionate about the stuff that we’re naturally good at. So people stress the importance of passion because when you’re passionate about something, you get obsessed with it, and when you’re obsessed, you’re willing to put in the time and practice that is usually required to crush it, to kick ass, to dazzle and captivate, to blow people away so much and so consistently that they will pay money to experience the wondrous magic of you, doing whatever it is that you do.

So when people say passion, they’re also talking about talent.

Here’s the thing.

Studies have shown that talent is overrated.

Which means, maybe, that passion is overrated.


A very American belief is that talent – or passion – is something that you’re born with. You either have it or you don’t.

But in books like Geoff Colvin’s TALENT IS OVERRATED or Daniel Coyle’s THE TALENT CODE, the authors stress the revolutionary discovery of the power of deliberate practice. Although Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of ten thousand hours – you have to put in ten thousand hours, which is roughly ten years, of practice in order to get excellent at something – what he didn’t say was that it had to be a specific kind of practice.

In order for practice to be deliberate, it requires the following components (and I’m taking this from one of my favorite blog posts ever from one of my favorite bloggers, Cal Newport, who in turn took and condensed this slightly from Geoff Colvin whose book you should so totally totally read):

1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

I’ve blogged about deliberate practice before – I did a series on it – but the point I want to make here is that if talent isn’t as obvious as we all seem to think it is, maybe passion isn’t either.

If talent doesn’t announce itself with a huge neon blinking sign saying HERE I AM, I AM TALENT, WORSHIP ME –

then maybe passion doesn’t either.

So if we’re trying to find our passion, and we’re looking for that big neon sign – I AM PASSION, WORSHIP ME – and can’t find it, maybe we shouldn’t immediately think that I am the most boring person on the face of the earth.

Maybe we should realize that we’re looking for the wrong thing.

If that big bold neon sign doesn’t exist, what should we be looking for?

Here’s an answer.


to be continued

* Jessica! That’s so not true!

** Cal Newport makes the point that if we don’t understand how somebody accomplished something, we’re more easily impressed by it.

Aug 14, 2010

8 comments · Add Yours

As Keith Cunningham, a friend and mentor, likes to say, “practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent.” That’s why the best in the world have coaches. Tiger Woods cannot see himself swing. So he has 5 coaches watching his swing to tweak it. What creates mastery, in anything, is practicing to improve and that requires 2 things. One, that we get in line. And two, that we stay in line.

Most people believe they can put 20% in and get 100% out. Life, as Keith says, doesnt work that way. You put 20% in you get 20% out. Your put 30% in you get 30% out. The only way you get a 100% is by committing yourself 100%.

Ordinary things consistently done produce extraordinary results. The challenge most people face, is that they witness the end result of these masters performances. They do not witness all the work and practice that was put in before the performance.



Again, I can’t disagree with your analysis about passion and practice, and consequently, INTEREST in pursuing excellence. But I wasn’t writing about improving performance. I was expressing ideas about conceptual thinking, about perception, about curiosity, about the desire to take things apart as apposed to building a skill. I’ll explain.

When I began writing my three books about “spiritual expansion” (and I use that term with humility), I naively believed that if I took the reader from an agnostic point-of-view, and then step by step built bridges of insight to an “awakening,” I would enable my readers to take a shortcut to “Enlightenment” (another term I use very loosely). I didn’t write a nonfiction spiritual book. I wrote a coming-of-age series, and I wrote them with comedy. The philosophy was buried within the story, and one could skip it all and still follow the plot and enjoy the books on a comedic level.

And what I learned from the direct feedback of fifty readers was this: You can’t teach wisdom. The people who were already asking my hero’s philosophical questions received further insight from the ideas he talked about. Those readers who were not interested in life’s mysteries, at least the ones I wrote about, didn’t connect with the “deeper” content.

Now perhaps I failed to communicate those ideas in ways that built logical bridges, but I don’t think so. I believe that interest, and therefore passion, leads people into areas of personal discovery. Once the fire is sparked, all kinds of expansion can happen around that passion, either in the world of thoughts or physical performance. However, that spark comes from our hearts and souls as an attribute of our personalities. I don’t believe it can be induced, except in extreme and emotionally charges situations, like a friend’s death, a car crash, hitting bottom with a dependency, or a nervous breakdown. And even then, these life-changing experiences are determined by the ability to connect the dots. And some people do that more than others.



