When Passions Become Burdens

“Follow your passion,” we are told. Do the work that excites you. Do what you love. It’s good advice.

But we know that the process of following your passion – the daily, nuts-and-bolts effort of the thing – is not always exciting. For most people, including me, it takes self-discipline. It means doing the work even on days when you don’t feel any passion for it at all.

We know this. This is what separates people who want a black belt from those who actually get one. Many, many days I didn’t feel like going to karate practice, but I did it anyway. That’s what the passion requires.

Yet this attitude, this desire to press on even when you don’t feel like it, can turn on you. It can become a creeping sort of thing, slowly transforming the work you loved into a box you have to check, just another item on your to-do list, something to feel guilty about if you neglect. A burden.

What do you do when this happens?

As with so many things, it’s a balance. Hard work can drag you down, but it also can (and often does) rekindle a dying flame of excitement. The trick is to find something where the times that feels like drudgery don’t overwhelm the exciting times. If you get to where you dislike something most of the time, give it up.

That’s the simple answer, the standard remedy. But balance is a difficult thing.

I’ve gotten very accustomed to this cycle of fossilization – this change from a living dream to something harder, and less alive. It’s something I constantly monitor, constantly fight.

I see it even in small things, like my new subscription to TIME magazine, where my love for learning about the world changes into a (quite irrational) guilt if I don’t make time to read it. I see it in my “research one new thing every week” project, when it begins to feel like unnecessary baggage even though the research is easy and informal, about topics I’ve chosen myself.

I see it in my writing.

With the exception of one short poem, I haven’t written any fiction or poetry in months. That is a strange thing to admit, a strange place to be. I started this blog because of my overwhelming love for writing, a love that had followed me for over a decade. I wanted to be a novelist – more than anything.

Maybe I still want that. Probably I still want that. I’m not sure.

But the work had fossilized, crossed the threshold from self-discipline into self-deception. I kept talking about how much I loved writing, but I didn’t really love it anymore. Not on a day-to-day basis, not in the way that would make it my life’s main work right now.

I’ve been taking a break from the novel, the stories. I’m working on artificial intelligence – which isn’t just a stopgap but really is another great passion. So far, even though it feels like work sometimes, it hasn’t fossilized. I still love doing it.

But I’m watching it closely. Because I recognize the signs.

Do you go through these cycles? How do you deal with them? What kind of balance have you found?

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16 responses to “When Passions Become Burdens

  1. I’ve definitely gone through dry spells before. Revising my first book got to be a burden after a while, so much so that I wasn’t really working on it at all. In my case I needed to create do something different, and so I worked on a new novel, which I am now revising along with the first one. Creating eventually became a burden, but revision became a joy again. There are so many tasks that fall under this hat of being a “writer” including reading good fiction, revision, research and yes actual writing. Other pursuits are good (I wish I had time for gaming), but it might help answer the question of whether you want to be a writer if you work on something different, something new in that arena. There’s an idea I like about finding out God’s purpose in our life. Rather than sitting around thinking about what our purpose should be, we should go out in the world, and see where life nudges us. You can’t go somewhere without moving.

  2. Absolutely, I go through those stages. I think everyone does. And here’s my take on it: (Because I know that when you posted this, you were hoping that I would drop by and take up an inordinate amount of time and space on your blog. Right?)

    Yes we’re told to follow our passions. But I think there’s a great deal of confusion out there about what that actually means.

    For some reason, we have developed this crazy idea that passion=fun; that if we’re passionate about something, it should be easy. Or, at least, enjoyable. All the time. That we won’t get bored with it, or dislike it, or feel like it’s work. Because if we feel like that, we can’t be passionate about it, right?

    I call BS on that S.

    The definition of passion is: “A strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for something.” I think we can agree that this is what we’re talking about when we say we’re passionate about writing. Or learning. Or creating an AI. Or whatever.

    But passion has another definition: “Any kind of intense feeling or emotion, as hope, fear, joy, grief, anger, love, desire, guilt, etc”. I can say with 100% certainty that I’ve felt all of those ways about writing.

    I think the important thing is to make sure you find the joy. The longer you go without writing, the harder it is to start again. But stop being so hard on yourself; stop trying to create something great. Sit down and write a poem about a buzzard waiting for a cowboy to die, or an ode to toilet paper, or a plan to take over the world using only a radish, a jar of pickles, and a paintbrush.

    Your passion isn’t gone, it’s just wandered over to the dark side for a bit. But you can entice it back with cookies.

    (Note: When I say “you” I mostly mean “me”. Or “us”.)

  3. I’ve got one. Having been somewhat of an athlete since I was 4, I’ve always struggled with the fact that I’m somewhat average in most sports. What I learned in college was to find my strongest event and really focus on that. Even still, my best event didn’t lead me to fame and fortune. I never went to the Olympics in Track and Field, I had hopes believe you me. But they sort of fizzled, now I I’m not saying I was happy about it. But I really enjoyed the ride. I went 6 times all-conference in Track and Field at the collegiate level. I got to meet some of the greatest athletes of all time and I’m definitely a better man for it. I couldn’t keep up the pace of being a thrower forever and I’ve given up power lifting and throwing for a more healthy sedate lifestyle as a triathlete. I still consider myself an athlete but I’ll never be a true professional. Yes sometimes its hard to make myself run 6 miles in the morning, as it was today, but the overwhelming feeling of well being is worth it. I’ll never not be that kind of person I hope.

