Passion vs. Curiosity
“Follow Your Passion“. It’s a phrase we’ve heard over and over and over. Yet, recently, I was introduced to another view of this concept, thanks to author Elizabeth Gilbert. She has had a change of heart … and so have I.
Elizabeth Gilbert was asked to speak at one of Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions, a while back. Her topic was titled “Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity-Driven Life“. This is the talk she gave:
And, because some of you may be more like me, preferring to read, over watching the video (though, I do still highly recommend you watch the video, if you have time … Liz is a great speaker!), I’ve transcribed the video for your convenience:
[Oprah gives intro] [Liz:] Sweeties! Sweethearts, my loves, we’re here, in so much grace… Thank you. Thank you so much. So listen, I’m here today to do something that, I have to be honest with you, that I never in a million years thought I would ever do. I am here today to speak out against passion. You heard me right: against passion. And I know it sounds very strange and weird, but I want you to stay with me on this. Because I really believe what I have to say here, today, may bring a measure of comfort, specifically to some of you, in particular, and I’m hoping it really will.
But I have to back up for a minute, and just say, to come clean, that I am the least likely person in the world ever to become a committed anti-passion spokeswoman. The fact is that I have led my entire life guided by passion. Particularly in regard to my work as a writer, which is a vocation I have been chasing my entire life with a love that you could call obsessive.
I can barely even remember a time before I knew that I was going to be a writer, that I had to be a writer, that I needed to be a writer, that I was going to be a writer, no matter what it took.
I was probably like 5 or 6; I was a book-loving child. And, I remember I pieced it together, at last, that books do not just magically appear out of the ether, but that people make them. They create them, from their imaginations. And that kind of person who does that, is called a Writer. And once I had that piece of information, that was it: my destiny, from that point forward, was sealed, I made my decision. And I have never veered from that passion since.
I have to be very honest with you, because it would be disingenuous of me to play at anything else: Passion has worked for me. Passion was the thing that kept me writing in the new, early years, before anybody else except me cared about what I was doing. For a long time, I made a living as a diner waitress, and a bartender. And passion was the thing that made me come home from those long shifts, smelling like other people’s French fries, with really sore feet, after a really long day at work, and then I would take off my shoes and sit down, and go to my real work. And that real work was Writing. I did that, day after day and year after year. Even when I was getting nothing out of it, except for rejection letter, after rejection letter, after rejection letter. But I didn’t care.
I didn’t love it. No one loves being rejected. But passion — my passion for writing was so big that it made me stay in the game, even through all of the obstacles. And then, finally, I got lucky enough to become a published writer. Then, in 2006, I got really lucky. I wrote this book called, “Eat, Pray, Love” — you remember that one? — and, it became really successful, much to my surprise. And as soon as that happened, as soon as I became successful, THIS started to happen… people started putting a microphone in my hand, and they would send me up on stage, and they would ask me to stand there and speak about how I had gotten there, and what I had learned.
And so, of course, the minute I had the opportunity to speak in public about the thing I cared about and believed in the most, what did I talk about? Passion. What else would it have been? There was no other subject, as far as I was concerned. Passion, to me, was everything. It was the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the one true path, and the only way forward. And so, in audiences across the world, I would just stand there on stage and I would say some variation of this, night after night.
“You know what you have to do, every single one of you? You have to identify your passion. You have to identify that tower of flame within you that will be your guiding, purposeful light. You have to find that thing that makes you feel like your head is on fire, that makes you feel like there’s a soul revolution going on deep inside your rib cage, that makes you feel like you would sacrifice and risk everything for that thing, that nothing else matters, that thing that you KNOW you were born to do. Then you have to get every molecule of your being, and you’ve got to funnel it directly and powerfully into that thing, that one thing, and no other thing. And you’ve got to focus on that forever, and that way, and only that way, will you succeed.”
I’d be up there on stage, and I’d be quoting Vince Lombardi, and I’d be quoting Winston Churchill, and I’d be quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, and I’d be quoting Jonathan “freakin’” Livingston Seagull, and I’d be telling people that ‘if you can dream it you can be it’, and that you’ve got to ‘jump so the net will catch you’, and ‘what would you do if you knew you could not fail’, and you guys… you know all the bumper stickers, you probably have them on your car, right?
We all know these slogans. But I did it with enormous sincerity, because I really believed it. I believed that I was doing a public service by telling people that they had to live their lives exactly the same way that I had always lived mine. I preached that, because that was my fundamental truth, that was my certainty. And then, something happened.
