The problem with passion

Note: This is the second in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. The posts are new material, not excerpted from the book, and some, such as this one, are written in a (much) drier style. Each will be tied to one or more of the book’s chapters, in this case “Living the Dream” and “Hotel California.”

Most of us think of passion in positive terms–love on steroids, if you will. Regardless of whether your passion is ignited by a lover, a pre-Civil War farmhouse or the prospect of brewing rare varieties of beer in your basement, a zillion books, seminars and websites are available to advise you on following it, and many of them all but promise that doing what you love will translate to loving what you do.

Pursuing your passion is widely understood as a prescription for happiness and fulfillment. When you’re building furniture as an avocation, outside of the work that provides your livelihood, it’s easy to maintain this understanding of passion. Feel uninspired? Run into a problem? Put the work away for a few days. Take the leap from spare- to full-time practitioner, and the realities associated with doing something day in and day out (stretches of mind-numbing monotony, minefields of bureaucracy, the occasional deranged customer, the need to negotiate between perfectionism and defaulting on your mortgage), not to mention ensuring you get paid enough to cover the multitude of expenses beyond what you need to support yourself, tend to dampen the ardor. Hence the occasional warning about trying to make a living from work you love, lest you lose your passion. See this article forwarded to me by Russell Gale, or this essay by Vic Tesolin.

Betsi's laundry hamper 004

Laundry hamper in cypress, circa 2009

The problem is, the popular understanding of passion is seriously flawed. The word passion comes from a Latin verb that means to suffer, undergo, experience, endure.* While love is central to passion, passion is no easy kind of love. When we’re passionate about something, we’re driven.** We serve our passion by dealing with the trying circumstances and sometimes-maddening fallout that come in its train, every bit as much as by enjoying the satisfactions generated by our pursuit.

Doing what you love for a living demands that you cultivate a larger understanding of loving what you do–one that will accommodate the headaches, stress, sporadic income, psychological contortions required by some clients, occasional doldrums and sleepless nights that can come with being self-employed. When you think about it, this is no different from the deeply committed love that grounds a long marriage, which may involve stretches of monotony, moments of doubt, tending to a sick spouse (or parent, or child) and the occasional hour (or [come on, let’s be honest] more) of utter exasperation. As Tesolin puts it,

being a pro woodworker means you are a slave to the grind. I’ve been there and it isn’t always pretty. It’s not often you get to do the kind of work that you want, and many times you are left begging to be paid for the work you complete – not to mention all of the other drudgery like bookkeeping, accounting, website upkeep and marketing.


Kitchen sink base cabinet with trash pull-out, 2018

So let’s say you decide you’ve had enough of professional woodworking and look for another line of work. If you get hired, congratulations; you can enjoy a regular paycheck and the freedom to enjoy woodworking in your hours outside of the job. For many people I know, that’s an enviable situation, the best of both worlds.

But what if circumstances keep you in the game? What if you apply for other work, and even get interviews, only to hear that you were a serious contender but they didn’t hire you because (a) they thought you wouldn’t want to work for an employer after running your own business for so long, (b) you’re “over qualified” or (c) they were sure you’d miss the work about which you’d been so passionate, so you’d leave the new position and go back? This is what happened to me on multiple occasions when I tried to escape from earning a living as a woodworker. I needed an income so I went back to what I knew. I soon realized I would have to find a way to make peace with my work. Passion, in the truest sense, to the rescue. This is what Making Things Work is largely about.

Grappling with this work in the most existential ways has not resulted in me losing my passion, but in learning what a deeper form of passion entails.


For me, the opportunity to write about furniture and design, in addition to working on commissions in the shop, has been key. Research, thinking and writing about furniture and material culture in general feed my enthusiasm for that hands-on work that keeps me grounded and provides all kinds of insights for my writing.

So go ahead and do what you love. But please make sure you open your eyes before diving in.

