John Addis

Do you work hard because you feel you were born to do what you’re doing? Or do you simply want to and need an excuse for the consequences?

The passion trap

John Addis

As it is in Heaven is a Swedish film, but I still enjoyed it. It echoes the themes of Babette’s Feast, where the lifelong enmities of the residents of a remote Jutland village are laid to rest over a bloody good feed. Much the same thing happens in As it is in Heaven, except that music, rather than food, bathes and soothes past wounds.

The protagonist, Daniel Daréus, is a conductor of international repute. He believes that all music already exists. It hangs in the ether, pre-formed, waiting for a soul attuned to its melody to infuse it with life. Daniel takes it upon himself to help people find their natural timbre, to seek out the music that’s within their reach and gently coax it down from the stars.

There’s an unrelenting intensity about the way he approaches his task; a passion that beats so strongly within him that, eventually, it overwhelms him.

“Passion” – you hear that word a lot in business, worn as it is like a badge of belonging among business owners and corporate drudges. Its use has become so inappropriate that burger chain employment ads seek out “enthusiastic, passionate staff” and young-gun entrepreneurs speak breathlessly of their “passion” for their business.

Frankly, I think we’re kidding ourselves. Inappropriate use of language doesn’t just devalue and change the meaning of what we say; eventually it seeps into our thoughts like a virus. Entangled with our neurons, it reformats the way that we think in a subtle, insidious manner that inevitably leads to self-delusion. Language changes the way we think, which is why its use is so heavily contested.

Entrepreneurial passion is supposed to be our motivation, what gets us out of bed in the morning and gives our lives meaning. And it’s true that it does animate us. It brings a compulsive, enervating and finally exhausting energy that may look and feel like passion but, on closer inspection, probably isn’t.

Here’s an example of real passion. Sydney-born Simone Young is the first female conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and general director of the Hamburg State Opera. Last year, among other accolades, she was named conductor of the year.

In a radio interview she once described a moment that, for her, was so transcendental, so overwhelming in its intensity, that it compelled her to keep performing, to keep working at a pace most of us would find truly daunting. The interviewer asked how often she experienced such a feeling. “It’s happened only twice,” she replied, “but it was so good I’d settle for it happening just once every decade or so. That would be worth it.”

And the point of the story? Society beckons us, expects us, to devote our lives to our businesses. Unwittingly at first, we make sacrifices. Our friendships become more tenuous, our partners more distant, our health more fragile. If we’re honest with ourselves we know we are making these sacrifices, but by labelling the emotion that causes us to make them “passion”, it becomes more justifiable. As Daniel Daréus makes clear in the film, passion is something that we simply must do. There is no choice.

But running a business isn’t like that. We had a life before we started our businesses and we’ll have one after we stop. It’s not really passion that compels us at all. So why do we call it so? Because it removes our sense of autonomy and responsibility for the damage that our compulsive desire to prove ourselves can really do.

It prevents us from seeing a truth. That for some of us at least, sacrificing our marriage, our relationships and our health in order to build a business is a sacrifice we are willing to make. We just don’t want to admit to it.


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