And this is the good part. Because, if you wait long enough in life, trust me, something will eventually happen that will undo your certainty. Which is where the interesting things begin, right? That is certain, that that will happen, by the way.
So, what happened to me was this: That not long ago, I was in Australia, and I was on a speaking tour, and I was giving a speech in front of an audience. I was doing my thing, I was doing my passion dog-and-pony show, and my passion tent-revival thing that I do, and I thought it went really well, and that the audience had been responsive, and I felt satisfied. I went back to my hotel room that night and was like, “Good job, Liz. You helped those people.” I crawled into bed, ordered up some room service and, just to pass the time, I started scrolling through my Facebook page. And that’s when I saw that somebody had written me a letter… a really long — an exceptionally long — letter, on the wall of my Facebook page. It was from a woman, an Australian woman, who had been in the audience that night. And, as I say, it was a long letter, so I’m just going to paraphrase it here, and tell you, in essence, what she had to say to me. But, basically, it was this:
She said, “Hey, Liz. Just came from your speech. And I don’t even really know why I’m doing this, but I just feel the need to let you know that I am sitting all alone in my bedroom, right now, in the dark, with the door locked behind me. And, because of what you said up there, tonight, on stage, I have never felt worse about myself then I feel at this moment.”
Wait. What? That caught my attention. I sort of leaned into the letter, like, what is this? And, she went on to say:
“… Because you, Liz Gilbert, just spent the last two hours, up there on that stage, saying exactly the same thing to me that people like you have been saying to people like me forever. ‘You’ve gotta follow your passion, follow your passion, follow your passion.’ And it all sounds well and good. But I just have to tell you –because I don’t know who else to tell, and I’ve got to get this out– I don’t have one. I don’t have one. For the last time, I don’t have one. And I think, if I had one, I would know because it sounds, from the way you describe it, like it’s pretty freakin’ obvious! In fact, I would probably be the first one to know if I had one. And I don’t have one. And I’m telling you, it is not for lack of searching. I have not been lazy in my life. I have been tearing myself apart for years, trying to find that thing that you people keep talking about, that one tower of flame that’s going to be the guiding principle that I can organize my entire life around. And I’m telling you, it is not there. I don’t have anything in my life that makes me feel like my head is on fire, like there’s a soul revolution going on inside my rib cage. I don’t have one thing that I feel like it’d be safe to risk everything on, and jump off the cliff for. I don’t have it.
“The thing about me is that, I’m kind of interested in a lot of stuff at the same time. And then I get into it, and then I realize I’m not really that interested in it. Then I get interested in something else. And my interests change by the season, and I almost feel like I can’t always keep up with all the interests that I have. And I never really know what to commit to. By this point in my life, the age that I’m at, I’m starting to feel so deeply embarrassed by this, because I feel like I should have this sorted out by now. I should know, by now, what my purpose is, what my passion is, and I don’t know what it is, and I feel like a failure. I’m starting to feel like a freak — like there’s something really essential that’s missing from my DNA. And, no offense to you, Liz Gilbert, ’cause you’re probably a really nice person, and I’m sure you didn’t mean to do it. But I came to hear you, tonight, seeking guidance, and you just made me feel like the biggest loser in the world. Not your problem, probably, anyway. Goodnight. Thanks.”
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.
So, I went back and I read it again. And I read it again. And I sat there for the longest time, just staring at the wall. Then I thought, and I actually said it out loud… I said, “Oh my gosh, I’m a jerk.” But I didn’t use the word “jerk” — I used a much worse word that I’m not going to use. But, how many people have I done this to? How many times have I gone out in public, rallying, “Follow your passion! Follow your passion! Follow your passion!”, not recognizing that perhaps I was leaving some people behind, making them feel excluded, making them feel –heaven forbid– like failures, like losers, because they don’t have that certainty, that thing that I’ve always had?
This was one of these really epiphenal moments for me, because that’s what it feels like when the bottom starts to fall out of your certainty. And I’m sure you’ve had these moments, in your own life, where all-of-a-sudden, you’re forced to look at the thing you believe more than anything and ask yourself, “When was the last time I actually took a step back from this, to see if what my central truth is, is even true?” If it’s even true. And, I thought, I’ve got to have a reckoning here.
