Saturday 23 October 2010

Passion: Can you live without it?

Then again do you want to live without it?

I have been blessed a few times in my life to have experienced true passion. However I am certain you may think I'm talking about something romantic but what I am actually talking about is passion for what you do. To live passionately, to work passionately; this is about the passion you have or should have about your personal goals in life, about your life itself.

Maslow was an American psychiatrist whose most notable contribution to psychology was the hierarchy of needs. In this theory he described how each of us develops through 5 stages:

1. physiological: breathing, food, water
2. safety: security of body, employment
3. love/belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy
4. esteem: achievement, respect of others, respect by others
5. self-actualization: creativity, problem solving

Normally, this hierarchy is portrayed as a pyramid with physiological at the bottom, it being the most basic of needs. As we satisfy one need, we move up to the next level, the next need. The top level, self-actualization is where a person becomes who he or she is. This may be an athlete, a musician, a doctor, a good parent or a painter. It is where we define ourselves and give ourselves identity.

I was introduced to this idea in 1972 when I first went off to university. I have come to realize since then, that not all of us master these five levels in the same way and sometimes, some of us end up so preoccupied with one or all of the first 4 needs, we may never exactly get around to self-actualization. It's funny; if you are homeless, in the street and scrounging for food; you are not exactly too worried about esteem or the respect by others. Ditto for your job. If you have to scrounge for a job, any job, you may not be able "to work to be all you can be" as portrayed in that 5th level.

I think it safe to say that originally and here I may be thinking about your average caveman, one spent the majority of one's time looking for food and shelter. As of late, I've turned such an assessment to modern times and wondered to myself if things have really changed. Yes, I have cable; yes, I have a microwave but armed with a Blackberry and a laptop with wireless Internet I see myself pretty much working 24 by 7. At least the caveman got some time off at night. :-)

But what pushes me to work 24 by 7? Of course there is the threat of losing my job; heck, that is a terrific motivator, no? However, if I could make the comparison with the type of job which requires you to punch a clock, I see the fundamental difference being that I do my job because I like it, because it gives me a certain sense of accomplishment, because it in a way defines who I am. Hmmm, that doesn't quite sound like I'm doing it just for the money. In fact, it sounds very much like the 5th level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-actualization.

I have personally experienced this, this 5th level if you will, twice in my life. While I can't say the experience remained a permanent part of my life; I can at least be thankful for the opportunity to have tasted it... twice.

Passion #1
In my twenties, I spent most of the decade as a musician. I'm sure anyone would immediately clue in to my interest. It was 24 by 7; I loved it; I lived in; I breathed it. I had passed the better part of my teenage years playing guitar and bass guitar in various high school rock bands but somewhere around the age of 16 or 17, I discovered the piano. I went to university for 1 year then got hired out of the blue by a band to play keyboards. I went on the road for a few years then went to university to seriously study music.

I worked like a maniac. I practised 8 to 10 hours a day; I studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music; I started a Bachelor of Music at the University of Toronto. I didn't do it because I had to do it; I did it because I wanted to. It was the most incredible of life experiences; what I would classify as the closest to heaven on earth one could ever hope for.

Unfortunately, it didn't last; it wasn't to be. Focal dystonia made me reassess this goal and I decided to quit. The experience was over and I found myself obliged to seek my future elsewhere. It took over 15 years, but once again, I found myself in another situation which I would call a 5th level experience; 5th level referring to the 5th level of Maslow's hierarchy, self-actualization.

Passion #2
I copped a terrific job as the head of the computer department of a small company. This company had never had a computer department per se so I was the first one in and I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted. Because the company was small, because my computer department was small, I not only had to lead, I had to participate and was very much involved with everything from budgeting and planning to actually crawling under a desk to fix a computer. The goal I was given was to create from scratch a computerized "information system" which would encapsulate the sum total of the company's information and tie the company's diverse business areas into a cohesive whole. It was the chance of a lifetime; the chance to create what did not exist and if I refer back to my career in music, creativity is a big part of what makes me tick. It was the chance to do something which not only directly affected every member of the staff, around 50 of them; it also had a direct impact on the company's thousands of clients. I worked constantly, not for the money (but I was very well paid), not because I had to; I worked because it was a personal challenge to make this system work. It was a badge of honour; it was a personal mission; it was the satisfaction of solving a puzzle just like those who work on Sudoku or cross-word puzzles.

Evenings? Weekends? I was working out of the sheer utter pleasure of attempting to solve a problem. You didn't have to make me do it; I wanted to do it. And of course, the motivation, the inspiration of knowing that what I was doing would have an effect on the lives of thousands of people. This was quite the high; this was Maslow's 5th level; this was self-actualization; this was the chance to be all I could be.

