The Passion-Industrial Complex

“You are an honest man, and do not make it your business either to please or displease the favourites. You are merely attached to your master and to your duty. You are finished.”
–La Bruyere.

“In 1800, just 20% of Americans had an employer other than themselves; by 1900, the figure was up to 50%, and by 2000, 90%.”
–Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety.

When I was growing up–in a decade when condoms weren’t for sale in Ireland and the Jesuit church in Limerick hadn’t yet been sold for redevelopment–there were things that my friends agreed on. Variously, they had to do with ideas about sex before marriage; God; gays; who was a fine thing; who was a knob; and the tampon-virginity link. In the school canteen, where we tested our collective worldview through a fog of rancid chip-fat and condensation, we adjudicated that having sex might be okay as long as you were in college, really in love, and had been together for x months or years–where x took as long to solve for as the quadratic equations in our copybooks.

We took an inventory of symptoms of what “really in love” was going to feel like–trusting scripts more than swoons, as if already knew we were just trying this stuff on. We were in a hurry to get complacent, and when the boyfriends finally ambled in, we ticked off the weeks and months we’d been going out, racing each other to anniversaries. Though we sat around noting matronly truths about the nature of fellas, our commitment was to each other. Twenty years later, we all admit that for all the love talk, no boys from that time ever cost us anything like the girls who dumped us as friends. And everyone had one of those.

I didn’t agree with the canteen worldview, but it rarely occurred to me to say so. Not when I loved being in a warm little gang, at an age when everything was either hilarious or horrific. It took so little to nod along, and then take my own dogma from the stack of imported Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire magazines in my bedroom. As far as I knew, none of my friends read them, and I didn’t mind. It was the tribe that got me up to go to school every day.

People talk most about what they are hungry for, sketching their lack in words. At fifteen, it’s sex. In Dublin today, people go on (and on) about money and houses. In San Francisco, we talk about time, balance, and community. And in the corporate world, people talk about passion.

At my kitchen table the other night a friend blurted out her annoyance at a job interview experience that day.
“He kept asking, ‘What are you passionate about?’ And I just didn’t feel that was right in an interview. So intrusive. Whenever I tried to deflect it, he’d go, “No, really, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s your passion?

Her complaint sparked the others.
“Oh god,” said someone else, “I worked at this company where they’d come up with all these words we were supposed to embody. And they installed them as screensavers, so if you stopped typing for a bit to think about the next paragraph, ‘Passion’ and ‘Excellence’ and all the rest would start floating down your screen like Tetris blocks.”

“I like my work. I’m good at it. I try hard. When did that stop being enough? When did it have to be my Passion? I just got married. There are things in my life that are really important to me. But they’re not necessarily all part of my work life, and I don’t want to bring them into a job interview.”

“It’s like, you’re not allowed to have a private life any more. They want to own all of you.”

“I think they started doing it because it took some of the responsibility off them. Let’s face it, there’s no loyalty to employees. We’re just not set up that way any more. So if someone has to lay you off, now they get to feel that this is your Passion, so you’ll just go and pursue it somewhere else. They get to feel better.”

“After all, it’s your Passion. That means you’d do it for free, right? So no need to worry about you, or worry about your family life when you’re there at all hours.”


“Except…nobody gives you those screensavers if you work for Doctors Without Borders or you’re, I don’t know, a fourth-grade teacher. Or a midwife. That’s where it goes without saying. It’s when you’re sitting in a cube, doing your best at a corporate job even though it’s not saving the planet–that’s where they’re going to start talking about Passion. And if you don’t join in…”

“If you don’t join in…”

What? What happens if you don’t join in?

If I were 15 in San Francisco today, instead of twenty years ago in Limerick, I probably wouldn’t spend afternoons sitting in a smelly canteen talking about life. I’d be too busy polishing my collection of Passions, ready for inspection by the college admissions officers. Instead of going along with really-in-love, I’d be pumping an interest in soccer into a fervor, or turning a trip to Mexico into a passion for international relations. I’d understand that, just like really-in-love, passion was just a code for getting to what you wanted. Not a lie, exactly, more of an…augmentation. I might even have noticed all those tip-off intensifiers–real love, genuine commitment, authentic passion–that admit fakery is possible, even likely. And I’d be well-trained by a culture in which all manner of passion is faked.

As usual, Paul Graham says it well in this essay addressed to school leavers:


And what’s your real job supposed to be? Unless you’re Mozart, your first task is to figure that out. What are the great things to work on? Where are the imaginative people? And most importantly, what are you interested in? The word “aptitude” is misleading, because it implies something innate. The most powerful sort of aptitude is a consuming interest in some question, and such interests are often acquired tastes.A distorted version of this idea has filtered into popular culture under the name “passion.” I recently saw an ad for waiters saying they wanted people with a “passion for service.” The real thing is not something one could have for waiting on tables. And passion is a bad word for it. A better name would be curiosity.

From “What You’ll Wish You’d Known”

It makes me sad. Cranky, too. We’ve used up so many great and needed words this way, and passion is a sacred one. It’s the language of Abelard and Heloise, Petrarch, Anna Karenina, Beethoven, and Oppenheimer. It belongs to lovers, artists, and worldchangers–who rarely need to talk about it, because they live it–and it means something more than “kick it up a notch.” We have good words for what we need–curiosity, enthusiasm, craftsmanship, and dedication. Let’s stick to them, and save passion for when we (really) mean it.