So, I sat there and just started thinking about the lives of the people who I love and admire the most in the world, the people who I revere, with all my heart. The people who I know most intimately: my family, my friends, my loved ones, the colleagues who I look up to. And I asked myself, “Knowing them as well as I do, knowing their biographies as intimately as I do, how many of those people could honestly say that they knew, when they were in kindergarten, exactly what they were going to be doing with their life, that they chose that path, that they stuck to it, that they built their entire life around that one single passion, that they never veered from it, that they never looked to the left, never looked to the right, just barreled right through, and today they are still doing that thing? How many of those people?” The answer, when I was very honest with myself about it, was, basically NONE of them. Like, statistically, ZERO percent of them. Which hadn’t stopped any of those people from living gorgeous, rich, complicated lives full of what our friend, Brene Brown, calls ‘wholeheartedness’. These are the people I admire the most in the world. And their lives were not this single, direct, clear, purposeful, wake-up-in-the-morning-from-the-time-you’re-a-child-and-you-know-what-you’re-going-to-be straight line. In fact, when I really thought about it, their lives looked more like a journey through a carnival fun house, you know… with a lot of trap-doors, and hidden staircases, and things that you thought were walls and then they slid open and there was a maze behind it, and they would sort of drop into a basement, and like, all of this kind of going, trying this, failing at that, getting fired from here, quitting this, trying this, realizing it was the wrong thing, you know… just this kind of bouncing through, until they eventually worked their way through to the often spectacular places where they were now standing, as I knew them.
I thought, for instance, about my very best friend in the world. The person I trust with all my heart, my friend Rayya Elias, the wisest and kindest person I’ve ever met. I thought about her life’s journey. And, are you ready for it? Here it goes: Born in Syria. Family moves to Michigan when she’s a child. Difficult time adjusting to America. By the time that she’s in her late teens and twenties, she’s a punk rock musician in Detroit’s underground music scene. And then she becomes a hairdresser. And then she becomes a fashion stylist on photo shoots all over the world. Then she stops doing that and she becomes a filmmaker. And then she stops doing that, and she writes a book and becomes a published author. Now she is in New York City, with great success and satisfaction, selling high-end real estate. And all of this –a logical progression, right?– all of this, through the course of a very convoluted, and often devastatingly painful journey that included, among other stops, a long period of heroine addiction, a period of homelessness, and more visits than she can physically name or count on her fingers to prisons, rehab centers, and mental hospitals, before she finally found her way through that fun house to where she is now. And, what has my best friend Rayya’s journey made her into?
Let me put it this way. I’m someone who people come to for advice, and sometimes people even pay me to stand and distribute inspiration. But when I’m lost and broken, and I’ve taken a face-plant in the middle of my life and I’ve blown it, and I’ve failed and I don’t know what to do, and I’m stuck and I’m lost, and I’m scared, the very first phone call I make is to my friend, Rayya. Because I know, first of all, that she will listen to me with completely non-judgmental compassion. Because, if there’s one thing that Rayya’s journey has taught her –her checkered, difficult journey– it’s that you do not judge anybody for where they are standing at that moment on their path, no matter what. We all say that, but she lives that because of all the places that she has stood on her own path. So I know I can bring her anything, and she’ll be like, “Oh, baby.” I also know that what she will then do, is she will gather up all the accumulated wisdom and grace and experiences that she has from every one of those lives that she has lived, and all those places she has been, and everything she has seen and learned, and she stands on a mountain of that perspective, and looks out over the landscape of my problem with eyes that nobody else would have, and she hand-crafts, for me, an answer to my difficult problem that literally no one else in the world could have come up with, because literally no one else has been, done, felt and seen all that she has been, done, felt and seen. That’s what Rayya’s checkered, convoluted, weird, random journey made her into. And she is golden in my heart. Golden.
And then I thought about my husband — my wonderful, freaky-fantastic husband, the love of my life. Born in Brazil to a very poor family, felt he had no options there. Managed to scrape together enough money, by selling scrap metal and bones, when he was a teenager, to slaughter-houses, and glue-manufacturing places. Gets enough money to buy a one-way ticket to Europe, for reasons he could not have been able to even articulate at the time. Goes to Europe with no possible direction, bounces around Europe for four years. Drifts over to the Middle East, for reasons he still can’t even really identify. Goes from there to Australia, where he lived for 17 years. And then, after seventeen years in Australia, he went to Southeast Asia for eight years. I met him there, and now, of course, he’s married to me, and we live in New Jersey, because all the great adventures end in New Jersey.