I question your initial premise that “taking things apart isn’t a skill.” It certainly is and with practice that is focused on improving can be learned. Simply because some readers didn’t quite connect with your stories does not reflect on their inability to develop a spark of passion if they work hard enough at something and master a skill; including taking something apart. Often times before one can even create something new, whether a spiritual connection or other, there is a process, that isn’t necessarily easy, that we go through, requiring us to dismantle and take apart what we have already learned. This takes as much skill as building something new. In essence it’s ying and yang of growth, learning and ultimately passion, which itself can be though is not necessarily connected to interestingness.


Yes Tony, taking things apart IS a skill. And when I hit the SUBMIT button two days ago, I realized I had not properly formulated my last comments, especially at the end, when I said “…life-changing experiences are determined by the ABILITY to connect the dots.” What I should have said was: “…life-changing experiences are determined by the CHOICE to connect the dots.” But there shouldn’t be a value judgment about that, which I insinuated. (Not happy about that.) Asking questions and gaining answers, as I have discovered about myself, does not necessarily boost happiness and contentment. And it certainly doesn’t determine maturity and intelligence. Everyone ponders their lives in different ways. Everyone is unique, and in that regard, interesting.

What I was trying to figure out, and not very well, is the following logic: If passion leads to practice, and practice leads to honing one’s skills and making them more complex and connected to others, then what kicks off passion? That would have to be motivation. More specifically, it would be our choice or desire to excel in a craft and/or to explore new thoughts and ideas. But can motivation be learned? Or does it come preloaded in our software, ready to be installed? I think human being are naturally curious, and that desire to do something can be inspired, even if it’s buried under frustration and fear.

But here’s the big question about that: If motivation is not inspired, if we don’t want to increase our interestingness, are we of lesser value? Are we avoiding some unwritten law about evolution? Are we in denial about exploring our greatest potential?

Or is the simple act of just Being, in a state of contentment, the only requirement to be filled as members of the human race?

Or did I leave something out?

(Thank you Justine, for your though provoking internet classroom. If any of what I’m saying is getting in the way, just let me know.)




I think you hit the nail on the head.

I apologize for picking one sentence of yours apart when you had a deeper, more interesting question.

I don’t know the answer. I always assumed (bad idea) that we are all “preloaded” with this thing that drives us to want to grow and learn and become more. My belief is that society and domestication kills it for many people.

I don’t consider anyone less than anyone else. I didn’t come preloaded with many things. Yet, the older I get I discover that other people didn’t either. I prefer to focus on potential though.

Preloading is perhaps where we are headed when tech and bio merge, though for now, my strong belief is that there is a force that we can open ourselves up to. Many don’t because of fear. It does take learning anew.

What is this force of intelligence and why are people on so many different frequencies? I have no idea. I believe in that there is a “passion potential” in each of us that can be awakened. Not in a pseudo-psych me up, drive through sort of way. A force that when it is tapped into makes us each become so much more than we ever imagined possible. Once that happens, do we become interesting? Is interestingness a prerequisite? I don’t know.

Certainly some people have tapped into it, or have something preloaded at a higher level than others. It’s difficult to judge those without it, as tempting as it may be, as of lower value. I certainly admire and respect some people who have tapped into passion and interestingness at insanely high levels. Yet, some of these people I have admired lose their luster once you’re able to dig a little deeper into their character.

Irv thanks for turning this into a learning area, along with Justine.

Kind regards



So when its 12:05am, and I can’t sleep because my head is spinning thinking about flow charts, mockup screens, people to talk to, programmers working on things, and I’m not tired one bit, and morning will come and I’ll be just as ready to go….working on my startup…

And many people I talk to say “your out of your mind” “this isn’t going to work” “your wasting your time”

And I pour a lot of money into it.

And I pound my head against the wall… asking why something isn’t able to be done.. why a coder is struggling … why they don’t understand.

And I let things go, cleaning my house, cleaning out the frig… on and on…

This passion thing.. is really a pain in the ass.

I like the other passion meanings a lot better.

It’s also so hard to relate. People don’t get it.

I’ve always been this way. I sometimes thing I’m an Alien transformed into this body, this world, this time zone… in a time
warp trying to accomplish something.

wish me luck

Mike Tallent
abigdreamer On twitter


I have started writing a lot about passion both because it is intrinsically related to sustained extreme performance improvement (name someone who is known for sustained extreme performance improvement who does not have deep passion for the…ir quest) but also because the term passion is so over-used and misunderstood – here is my attempt to define what I mean by passion http://edgeperspectives.typepad.com/edge_perspectives/2009/11/pursuing-passion.html and http://edgeperspectives.typepad.com/edge_perspectives/2010/03/passion-versus-obsession.html


For me, learning to be interesting in blogging and writing is similar to finding your voice. Takes time and a willingness to push the boundaries and see what readers like. Go big.


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