22 thoughts on “The Passion-Industrial Complex”

  1. I haven’t encountered this in book publishing, but perhaps that’s because they know you wouldn’t work in publishing unless you really, really wanted to–certainly, nobody does it for the money. Still, in general the concept is familiar to me.

    In a senior Women’s Studies seminar in college, our professor asked for a show of hands from those who wanted to have a “career” and then from those who wanted a “job.” To my surprise, mine was the only hand raised for the latter.

    I like work and tend to do a lot of it, but the idea of a “career” makes me feel that (a) I’m locked into it, which is no fun, and (b) I should be rather more _passionate_ about it than I think is healthy. And some of the most fun or interesting jobs I’ve had could only be that–jobs.


  2. “Microsoft. Your potential. Our Passion.”


    This is a real MS marketing slogan. Sadly.

    Great post, Dervala.

    PS Why the middle “a” in your name? In Ireland, most of the (relatively few) girls with that name use Dervla or an Irish spelling. Just curious.


  3. hi dervala,

    i really enjoyed this piece and i can’t tell you how happy i am that you’re posting so frequently again.

    p.s. i just returned from a season of working in the bush up and around and north of wawa–i took the liberty of giving your regards to lake superior and now, here, bringing the lake’s back to you.


  4. I think of a “passion” as something consuming, annoying, and probably useless that I nevertheless can’t get away from. You know, like banjo music, or for crying out loud, poetry. I would be embarrassed to lay claim to any of these in a job interview. I don’t mind being enthusiastic about my work but I would probably quit if someone demanded I treat their company as my “passion.” Fortunately, no one has done this to me yet, even though I live in the Bay Area. I must be lucky.


  5. Seen on a bumper sticker (I nearly drove my car into oncoming traffic in my delight):

    “I thought I wanted a career.
    Turns out I just wanted a paycheck.”

    That’s me all over, that is.


  6. Once again I find myself wishing I were twenty years younger. Then, you could fall in love again!

    Simple minded jest offered in context of previous person’s comment and without emoticons…

    You’ve outdone yourself again, Dervala. I love this essay. It’s laden with deep insights, personal revelations, profundity… I’ll pass it on to my friends. Thanks.

    (One place it touched me: Beth hasn’t been all that happy with her work for a few years now, but she has a lot of experience and she impresses people with her competence. I work with a fellow who is working with Beth on a project. He’s tickled that he has these two married colleagues in separate compartments in his world. He often tells me that he really enjoys working with Beth because he knows that [institutional planning] is her “passion.” I want to bop him in the nose when I hear that, since I know that she brings experience and professionalism to that work, high order competence, but no way is passion any part of it. In fact, she would vomit to hear him say that.) — end fatuous comment and boring anecdotal insignificance.



  7. Frank and Ivan, you’re cracking me up.

    I think I have to write a follow-up post to this one. There’s so much to see about passion and the workplace, and I didn’t get to it all here. But I’m getting more and more interested in how it’s playing out.


  8. Thank you for pointing out the elephant in the room.
    Passion should be reserved for the sacred. The Passion of Christ, for chrissakes. Passion is a dark velvet word, intimate and secret. A private matter, your “inner passion”. When did it become so commonplace to speak of it during interviews or first dates? Its replace the “Five Year Plan” as yuppie passcodes.

    Hope all is well! Publish this one!


  9. Hey Dervala, I was tempted to tell Frank to get over himself. Mine was no simple minded jest. I’m a 68 year old exhibiting artist, author/illustrator who frittered away most of his working life as an agency creative director, forced to pretend, in those days, to be passionate about selling antacids. So I been around long enough to appreciate your fresh take on jobs and passion and definitely long enough to wish you were twenty years older so I could fall in love again


  10. Ivan, I ordered one of your books from Amazon (“I Do Not Like It When My Friend Comes to Visit..”) I’m only sorry you won’t get royalties on it. I spend a lot of my time helping people figure out what the demise of the Ogilvy era of advertising means. Your note is a reminder not to forget about writing children’s books in the midst of that…harder than it seems.


  11. Dervala,
    I am truly flattered! My favorite book about a real weekend of agony in my daughter’s childhood. And it got a rave review by Lehman Haupt in the New York Times! I’ve turned my writing buddy, Patrick, in Indiana, on to your blog as the example of ways a terrific writer can get his or her work in front of the public. In fact, I’ve been considering putting some of my adult fiction on-line and was going to ask your advice on Creatrive Commons.


  12. I remember an old cartoon of a job interviewer, “We’re looking for someone to live and breathe sprocket flanges”
    Most jobs by definition are boring or unpleasant. As in the French word “travail.”
    Hence the paycheck. I’ll do the work, and even pretend it is not a waste of time and that the management are semi-normal. Just don’t ask me to fake enthusiasm, unless something really creative is happening.


  13. I remember an old cartoon of a job interviewer, “We’re looking for someone to live and breathe sprocket flanges”
    Most jobs by definition are boring or unpleasant. As in the French word “travail.”
    Hence the paycheck. I’ll do the work, and even pretend it is not a waste of time and that the management are semi-normal. Just don’t ask me to fake enthusiasm, unless something really creative is happening.


  14. Dervala,
    I do not know how I got to your site but I am so glad I did. As someone who grew up dreaming of things other than middle management, hotel rooms, chain restaurants, coach seats, and yes,cubicles, I sure appreciate your essay, it has been a bright spot in my day.


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