Sigh, unfortunately this once again was not to last. A corporate reorganization saw me demoted although I didn't lose my title and didn't lose my salary. In effect, I reported to somebody else who had their own vision for the department and I found myself obliged to follow or quit. The security of the money was just too much to lose so I acquiesced and let somebody else run the shop. The time of self-actualization was over.

Looking for passion #3
So, at the age of 58 I am looking for the passion #3. I have to chuckle as I'm sure others may look at the story so far with a raised eyebrow. As I said, many people discover their passion earlier in life and keep it for the whole life. I cited occupations like a doctor, a sculptor or a musician. Of course, I also pointed out that many probably live out their lives pretty much tied up in the first 4 levels of Maslow's hierarchy and have never truly tasted passion.

What exactly do I mean by passion?
Whether it was music, passion #1 or my computer job, passion #2, I can describe "passion" in terms of the following personal experiences.

I would go to bed excited at what had taken place during the day. I would think of the work I had done, what I had accomplished and what I had discovered. It was all very, very interesting and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. I would go to bed excited at the prospect of tomorrow because I would get the chance to get up and do it all over again. My head would be swimming with ideas to try out, things to investigate and work to be done coupled with a sense of anticipation of the next wondrous thing I was going to encounter.

That's the correct word to use: excitement. I suppose using the word excited may sound like some sort of bipolar disorder; euphoria on one hand, possibly depression on the other however that is an accurate description of my state of mind when I lived these periods of passion about my pursuit. It was, to coin a phrase, heaven.

I never was a good sight reader so I had to memorize the pieces I played. I was learning Debussy's Suite Bergamasque - everyone knows the 3rd movement, Clair de Lune - and one afternoon, I was working on movement #1, Prelude. The opening bar consists of 4 notes played with the left hand, sort of an arpeggio then a cord played with both hands. I had been working on various parts of the piece looking at the technical difficulties when I came back to the beginning for a complete run through. I played the 1st bar then stopped. I held the cord. I listened to the harmony. I played the 1st bar again then stopped at the cord. I took my hands off the keyboard then held them up and stared at them. I put them back down on the keyboard and played the cord again with both hands.

Once again I lifted the hands in front of me and stared at them. At that moment I was incredibly aware of my hands, my 10 fingers and the connection they represented to the keyboard, to the piano and to music. I was incredibly aware of the phenomenon of how my hands produced this astonishing melodious sound. It was a moment of euphoria, of joy. It was a moment which transcended the normal where I was transported somewhere else. I can only describe it in what probably comes across as some sort of spiritual experience by saying that I touched heaven. It was a fantastic feeling and at that moment, I realised how much I liked music, how much I loved music. I said to myself that I would rather be 123rd in music than 1st in any other field of endeavour. Being number 1, being some great success was not what was important; it was merely the chance, the privilege, the joy of being involved with music that was important. I had never felt so strongly about anything I had ever undertaken before in my life.

After several years of development of the internal part of the computer system, the president threw out the challenge to create an interactive web site for the company's clientele. It had taken years to put the internal system together so by that time I knew the entire system and its technologies inside and out.

I took the challenge home and thought about it. I mulled over the technologies; I envisaged the final result and I figured out how to get from point A to point B. I realized I had all of the pieces of the puzzles in front of me; I knew exactly what had to be done and how. I had the technology; I had the knowledge; now all I needed was the time and a lot of elbow grease. I felt I could do this is under 2 months.

43 days later or 6 weeks, I put on-line an interactive web site which consisted of 500 individualized client web sites. The company provided reports all automatically updated from the central systems and a web interface allowed clients to update their own data with the company. I spent a lot of time doing it. I worked evenings; I worked weekends; I drank a lot of coffee and skipped a lot of sleep but in the end I pulled a rabbit out of my hat. My success, the completion of this challenge meant that over 2,000 people were now plugged in. It was truly a moment of personal success. It was a moment of self-actualisation. I had defined myself; I had given my life meaning and purpose; I managed to be all that I could be.

The above 2 examples, 2 moments of my life represent the passion I am trying to describe here. I didn't work hard for money; I didn't do it for praise. I did it out of the sheer utter joy of doing the activity, for the personal satisfaction of solving a problem, overcoming an obstacle and succeeding. You didn't have to tell me that I had succeeded; I knew that I had succeeded.

When I played Suite Bergamasque for people, when I watched people use my computer system, I knew that something worthwhile had happened, was happening. I didn't always get a compliment but I could tell from their rapt attention that I was making a connection. It is a powerful experience to realise you have an effect on others.

I have joked over the years that you can have an ordinary job: you do the work; you earn some money; you have a good time on the weekend. Or you can have a job which really, really interests you. As I described above, you do it not just for the money, you do it because you are fascinated by the challenge of making things work. Ha! I sometimes said at the computer job that it was so much "fun" doing the work; I should be paying the company for the privilege of doing the job.