*The same Latin word gives rise to our word passive, as in the passive versus active voice. The word “suffer” is another goldmine. From the Latin sub and ferre, it means to carry from below, i.e. to bear or endure–not the image that popular culture encourages us to associate with love.

**Note, again, the passive implication of this grammatical form.

16 responses to “The problem with passion

  1. You are so right – again. That’s also why I feel so discouraged about Craftsmanship as a whole. Maybe only the really good, exceptional can survive, in reality .

    • Don’t be discouraged–well, for any longer than necessary. Those who survive as professionals may be lucky (whether thanks to family or other contacts who provide important early commissions; education; inherited wealth; etc.). Some have a spouse or partner whose income helps with bills, so they don’t have to earn every dollar themselves. Others work extremely hard for long hours, seven days a week. Most of us have cycles of feast and famine, confidence and self-doubt. The one thing that will doom anyone is prolonged negativity, which can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the one thing every successful craftsperson does have is perseverance. It’s isn’t just about being good (let alone exceptional). It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and doing your best on any given day. My point in writing this post was absolutely not to discourage anyone, but to point out the existential dimensions of loving what you do, which too many people talk and write about with shocking superficiality.

      • I understand. I know that your intentions were good . Maybe it’s because I am in that “phase” now…:) . Thanks for your courage . Btw: I had the chance to spend some time with the Gentlemen of M&T mag. True superbe people .

  2. Think about what the passion play as it relates to the end of Jesus ‘ life entails. That’s much closer to the definition of passion of which you speak.

  3. Seek patience and passion in equal amounts.
    Patience alone will not build the temple.
    Passion alone will destroy its walls.

    – Maya Angelou

  4. Marc Stonestreet

    Yes to all of it.

    We’re often told how lucky we are to be doing what we love. And for the most part it’s true. But it’s not that simple, is it? Because like you said, it’s a journey that requires you to persevere in order to maintain the love and sometimes the perseverance is motivated by fear or some sort of automatic process. But when the outcome you feared such as not paying bills doesn’t arrive, you can go back to pushing your budgets and timelines to give clients the best possible work you can muster, which is often good enough to fill you with some pride. Which makes it worth it. For me anyway. Sometimes.

  5. I’m gladdened whenever somebody points out the ridiculous use of the word passion. I don’t know whether to blame the romance novel industry for this confusion or badly taught catechism classes when theme of “the passion of the christ’ is misunderstood as an example of “christ’s love.”
    I’ve heard repeatedly that I need to find my passion. What daftness! Passions find us.

  6. Scary. Have you been spying on me and monitoring my dreams? Just when I’ve hit my limit of frustration and swear I’m never doing this again, someone comes along with a project and says that trigger phrase, “several others have tried and failed…” or turned it down because “XYZ is impossible” and off I go like the Manchurian Candidate right back at it. The hard ones are always the most satisfying, for me, but usually during the process I’m kicking myself for agreeing to take it on instead of just opting for a simpler project.

  7. Where did you get your passion for writting? You must have studied grammer in the UK because most Americans….um, you know, dont writ vary good.

  8. One of my favorite words is sanguine. Optimism in a difficult situation. It also means bloody.

    I admire all those who work for themselves. I could never do it. Never. And I admire most the things I cannot do.

    You can be the best, the hardest working, and the smartest, and it is still a razor edge. I give you all the credit in the world for making it work.

    • Sanguine for the win! I agree, it’s a great word–filled with blood, as distinct from the state of fearfulness, which drains the blood from surface vessels.

  9. Brilliant reframing: “While love is central to passion, passion is no easy kind of love. When we’re passionate about something, we’re driven.** We serve our passion by dealing with the trying circumstances and sometimes-maddening fallout that come in its train, every bit as much as by enjoying the satisfactions generated by our pursuit.”

  10. Or one can embrace something quite foreign to the Western mind; Passionlessness, which does not mean to not have dedication or fervour for what we do but to not be a slave to the passion of it. Passion in Western culture is nearly always a base understanding.

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