Burning Passion

Passion is the driving force for our creative ventures. Passion is what keeps me photographing even when my critics give me a hard time. Passion is what keeps me travelling even when I end up in intolerable situations I wish I’d never experienced. Passion keeps me writing even when my scribbles are turned down, whether by publishers, editors or the public. Without passion, there is no true creativity.

However, passion is not all that is needed in our creative ventures. Passion alone cannot sustain a healthy creative life on its own. As much as passion can drive you forward, it can also make you blind. It is not a license to do whatever you want. It certainly cannot justify all means no matter how deep you passion swells. There is still an ethical dimension towards yourself and not the last the world around you. Or maybe, rather a focused or decisive dimension.

Yes, Mark Twain famously said, “twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” I totally believe so and very much try to live by this notion. However great these words are to put on a motivational spark for many of us, though, it’s not all there is to it. They ignite the spark, but if the fire they ignite then burns the wrong stuff, you might end up with nothing at all—or even worse. You don’t want the spark to burn down your whole cabin rather than just the chopped wood in the fireplace.

Nothing epitomizes the creative fight more than turning tragedy into triumph. That’s what the cyclist Lance Armstrong had done if you remember back when he won Tour de France seven times on a row. That was after having defeated server cancer. The world rallied for him every time he neared the finish line in Paris. His passion burned bright. The way he overcame the odds inspired all of us to do the same.

Then we discovered that Armstrong’s victories were unfairly won. It wasn’t a creative fight but a cheater’s lie. The betrayal stung. Twenty years from now, Armstrong will still be living in the shadow of his mistake. Armstrong doesn’t stand alone; there are countless others who took their creative license too far. My point is, creativity isn’t carte blanche to do whatever you please.

Most of us don’t cheat. We try to go along with honesty and as best as we can. Still, passion builds dreams and hopes, flying high above us. Those dreams and hopes night blindfold us. We need to hold on to them, yet at the same time, we need to stay rooted in the dirt of reality. If we let our dreams take us wherever the wind blows, we might end up getting lost.

Mark Twain loved to stir people up. Since the beginning of his writing days, he was rallying people to “throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” We will always need to be reminded to leave safety behind for the pursuit of our dreams. Yet such advice is in itself not enough. You can’t just run out of the door, jump on a sailing boat, and hope to survive. Without proper understanding of nautical navigation, you will die. Incurable optimism is valuable, but when it comes to taking a journey so is planning ahead.

I remember quite a few years ago, my travelling buddy with whom I have been making stories from all around world, decided to go to Ukraine. This was long before the present conflict between Ukraine and Russia. We had already worked together in many tough places in the world. We felt invincible. Ukraine was going to be our next triumph. We were cocky. We were sloppy. We embarked on the journey without much preparation. We were experts on improvisations. However, that’s just not how serious journalism works—if we didn’t already know. Which we quickly discovered. We didn’t get access to the coal mines in Antratsyt. We didn’t get access to Chernobyl—the site of the nuclear disaster in 2005. We didn’t get access to Anatoly Onoprienko—one of the worse mass murderers—in his prison cell. And so on. Simply because we hadn’t made any preparations beforehand. Because we knew how to make our way in. Nobody could stop us. Well, so we thought. Cockiness has its prize…

Dreams float in the clouds, but true creativity is always rooted in the ground—in the dirt. What gives creativity its strength is having a compass reading to follow. It’s passion combined with mindfulness and directions from the heart and the soul. Lance Armstrong was driven by power and his passion to succeed. Blinded by passion, he neglected the rest.

Passion transfer energy to your creative pursuits. It gives you the courage to bounce back even when you fall down. Yet, too much passion can get out of control. And passion in itself isn’t enough. Without the sure footing that strong values and thoughtfulness provides, pursuing your dreams can be an icy slope. Clearly defining your values and sticking to them is like putting on metal crampons that give you a grip on the ice.

“Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Natacha with a photo of her in laws who were murdered by Anatoly Onoprienko in their own house.

72 thoughts on “Burning Passion

  1. Interesting and cautionary words, Otto. Passion “is not a license to do whatever you want.” It would, sometimes be easy to do whatever I want and call it passion. You speak good advice. I don’t want to burn my cabin down!