[laughs] That's really the key. An interesting job is fun; it's not necessarily work per se. You enjoy it so much, it is literally fun, a pleasure to do it.

I heard this story about the devil years ago when I was a teenager. If I remember correctly, it came from a Catholic buddy who was going to boarding school and had many new, interesting things to explain to this Protestant boy.

In the beginning, Lucifer or the devil was an angel in heaven. However, at some point he got... well, too big for his britches and God booted him out. From that point onward, he was obliged to live outside of heaven without the good graces of God or the joy of heaven itself. Knowing about the joy of heaven but being deprived of it drove Lucifer wonky. His supposed evil behaviour, his desire to cause harm, to spread pain and sorrow came from his own "hell" of having to live without heaven. Ignorance is bliss? Lucifer's pain came from be deprived of heaven. His consolation was to try and make others supposedly share his pain; alleviate one's pain by hurting others.

I've never forgotten this story. Whether or not it has any validity in the Catholic Church remains to be seen but the idea of the story gives me cause to reflect. Suffering hell slash pain is one thing but to know heaven and be deprived of it is a different hell but hell nonetheless. Ignorance is bliss. Yes, it is truly bliss.

Whose Life Is This Anyway?
This 1981 film was an adaptation of what was originally a television play. In a nutshell, the story follows Ken Harrison, a sculptor who is involved in a car accident that leaves him a quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down. It starts with the accident then follows him in the subsequent months as he tries to adjust to his condition then comes to the conclusion he wants to die. The ideas presented evoke the debate surrounding quality of life, the right to die and euthanasia. I'm sure anybody would think of Christopher Reeve and the similarities of these stories.

An interesting point that the protagonist brings up is to have known his previous life and to be now deprived of it. It is the knowledge of what was and what he can never have again which is truly painful. The climax of the story has Ken pleading his case before a judge, asking for the right to die. Ken puts forward the idea that yes, right now he may be depressed that right now he may appear sane but tells the judge to come back in five years and see how he is. Ken says that he is certain he will be a little nuttier, off his rocker, certainly not the "sane person" the judge sees at that particular moment.

I come back to the story about Lucifer. Whether it is true or not, whether it is part of the official teachings of the Catholic Church or not is not important; it is the idea of having known heaven then being deprived of it. It is the idea of having something then losing it. Ignorance is bliss. If you don't know what you could have, how can you miss it, truly miss it? You can't miss what you have never known.

Heaven on Earth
So, does heaven on Earth actually exist? I'm convinced it does. Not all of us have it; not all of us realise this. As I said, many times we all at one time or another get so caught up in things like finding food and shelter, we have neither the time nor the interest to be thinking about any 5th level type of stuff. If you're scrounging for your next meal, you probably are not paying too much attention to being all that you can be.

When I was twenty, I had this humorous exchange with my Father. He was trying to convince me to go to university, get a degree, get out there and earn a living. I at that time didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Like a smartass, I said to him, "But Dad, money can't buy you happiness."

He looked at me mulling over my remark then replied, "Yes son. You're right. But at least while you're miserable, you can be comfortable."

[laughs] I had forgotten that for years until the age of 42 when I was trying to make ends meet, considering investing for the purposes of my retirement, worried about my pension and his observation came back to me. I realised how right he had been and laughed at how stupid I had been at 20. Having food and shelter and of course, cable TV, a flat screen TV, working hydro, etc. are pretty important to quality of life. Getting those things involves an education, hard work and a lot of knocking on doors to find a good job.

Imagine my luck of finding a job in computers which turned out to be one of those self-actualisation moments, a bit of heaven on Earth? Most people just do their job; some detest their job; some put up with it and some stay put thinking the next job could be worse. After all, everybody wants that flat screen TV and if you have it, you certainly don't want to risk losing it.

However, end up with a job which fascinates you, challenges you and lets you be all that you can be? Now that's heaven!

My birthday
So, I've just turned 58. (see my blog 58 down, 23 to go) I think I have time for just one more passion. It won't be music; it won't be a job in I.T. (Information Technology). Painting? Sculpting? Missionary type work in some far-flung corner of the globe? Maybe just writing this blog. Who knows? The world is my oyster as long as I've got my health. That passion is out there; I've just got to find it.


Wikipedia: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Wikipedia: Self-actualization

Wikipedia: Focal Dystonia

Rotten Tomatoes: Whose Life Is This Anyway?: 80%

Wikipedia: Whose Life Is This Anyway? (film)

Wikipedia: Whose Life Is This Anyway? (play)


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Martin said...

Loved the post about Heaven on Earth.

I invite you to join my Facebook Group: Project Heaven on Earth.


Unknown said...

Thanks you!