Passion precedes purpose

The type of life we all want to live

It’s aspirational to find an addiction. An obsession.

Something that we’ll work long nights and early mornings on. Something that will steal us away from our friends, and even our families, for a time.

An obsession that will make all of the inescapable daily drudgeries feel worthwhile. Something we can nurture and care for, and one day when it’s ready, will transcend being a simple obsession, and become something even more grand.

A purpose.

Horrified and enamored

I just finished reading the 2013 journal of the visionary chef, Rene Redzepi, entitled A Work in Progress. It’s a fascinating daily record of the early years at his award-winning restaurant, Noma.

The 173-page story shares some of the highest and lowest moments in Noma’s history. From being named the Best Restaurant in the World, to the shocking realization that they were financially underwater and would be forced out of business in a matter of months.

Rene recounts screaming matches with his sous chefs, and moments of blissful inspiration in the test kitchen. Many days, he’s sick and exhausted, having created a grueling schedule for himself and his team. Most of the time, he describes his appearance as grey and sunken-eyed. On two occasions during the year, he writes to tell his wife that he’ll be forgoing his duties as a father and a husband, and be living exclusively in the restaurant for a few weeks.

Reading this account, I’m equal parts horrified and enamored. It’s like watching Michelangelo carve the David, or The Beatles record Abbey Road. It’s a behind-the-scenes look into the creation of a masterwork. Yet it’s terrifying to see Rene—at the expense of his wife and children—work himself into sickness. Despite all of that, I can’t help but feel a sense of attraction.

I want what he has.

A full blown love affair

In only the rarest of circumstances have I felt that flame. That pull of curiosity. The draw to become obsessed, to become a true craftsman. In those rare instances, I’ve worked harder, and longer, and felt better than I ever have.

One shocking omission from Rene’s dairy is any mention of the word dread. Sickness, the birth of his child, being told the restaurant is underwater, not once did he dread heading in to work. He yearned to be there in the trenches, good or bad. That’s because another day at Noma was another opportunity to feed his obsession.

The reason Rene’s journal, and stories like it, are so inspiring is because on a foundational level, we all want what he has. We want something, anything, to enrapture our attention so completely. We want to be swept up in a passionate love affair with our work. And if we can’t find that, at the very least, we all want to care.

Obsession is not bad, in fact, it’s a worthy pursuit

Too often we’re told that obsession is unhealthy, and that we need to find balance. As a result, many of us have become so detached from meaningful work, that we denigrate those who have found exactly what we’re searching for.

Those who belittle obsession only do so because they have never experienced the sparks of passion themselves. Or, even more tragically, have seen the spark, but have been told not to fan the flame.

Passion is just the tiniest hint that something lovely is possible. Each time we work in service of our passion, we are fanning this flame; we’re giving it another piece of wood to consume. In this way, more work is not exhausting, in fact, it’s invigorating.

This is why some people choose late nights and early mornings. Not because they have to be there, but because they’re eagerly waiting to fan the flame that lives inside of them. The flame that gives their life tremendous purpose. This is the life of a craftsman, and it’s a worthy pursuit.

Passion is the precursor to purpose.

Just as lust is the precursor to love.

Our first instincts, our initial infatuations, are indications from within to pay attention. They’re little hints from our subconscious that something might be worthy of further consideration. Passion, in this way, is a tiny spark praying to be fanned into a flame.

Fueled by work, not depleted by it

I’ve seen people—as I’m sure you have—chase dreams and make money, and find out that a separation of vocation, and obsession, is the surest path to a wayward soul.

I’m friends with a doctor in the middle of a midlife crisis. For over a decade, she was oblivious to the fact that she actually hated practicing medicine. Now it’s all hitting her at once. But had she had taken a step back—and looked at her passions outside of the hospital—the aimlessness she’s feeling now might have been avoided.

To me, it’s always been crystal clear. She never once read a scientific journal for leisure. She doesn’t listen to health podcasts, or watch cheesy emergency room dramas. She has no inclination to keep up with her field, outside of what is absolutely essential to maintain her license.

But that’s not to say she is without passion. She is one of the most deeply curious people I know. For instance, she is enamored by traditionally cured Italian meats. On multiple occasions, I’ve known her to tour small villages in northern Italy to learn more about their old curing traditions. She also loves stars, and astronomy, and surfing, and fine dining.

There’s nothing wrong with starting from a place of pragmatism. Being a doctor, to provide for your family make sense. When Rene Redzepi dropped out of high school to become a chef, he did so not out of passion, but out of necessity. He was failing. So instead of going further down a fruitless road, he decided to get into the work force as soon as possible.

And with time, a small spark of passion awoke within him. A small flame he could fan. From pragmatism, passion was born.

Living a passionate life—one that is fueled by work rather than depleted by it— sounds like fantasy. For many of us, this is a serious departure from the involuntary drudgery we’ve found ourselves in. But I believe this is only because we’ve stopped looking for the little sparks.

We’ve stopped looking for signs of life: purpose, passion, obsession. We’ve resolved that work is just work, and everything outside of that is life. But there is another way.

The way of the craftsman, the way of obsession.


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