Monday, February 6th, 2006

One of the most overused, and therefore meaningless, words in the English language is ‘passion’.

I hear it a lot. We are told we must be ‘passionate’ about our jobs, or our vocations. On Masterchef, (BBC2 6pm weeknights, as they say in the TV guides) the resident chef says he is looking for contestants who are ‘passionate about food’. In universities I hear teachers who condemn students who aren’t ‘passionate’ about their subject.

It’s a meaningless concept, mostly because one’s passion is seemingly judged by others. It’s not enough to claim to be passionate, others need to judge it in you. And presumably they compare it with their own particular passion.
It’s a little like the word ‘strongly’ – people write to newspapers saying they ‘strongly object’ to something, as though that outclasses a simple objection and should end the discussion.
Anyone recruiting for a post who gets a candidate who uses the word ‘passionate’ as the prime reason for being given the job should be shown the door. ‘I’m passionate about graphic design’ translates as ‘I need the money but can’t think of an actual reason why I’m worth it beyond a meaningless adjective’; if it didn’t then see how long they’d do it for free.

I’m not passionate about graphic design, or music, or literature or any of the things about which I might get, let’s say ’emotional’. I may be interested, even deeply interested, in these things. I may come away from a Shostakovitch symphony feeling uplifted or moved, but passion is a word I’d try not to use anymore.

The thing that’s made me watch how I and others abuse this word is talking to a friend who is currently living on a bare sustenance wage of a few pounds a week, working for a charity helping young children who have been deemed to be at risk of getting involved in criminal activity. It’s a job that is dispiriting one minute, uplifting the next (two conversations, within a few hours of each other – after lunch she was on top of the world having made a small difference, last night she was crying down the phone at the burden of responsibility). Talking to her I understand the word ‘passion’. It’s not necessarily emotional – in fact often it’s emotionally deadening – but it is about change. And it’s not about changing yourself, but about changing other people.

How a wannabe chef can get passionate about (as someone did last week) baking an apple and covering it in coconut and doubtless charging a fortune for it is beyond me. That’s enthusiasm, it’s not passion. The same, I’m afraid, for graphic designers who sell shampoo and trainers – but I reserve the right of those who focus on ethical and educational issues to claim to be passionate.

I think I’m partly justified in claiming a ‘passion’ for teaching, but even then I’m working in a somewhat different sector from primary and secondary school teachers, from social workers preventing child abuse, and from counsellors helping victims overcome their experiences – all for far less money and recognition than they deserve.

I think we need to stop abusing the word ‘passion’ and recalibrate our respect for those who show the genuine article. Anyone who claims to be passionate about pushing a mouse around or baking a cake needs not just to get a life, but to experience someone else’s for a few minutes. Passion stems from compassion and is demonstrated through action, not claims.


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