So, his life has looked anything but like this single, direct, straight, driven line of purpose that I’ve been preaching to people forever they’ve got to do. If anything, his life looks like a pinball through a pinball machine, more than it looks like anything else. And I thought, as I sat there in that hotel room, contemplating all of this, I thought about a really painful story that he had told me about that had happened in his life, once. Where a friend of his had come at him –you know how sometimes people come at you with just some huge missile of judgement?– she had come at him so fierce, and got him right where he lived, and she said, “You know you’re never going to leave a legacy, when you die, right? Because, to have a legacy, you have to focus on one thing. And you just haven’t had that kind of focus in your life because you’ve just been moving around, and doing all this different kind of stuff. And the reason you don’t have that focus, is because you don’t have a central passion. And that’s why you’re never going to leave a legacy. In fact, you’re so unfocused, you don’t even have a hobby that you’ve committed to!”
And it hurt him, as it would have hurt anybody, to hear this — nice friend, by the way. Sweetheart. It hurt him. But instead of reacting, he took it home and thought about it. He thought about it for a few days, and then came back to her, a few days later, and said, “You know, I can’t stop thinking about what you said. First of all, I’m not really worried about a legacy. That’s not something I’ve ever really been concerned with in my life. I’m not wired that way. And you are correct to say that I don’t have a hobby. I don’t care about a hobby. But you’re wrong to say that I don’t have a passion. I do have a passion. My passion is for life itself, in all of its magnificent directions.” For life itself. And what a life he’s lived, which is exactly why I fell in love with him, and why not one day of our marriage has been boring, to me. Because of that.
And then I kept processing this, and I thought about all the people I know and love who are still very much on the search, who are still really unsure about what their purpose is, who aren’t totally certain that they have one, central burning passion, and who are still moving from this to that, trying A, trying B, trying C. Some of these people whom I know and love, are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, and they’re still trying to figure out what they’re going to be when they grow up… does that sound like anybody in here? You know that feeling, right? And, I know that some of them are really at ease with the shape of their journey, but I know –and I should have seen all of this, long ago– that many of them are not. They carry that anxiety about the fact that, in a culture that fetishizes passion, and fetishizes certainty, they are uncertain, and they are not totally sure that they have this great, burning purpose, and they’re not totally sure what their legacy is going to be, and it makes them feel stressed. It makes them feel like “I should have seen this already”, like that woman in Australia who said she felt like a loser and a failure, “by this age, I should have had this figured out”. I know this because they’ve come to me, and they’ve told me these things.
I realized, that night, what I ought to have realized a long time ago: That every time somebody like me says to somebody like that, “Hey, it’s really easy to solve your life, man. All you’ve gotta do is just follow your passion”, it probably twists like a knife in their guts. So, I don’t do it any more. I don’t say that any more. I don’t preach “There is only one path and it is…” I don’t preach that any more. Because I don’t even know if I believe it any more.
And, these days, when I meet somebody who’s on the search, who’s feeling lost, who’s feeling confused, who’s feeling purposeless, who is like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here”, I actually say to them the exact opposite thing of what I would have said a few years ago. And the very first thing I say is, “Listen, do yourself a great service, do yourself a great kindness, and just for now, just take the word ‘passion’ off the table. Just relieve yourself of that. Because there’s so much pressure around that. Just take it off the table. Just forget about it. Just let it go. And where that was, instead of that anxiety, and that urgency, and that panic about chasing a passion that you’re not even feeling, do something that’s a lot easier, a lot simpler: Just follow your curiosity. Because curiosity is such a gentler, kinder, more welcoming, more humane instinct than passion. And it’s so much more accessible.
Passion is this really intimidating, grand concept. It really is the burning tower of flame in the desert. And it can be hard to see that on a random Tuesday when you’re feeling blue. And the other thing about passion is that it’s demanding, it’s greedy, it insists that it take everything out of you. Those are the terms of passion. Passion says, throw it all in the pot. Risk it all. You want to make an impact, you’ve got to make a huge change. You’ve got to get divorced, shave your head, change your name, move to Nepal, open up an orphanage. And maybe not everyone needs to do that this week, okay? Maybe it’s okay. And, passion — the other thing I should say about it, if we’re being very honest — can sometimes be a dangerous impulse. And, for evidence of that, we’re going to do just a little thought experiment here. I want you all to just pause for a moment, and each and every one of you, look back at your own history, and let’s remember the most passionate love story of your life. Remember that? Yeah, how’d that work out for you? And what kind of condition were you in when it was over? Passion had taken what it always demands, which is everything, out of you. Right? What kind of state were you in when passion was done having its way with you?
