The Passion Problem: Does Anyone Even Know What Passion Means?

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Everyone says that they want to find their passion. People believe that they'll be happy if only they could figure out what made them passionate. If you ask anyone about their highest-level goals, they're sure to mutter something that includes the word "passion" and "quest." But does anyone even know what passion means?

We have a systemic problem on our hands. We've been taught that we should all search for our passions, and yet at the same time, we're unable to accurately define "passion." What makes one person feel passionate won't necessarily make someone else feel the same way. There's no standard model that tells us what passion is, why it's important, and how to get it.

And yet still we listen to the self-improvement gurus and "try to find our passion." The result? An entire generation of people chasing goals that aren't definable and who place their happiness on a future that'll never exist. It's called the passion problem, and it's becoming an epidemic.

In this article, we'll discuss the passion problem, its implications, as well as the things you can do to overcome it. By the end, you should understand why pursuing your passion isn't a good strategy at all, despite what people tell you.

The Passion Problem Defined

The problem with passion is that can't be easily defined. If you look in the dictionary, passion is simply a "strong or barely controllable emotion." This broad understanding leaves the idea of passion far too open to interpretation. What's more, passion seems to be a recent development in which our ancestors had no previous interest, anyway.

Overall, there are two problems with the idea of passion:

  1. Passion can't be easily defined and is therefore not a good goal
  2. Passion-seeking is a recent development that wasn't previously required for happiness

So let's quickly recap. Passion is undefinable and means something different for each-and-every person. Passion is also used to describe a modern idea of happiness and not a traditional one. Overall, when people talk about "passion" today, what they're really talking about is their quest to find lasting joy.

But this causes a disconnect in which someone knows they need to go somewhere, but they don't know which direction to go or how they'll even know when they've arrived. This is part of the passion problem. It's a society that promotes undefinable goals, giving people false hope and a false sense of forward movement.

Further, the idea of passion is a "higher-level" problem. If you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, you'll see that "self-actualization" is the highest-level need. You can think of passion as self-actualization. Below this need are such things as food, shelter, and clothing.

Clearly, these are more important needs, making them base needs. However, the second part of the passion problem is that we think of these needs today as "lower-level" rather than foundational. If you think about it, our ancestors didn't have time to fulfill any higher needs like self-actualization. Instead, they were too busy ensuring that their base needs were consistently met.

The result? A healthy and happy nomadic society. But as soon as we fulfilled these lower needs through agriculture and industry, our happy societies changed, giving us more time to think about self-actualization but making us comparatively less happy.

What this means is that while many of us can't define passion, even fewer of us would actually benefit from it. This is the passion problem. And in order to fully overcome it, it's important to understand how the idea of passion has changed over time.

What Passion Means Today

Today, passion is the holy grail of goals. If you ask someone about their ultimate desire, it'll most likely be to find their passion. Which makes sense. We're now taught from a young age that the point of life is to search for your passion. It's an altruistic goal, really, but also equally selfish.

This is because our idea of passion is very self-centered. When you try to define your passion, what you're actually trying to do is figure out what'll bring you the most lasting happiness. Now, for some people, passion is found by helping others. If this describes you, then kudos. But for most of us, modern passion comes from something that directly benefits us.

You might want to be a famous musician because you love the music, but if no musician in history ever made more than $100 a week, you might find your passion begin to wane. Don't scoff or roll your eyes. Deep down you know it's true.

So being passionate is being selfish. Self-actualization is, by definition, centered on the self and not the other. It's not referred to as "other-actualization."

But being passionate is also unattainable in the modern sense. This is because a strong or uncontrolled emotion is not lasting. You can have a spike in happiness, but when that wears off, what are you left with? Achieving a goal feels good in the moment, but when you're alone in your room, what really matters? Chances are you aren't thinking about that goal.

What Passion Meant in the Past

In the past, however, things were much different. Prior to the agricultural revolution some 10k years ago, life was hard. Humans had to band together to live. There was no time to think about self-actualization because everyone was too busy with survival. The result? People focused on fulfilling Maslow's base needs, which include food, water, and shelter.

And how did humans do this? Through a reliance on community. We couldn't survive by ourselves in prehistoric times. Instead, we had to rely on each other. We couldn't order a pizza and ponder about our nature of reality. Rather, we had to work in a coordinated and multi-day effort to hunt and gather in an attempt to feed everyone in the tribe.

Therefore, passion wasn't an issue. In fact, prehistoric humans probably had an easier time feeling what we modern humans would call "passion," since lasting joy was gained via helping the tribe. And prehistoric humans did that every day.

So, in a sense, passion has traditionally come from the fulfillment of Maslow's lower-level needs. And at the same time, early humans weren't even trying to find their passion. Instead, they were trying to survive, and their ability to do so was passion enough. Which means that passion was also much more definable, since "survival of tribe" could be accurately measured.

What Should We Do About the Passion Problem?

In effect, the passion of yesteryear does a much better job at solving the passion problem than today's definition of passion. In fact, the entire passion problem comes due to a divergence of what passion used to mean and what it means today. Therefore, if we want to overcome the passion problem, we need to go back to our roots.

Remember that the two issues of modern passion are that it's undefinable and that it's selfish. Conversely, the two major strengths of traditional or prehistoric passion are that it's easily definable and selfless. What's more, this traditional passion wasn't even a goal of prehistoric humans, but was rather a byproduct of survival.

But we don't really need to survive anymore. Not if we live in a modern western country. And yet we're hardwired to feel this need for passion, only that today, our lower-level needs are met, causing us to only focus on the higher-level needs. But those needs aren't definable or fulfilling.

So, in order to overcome the modern passion problem, we need to emulate passion in the traditional sense. Instead of trying to find our passion, we need to set definable goals that help our tribe or community of people as much as it helps us. We need to stop thinking about self-actualization as the most important thing, and rather focus on the joy in the fulfillment of our lower-level needs.


Passion isn't a bad thing. However, it's a bad goal as long as you define it in the modern sense. Instead, if you want to follow your passion, you need to make it both definable as well as selfless. Only then will your passion fulfill you like you expect it.

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