  2. It’s funny, when we are younger we seem to have a blind passion that is born out of this feeling of being invincible. Luckily maturity teaches us a balance! I can only imagine the things you’ve done and seen Otto! Practical and inspiring post.

    1. Age does bring some maturity to the equation, but sometimes I wish I could still be blind and stupid (a little bit at leas, and despite what i write here in this post). All kinds of fun situations comes out of that. 🙂

  3. Passion makes the world go round. Passion can make you fly and come crashing down perhaps. Passion teaches you so many lessons. Once you lose passion you lose life itself. Brilliant article Otto, as always, your passion undiminished.

  4. When we are young, passion can destroy as well as lift us up…hopefully we learn the balance. Thank you for your always interesting thoughts.

  5. Well said, Otto. We need to be open-minded and adaptive to all kinds of opportunities out there.
    Thank you for sharing your insights!

  6. Very true! I believe this goes to everything in life where too much of one thing can turn harmful. As you pointed out here, we need balancing forces or have a strong foot in solid ground..

  7. So true and one of my favourite quotes epitomises part of your post.
    “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”………Andre Gird.

    I might also add another quote which I found meaningful when I took up Photography as a hobby in (early) retirement in 2010. “It’s never too late to become what you might have been.”………………….George Elliot.

    And while I don’t do as much photography as I did for the first few years after I stopped working, positive quotes and inspiring books form part of my mindset these days.

    There’s a famous tourism TV advertisement in Australia with the line “you’ll never ever know (if you never, ever go).”

    I have been inspired by so many photographers – amateur and professional.

    But Balance is the key.

  8. Thank you for putting words to something I have been feeling for a while. Too many people have encouraged me to do things before I was prepared to do them.

    Carpe Diem. But … Look before you leap.

  9. Beautifully written advice, Otto! I smiled when I read about your experiences in Ukraine. I used to be the queen of improvisation, passionate and an eternal optimist. Only in my more mature years I have learned, too, that while optimism is good and passion is necessary, more is needed to get the creative results I want to achieve.

  10. To balance passion and good sense – there’s a good way forward. Your passion shows in the immediacy of your photos – here, especially in the photo of Natacha. The off kilter angle and those shadows on the wall are great.

  11. Good essay, Otto. And the quote at the end is perfect. You know, I was devastated by the revelations of Lance Armstrong’s drug use. And then I thought about what it must feel like to be inside his head and soul at that time. One day he is a hero with a small son at his heels. The next day he is a pariah, a cheater, thrown from his throne. How does he go forward each day? How did he explain all this to his son? We need to harness our passion to push us through the hard work of creativity.

    1. It’s hard to image what goes through Armstrong’s mind. I am sure he regrets what he did. At the same time he is the sole responsible for it (well, with added help of his aids, I am sure). There are no easy ways to success – not in the long run.

      1. Yup. I think being responsible for his own downfall would be the hardest thing to cope with. It’s much easier if you can blame someone else. To his credit, I don’t think he has done that. I’m sure there will be a book on of these days…if there isn’t already.

  12. Uuh! Passion and stupidity – as bad a combination as you could think of. But passion and clear-sightedness, then? – Might as well produce murder! Or passion, creativity and hard work? That’s what a bank robber needs, isn’t it? After all, even divergent thinking and passion might turn out to be an evil combination. Good you make us think about this, Otto. Still, I couldn’t live if I didn’t have access to my passionate self. Having access to passion is what keeps me alive. So what exactly is required to make passion worth while, since it does not work so well on its own? Balance and maturity have been mentioned. You mention “the sure footing that strong values and thoughtfulness provides”. And when you say this, you’re getting closer to defining what’s needed, namely “an ethical dimension towards yourself and not the least the world around you.” Do you mean that passion needs to be controlled by an amount of social responsibility? I would agree, but at the same time, a scientist, an explorer needs a certain amount of recklessness as well and not too much of responsibility towards ingrained values. So, with all this in mind, I’m still asking: what’s needed to make passion worth its risks?

