Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

23.24 Living a Passionate Life

This is the last post for 2023 and, while I thought I would do a year-end review I wasn’t passionate about the idea; I changed my mind. I saw the movie, ‘Maestro’,  last Thursday night, and realized that perhaps I had something more to say about Passion than I had said in the penultimate post, Motivation and Passion 3.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

In Motivation and Passion 3 I railed against the exaggerated use of the word passion when people talk about their careers, or worse, career counselors (evangelists?) advising others about career choice and satisfaction. I argued that few people are in actuality passionate about their careers and those few people are likely to be compulsives, or evangelists, and more often than not, people in the arts (think Van Gogh). 

‘Maestro’ is a biopic about Leonard Bernstein. I won’t comment on the film (mixed merit) but Bernstein surely is an iconic example of the notion of a man passionate about his career as a musician, or more so, as a person living a passionate life. Or possibly a man with a bipolar condition. (Think Van Gogh again.)

In the film, early on, Bernstein in a tv interview tries to explain the difference between a conductor of an orchestra (Maestro) and a composer, and he chooses to distinguish the two through Carl Jung’s personality preference notion of extroversion versus introversion. He argues that conductors, being performers in the public eye are extroverts, while composers, like other creative types, must spend many hours alone bringing their opus to life. Composing is solitary process suited to introverts; this is certainly true of the author, I can attest, with his manuscript, and the painter with her canvas, and no doubt any artist immersed in the creative process. Extroverts can become absorbed in ‘flow’ too, but it probably takes more effort and lasts less long. Conversely, introverts can be performers too, but they are not motivated by the audience but by the performance itself. (And there you have another nod to Frederick Herzberg.)

Bernstein, as both composer and conductor, speculates that he must be both an introvert and an extrovert, and therefore perhaps schizophrenic. (In this Bernstein may be expressing his concern for his own mental health but has it wrong – schizophrenia is quite different from bipolar condition). Cooper portrays Bernstein as a compulsive extrovert, with a colossal ego, but this feels more like mania; it’s difficult to see Bernstein the introvert in this film. Even the scenes of Bernstein at the piano composing, pencil over one ear, habitual cigarette in one hand, the other pecking at the piano keys, you don’t get the impression of a deeply concentrating introvert focused on his work but someone almost frantically fighting with his muse. Indeed, there is one scene, and a couple of references, to Bernstein composing in a closet with the door open because he doesn’t want to miss anything that might be going on around him. Bernstein (Cooper?) confesses to having bouts of depression but we don’t see much evidence of it in the film. 

What you do see is frantic egomaniac with a number of obsessive habits (there is not a scene in the film when Bernstein does not have a cigarette in his hand, and often a glass of whisky in the other) and socially marginal experimental behaviours (serial love affairs with younger men, cocaine use) while yet devoted to his life-long principled wife. (What do you call a married man who is forever dallying with men – a ‘manizer’?) In the pantheon of personality tendencies this is called by the psychologists ‘Openness to Experiences’ and when combined with Extroversion (another of the ‘Big Five’[1]) you are likely to find people outside the bounds of conventional (read controlled) social behaviour.

I’m not wanting to suggest that you have to be a mad extrovert, or a flaming artist, to be passionate about your work, but it seems likely. All of us can be passionate for short periods of time, but to be passionate about one’s career takes a lot of sustaining drive.

It also seems that people genuinely consumed by their work are also compulsively consumed with their whole lives. It seems you can’t turn passion on and off at convenience. It’s hard to imagine someone passionate at the office from 9 – 5, then home for an evening of calm and family contentment followed by eight hours of restful sleep. And people afflicted with bi-polar condition generally can’t turn it on or off at will; instead, to manage the swings in emotion and behaviour, they are condemned to a lifetime regime of lithium meds.

Living a passionate life may come with tremendous personal costs. Passion with a price, for himself, and for all those around him or her.

Still, living one’s life as fully as possible, if not passionately, is a desirable thing. Maybe the problem with the notion of passion in careers, and life, is with the word passion, itself. Our dictionaries invariably refer to intensity in their definitions of passion. But modern usage suggests passion is more a sustaining commitment, more devotion and dedication than emotion and fervor, enthusiasm without the mania, penchant without the pain.

In my personal philosophy – and it’s easier to have a philosophy than to put it into practice – I wish to live a purposeful life, to be the best version of myself I can be, to know my best talents and put them to use, and where I can, to the benefit of others. To live a purposeful life, of course, means to use my talents and act virtuously, consistently, relentlessly, and for as long as I can. Passionately? It sounds exhausting, and it is. But lacking obsessive passion, means I have frequent bouts of recidivism, falling back to my purposeless existence. The problem with having high standards is that human frailty makes it hard to live up to those standards. And as we age, and frailty becomes even more prominent in our lives, sustaining ‘passion’ becomes even more difficult.

Most people do not live passionate lives. They don’t have an overarching sense of purpose. They don’t strive to be the best versions of themselves they can be, cultivating and exploiting their talents relentlessly. They are content with ordinariness, they look forward to weekends and vacations, they are satisfied with small things. They are likely happy.

Bernstein died age 71, alone in his Manhattan apartment, of a heart attack, apparently caused by a lung embolism as a complication of Mesothelioma from a lifetime as a chain smoker and heavy drinker, five days after his longtime lover died of AIDS. 

Living a passionate life may be highly overrated. Living fully may be enough.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing

All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

[1] The Big Five Personality Factors: Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Openness to experiences.

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