Feeding Passion to the Grit Mill


“Boys, if passion had anything to do with success, howdy, you and me and all of us would all be rich.”

Hello, Strawman. It’s been a while. I guess since you’re here I’ll use you as an excuse to talk about something that’s been on my mind.

When the creative conversation turns to the topic of passion, reactions swing one of two ways:
-“Yes, passion is absolutely key to success.”
-“What a crock! I’m not rich yet, and I love what I do!”

The flaw in the first statement, like many shareable creative platitudes, is in its vagueness. You need x-ray brain glasses to understand just what the speaker means by success. Because we’ve been reared in a capitalist society, it’s only natural to assume that they mean monetary gain. Explosive, copious monetary gain.

Hence the second statement. The resentment, the cynical jeer at the very idea that caring could help. How can passion be of any reliable use to anyone if there are people in the world doing things that they like and not frolicking across vast fields of money the moment they enter the job market? How, how, how? How can we preach the value of passion, of individual voice and drive, when they don’t produce immediate success for everyone in possession of them?

To begin understanding the value of passion, we have to start by shifting our definition of success. How often do you sit and consider that many people we consider successful, in their time, were not? Bradbury had some awareness of it, I’m sure.

“I have written a Time Machine story in which I hum back to sit at the deathbeds of Wilde, Melville, and Poe to tell of my love and warm their bones in their last hours. . . .”
-from Zen in the Art of Writing

To whose side would you fly in your time machine just to thank them for creating something that endured long enough to touch you the way it did? Who should you be thanking now, while there’s time, even if they live in small and cluttered places and eat sliced cheese in their underpants?

Maybe I can re-evaluate my relationship with success only because, even though I’ve only made a few thousand dollars altogether from my art in the five years I’ve done it for work, someone has already thanked me for making something that resonated with them. Something that told them what they’d wanted and needed to hear without even knowing. The value of that gratitude, of that accomplishment, outstripped even money. When I was making money at writing Amazon singles, even when it was a lot, the satisfaction I felt was very animal. I was always subsisting, surviving, not succeeding in a strictly human way.

I couldn’t have achieved either without passion, which I define stringently as a drive to do something non-essential that defies and outlasts setbacks. Passion is about more than enjoying something: It’s a demanding madness for something that’s not helping you in any material way right now. It’s an irrational drive thoroughly mismatched with capitalism.

The only reason I’m using ‘drive’ as opposed to ‘love’ is to keep y’all from getting it twisted. We tend to confuse love and infatuation, and we fall out of one very fast once it stops being fun.

Passion, for reasons we don’t understand, sticks around even after the fun dries up. Whatever we’re passionate about, it’s a game we could keep playing with ourselves indefinitely. We return to it, steal time for it, even when it can’t benefit us. Taken as it is, passion is kind of useless.

That is, unless you convert it into something useful: Grit. Passion converts more readily and economically into grit than greed or spite. Greed and spite wait for the payout of money (lots!) and revenge (bloody!), and lose their capacity to convert into staying power the longer those needs go unmet. Passion’s needs, being more amorphous and nonsensical, keep you working even when the payout won’t come. While greed and spite are banging on the Skinner levers, passion’s in the corner of the box doing its own thing.

Passion doesn’t make money appear, no, but it can keep you in the game long enough to get good enough and meet enough people that money becomes a fringe benefit of your weirdness. It keeps you writing the book until it’s finished, even. Do you know how long it takes to write a book? As long as it takes, and that could be years with no material reward. Passion can carry you through that. It makes room for the compromises you make to live because it cannot be totally displaced from your life. It can keep you awake to write hundreds or thousands of words a day when your blue collar day job is wringing you out.

Passion is patient because it’s impatient. Passion is a possessive brain fungus that directs you into taking the small daily steps toward success without immediate promise of reward. It’s a beautiful, terrible Ophiocordyceps unilateralis of creativity.

The next time you feel your lip curling up at the suggestion that you need passion to succeed, ask yourself:
-Am I equating success with money?
-Am I equating passion with entertainment?
-Am I assuming a one-to-one conversion of that entertainment into money?
-Am I assuming that conversion to be immediate, or damn near immediate?
-Am I just mad because I’ve got it all twisted and I feel insulted?