    I think that as long as you give it your all and threw everything you had into the ring then you have to be happy. If it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, change things up. Start a new phase. Anyways that’s my thoughts Mr. Buckley!

  4. I experience this often. Being young as I am, I am more than just free to do what I want- I am encouraged to by parents and teachers and older siblings who say they wish they had been able to try as much when they were my age. It’s not going to hurt me to stop, and I can always start again, right? So, at least for me, there’s no pressure, as much as my mind keeps telling me.

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually stopped doing those things that I’m passionate about. I’ve slowed down, though, and I like it better that way. For example, reading one book of the Iliad a day turned into reading a couple pages of it for each hundred pages I read of another book, and I was still able to enjoy it. Same with alot of things that I could only take joy from taking small bites of, rather than trying to force it down my own throat with a rusty fork of willpower and guilt.

    Like painting, gardening, other languages, sports, and trying to have a social life. Now I’ll work on these things when I want to, and only when I want to. It’s not my job, is it? Unless it’s something that costs a fair bit of money, (like dance lessons or karate) or it’s actually your career or your parents tell you to or it would inconvenience someone else to a large degree or you can’t leave it and come back to it in the same state it was left in, I don’t see any reason for doing something if you don’t enjoy it, ever. Maybe there’s more categories, but that’s all I can think of at the moment. How many of your passions fall under one or more of those? For me, very little, but maybe it’s different for grown-ups who (it’s always seemed to me) can’t make small, inconsequential decisions or do anything without making huge commitments of time and/or money.

    I still have ambitions and goals related to things I’m passionate about, but they’re vague for now, leaving room for future clarification by a wiser and more experienced me.

    • Yeah, age may be a factor. I do seem to remember feeling more free to do whatever I wanted when I was younger.

      But the older I get (and, let’s be real here, I’m still only 26), the more I realize that my total time to be alive is limited. If I had forever, I’d agree with you: why do anything you don’t want to do, unless something’s forcing you to?

      Unfortunately, I don’t have forever, and my fear is that I’ll look back on my life someday and see that I’ve started lots of little efforts without ever accomplishing anything really great. And because I’m still crazy enough to believe I can do something really great with my life, that scares me.

      Hence the self-discipline and the struggle. And, of course, the angsty blog post about it. πŸ˜‰

  5. Honestly, for me discipline comes from a healthy sense of self-preservation, in that when I’m not writing I rapidly start to go a little crazy. I write to make sense of things that happen to me or that I see happen to others, so if I’m not writing something I’m not making sense of things, and that is crazy-making.

    I’m not sure I advocate becoming a little crazy in order to have writerly discipline, however.

    Maybe you have to get back to how it all began. Why did you start writing and what did you first love about it? How can you get back to that place? Do you even want to? Sometimes I’ve fallen out of love with a particular novel, and though it’s usually temporary it’s always disorienting. Generally it means I’ve lost the focus, the goal of what it is I’m trying to do. The same thing happens when I get too wrapped up in the publication side of things and forget that I’m doing this for myself first and foremost. If I’m not going at it passionately it’s because I’ve forgotten, at least to a degree, why I’m doing all this in the first place.

    Not sure whether any of that helps, but there are plenty of good suggestions on the page. Sticky topic, for sure. Good luck!

  6. Balance, the elusive beast. Passion, the fickle beast.

    I’m kind of where you are. I sort of still do what I do because I’ve done it all my life. Sometimes I do it even when I feel nothing for it.

    I often question whether or not if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’ll probably never know.

    I just know for a fact that I love stories. I dont know or care how I express this love (writing, drawing, blogging, filming, acting, etc) as long as I do it. And without keeping with some sort of practice, I’ll never get to the level where I can create the stories I would kill to create. So, it’s important to keep at it even when the passion isnt there I suppose.

    I mean, passion is so fickle, but it always comes back. Brief breaks definitely help to rekindle the flames when they die. I think it’s all about keeping it fresh and new no matter how long it’s been.

    Kind of like marriage lol

  7. Yeah, I definitely go through dry spells where writing seems like something that I just really don’t want to do.
    Then I start writing, and the longer I spend writing the more I like it.
    Then at the end of the day, Everything resets. Why? I have no clue. Because I’m just weirder than most writers? I dunno. Maybe.
    The point is that I just push onward and onward and then everything gets better.

    • Yeah, and I’ve got that same cycle, where I don’t feel like doing it and then once I start, I warm up to it. I’m used to that. But in my case, this recent problem went a little deeper, where even after weeks of working on something I couldn’t get into it.

      I imagine I’ll get over it. I’m weird, you’re weird, all writers are weird. πŸ˜‰

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