    1. I think it’s impossible to draw a clear line in the sand between what is good use of passion and what is irresponsible. Even deliberate and conscious use of passion, as the examples you mention, can end up at the wrong end of the rope. My intention with what I wrote in this post is merely to make us think about not letting everything go as a result of strong passion. Yes, recklessness is necessary, not only in science, but if you end up harming yourself or others you better think twice. Nevertheless, I think we need to take more chances than we often do, but at the same time we need to have that conscious dimension be part of the equation. Yes, as the saying goes; nothing ventured nothing gained, but if the venture is only going do be a downward spiral into disaster, we might be better off trying something different. I know I am not any clearer than in the post, but I don’t think it’s possible to be more specific. 🙂

  13. Life can be strange indeed… turned around and backwards, where people hurt themselves to heal themselves and nothing comes out right… a baby with a bad mother will scream and cry all the way to his grave at a ripe old age, full of passion, yes, but this can not be called a good passion, that’s for sure.

  14. Hello Otto, I had a passion for teaching in inner city London. I qualified as a teacher at University College London have in my late teens, gained a degree in business, marketing and economics. This was a second career, I wanted to give something back and I was dealing with kids living under extraordinarily difficult social circumstances. Things I’d never encountered before. Kids mothers drug addicts and prostitutes, absent and very violent fathers. The fear of knife crime and being caught up in it but somehow these kids managed to get themselves to school. I took my passion for teaching and education into the classroom and I inspired hitherto unteachable kids. I had a knack of connecting with these young people. I remember one particular day, I was new in the school, I think my fellow business and economics teachers thought they’d test me, have a laugh at my expense. There was one particular class who were labelled as unteachable, and they weren’t taught. When they turned up, they pretty much did what they liked. they were ill disciplined, often came to school stoned and there I was with this class of 16 boys about to leave school and enter a difficult world with incredibly difficult hurdles to jump. What did I do? I taught them how to manage money, always taking it back to business. I was a business and economics teacher after all but the connection between personnel finance and what businesses do is not so very different.. These kids would leave school, they would no doubt be unemployed and I spent the whole lesson explaining a balance sheet and explaining why if you know what’s coming in and going out, you can keep control. This type of personal finance training is not usually taught in school but it should be. These guys were totally engaged. I had teachers from my own department and others as word spread that here was this rooky teacher with the unteachables, teaching them. They recognised what I had to say had meaning to their lives. If I’d tried to teach them the principles of macro economics they’d have switched off and I’d have had an unruly class on my hands. My passion for teaching allowed me to reach out to these guys and actually make a difference.
    Sadly I was soon struck down with MS and could no longer teach. I needed to find another passion. I found photography and that’s where I focused my energy but again in a positive way I think. Passion is important but it has to be applied intelligently and with balance as many of your contributors have mentioned. I think my balance comes from the fact that I simply can’t be out there at dawn every day and in the field til dusk however much my passion might like me to be. I have natural breaks but when I’m not shooting, my passion is in reading and learning as much as I can.
    I learn a great deal from your posts Otto and as always, this one was no different. Thank you for sharing you knowledge.

    1. That is quite a story about passion and dealing with realities without taking anything for granted. I am always impressed with people who can connect with kids that most others have given up. In the end it’s about taking them seriously and making them feel they are heard and respected, no. Thanks for sharing your personal story so openly, Adrian. It’s both touching and encouraging. I know about your passion for photography, but didn’t know you had such passion for “troubled” youth.

  15. I love that you don’t mind sharing your mistakes, Otto, and you would certainly have learnt from that one. Thank you for another thought provoking post. 🙂 🙂

  16. Everyone with a smart phone is an amateur photographer these days; social media gives us all a voice. Nice that there are still a handful of people around who remind us there’s more to it than that. Can’t wait to read what you have to say next, Otto.

  17. A fascinating and thought-provoking post Otto. At times I’ve been disillusioned with photography but passion and the creative urge always provides the spark to get back out and make photos!

  18. William Wordsworth described his poetry as ’emotion recollected in tranquility’: the emotional response to the subject provided the inspiration and creative energy but also important was the period of reflection during which the resulting thoughts and feelings could be honed into a poem

  19. The Twain quote you have above just about says it all when faced with an opportunity and a decision needs to be made 🙂 One of my favorite quotes. The magic of passion is what you allude to throughout your post. Passion is what keep people moving forward when critics/struggles of life can make it easy for people to be discouraged and quit. The curiosity passion holds keeps us thinking ‘what could we create and achieve’ and we therefore get out and pursue 🙂

  20. Your marvelous post illustrates the need for passion in our lives to get us to the top of the mountain or even out of bed in the morning. This magical drive force moves us forward towards our dreams and in the world. A wonderful post Otto

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