And the reason I’m saying all this is because, in contrast to the demands, the urgency, the greed, the mania that can be associated with passion, curiosity doesn’t do that to you. Curiosity will never strip your life bare. Curiosity will never make outrageous demands upon you. Curiosity will never take. Curiosity only does one thing, and that is to give. And what it gives you are clues, on the incredible scavenger hunt of your life. Every single day. And, curiosity is accessible every single day, because it’s so mild, and the stakes are so low. Even on the worst days, there’s something you can find that you’re a tiny little bit interested in. No matter how small it is, no matter how nothing it seems, no matter how it’s not going to change the world, no matter how you’re not going to mortgage your house to go do it. There’s something in your life, always, on every day, that you’re a little bit curious about. That is the trail of breadcrumbs, the scavenger hunt, the channel that God feeds the little clues for on the incredible scavenger hunt of your specific, incredible, and precious life. And the only thing that curiosity will ever ask of you is that you turn your head a quarter of an inch — you bother to turn your head a quarter of an inch — and just look a little closer at one of those clues. And it might be nothing. You might follow it for a few inches and think, Oh, no, that wasn’t a thing. And that’s fine, because you didn’t burn your whole life to go do it. You just looked, like, “Am I into…? No, I guess I’m not into that”. And you let it go. It might be nothing. And then, the next time, there’s another clue, and that… You might just go for a really long time doing that. And it might lead you nowhere, or this might happen. I’ve seen it happen. Because this is the flight of the natural-born hummingbird.
See, the world is divided into two kinds of people: There are the jackhammers, and there are the hummingbirds.
Jackhammers are people like me… you put a passion in their hands, and we’re just like guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh… and we don’t look up, and we don’t veer, and we’re just focused on that ’til the end of time. And it’s efficient… you get a lot done. But we tend to be obsessive, and fundamentalist, and sometimes a little bit difficult, and loud.
Hummingbirds spend their lives doing it very differently. They move from tree to tree, from flower to flower, from field to field, trying this, trying that. And two things happen: They create incredibly rich, compelling lives for themselves. And they also end up cross-pollinating the world. That is the service that you do, if you are a Hummingbird person. Because you bring an idea from there, to over here, where you learn something else, and you weave it in, and then you take it here to the next thing you do, so that your perspective ends up keeping the entire culture aerated and mixed up and open to the new and the fresh. And, if that is how you are constructed by your Divine Maker, then that is how we need you to be. You just keep doing that. That is what the path is that you’re supposed to lead.
And I’ll give you the trick, here’s the magical thing… If you do that, if you’re willing to just release yourself from the pressure and the anxiety surrounded by passion, and you just humbly and faithfully continue to follow the trail of the Hummingbird path — going here, going here, going here, going here — and you just trust it, one of these days you might just look up and realize, “Oh my word, I am exactly where I’m meant to be. I’m with the people I’m supposed to be with, I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing, I’m in the city I’m supposed to be living in, my family looks the way it is.” In other words, if you can let go of passion and follow your curiosity, your curiosity just might lead you to … your passion! Whaaaat?
That is it. That is the magical trick. I’ve seen it happen. And when it happens, it does feel like there’s a Divine hand in there, like the whole thing wasn’t random, but Somebody was guiding it.
It reminds me of a lovely quote by the beautiful 14th century poet, Hafez. He said, “This place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and heart and mind can turn, against the sky, the Beloved bowed there. The Beloved bowed there, knowing you were coming, holding that place for you.”
It’s possible that all of us never were in the wrong place, that every place has been bowed to… That there is holiness and sacredness in all of the places we are, the lost place, the dark place, the broken place, the pretend place. That an eternity ago, the Beloved bowed, circled that, held that place for you, knowing you were coming. That there is no place you can be that is not sacred and holy. And here’s the deal, though: Just because God circled on a map, long ago, this place where we are all standing, right now in our lives, does not mean that that is where the Beloved intends for us to remain.
Maybe what is being asked of all of us, now, however we are constructed, is that we all have the humility, and the discipline, and the faith to lift our eyes, turn our head a quarter of an inch, and look for the next clue, and the next clue, and the next clue. And that we trust the breadcrumbs, that we trust our curiosity, that we trust our interests, we trust the map, and trust the Map-maker. More than anything else, I beg this of you, my sweet, beautiful, Hummingbird friends: Never let a passion-bully like me push you around again. You are perfect. I love you all. Thank you so much!