Don’t Follow Your Passions, Broaden Them!

I recently listened to one of those Google Talks by Dr. Barbara Oakley on the topic, “Learning How to Learn.” Although a completely secular audience and atmosphere, I was impressed with the humility and magnanimity of this woman.

This lovely lady did not fall into the jargonny academicism that so many PhD’s can fall into. She was a truly masterful teacher. She cared about learning and about giving everyone, no matter how “smart,” the ability and tools needed to experience the joys of learning.

She used thoughtful metaphors and concrete examples to demonstrate several aspects of the brain, different modes of learning, different kinds of thinkers, and gave practical techniques for how to build your knowledge effectively. At no point did you feel that she was way above your level or that she was patronizing in any way. She portrayed the value of all kinds of thinkers and how we can use our various ways of learning to complement one another and share in a larger community of learning. She could almost just as well have been talking about the various gifts of the Spirit and the communion of saints in the Church. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I encourage you to listen to the full talk if you get the chance.

However, the highlight of the talk for me was her final word of advice to this group of Google workers. It was here that her ethos really won me over. As successful as she has been in her life, she was not complacent in having accomplished so much. She did not look down on those who do less and puff herself up for having done more. Rather, she left her audience with a call to pursue greater excellence. Here are her concluding remarks:

“We’re often told, ‘Follow your passion–that is the key to everything! Just follow your passion and your life will really be a better place for it.’ We’re told that. But, your passion develops about what you’re really good at. And some things take much longer to get good at. So, don’t just follow your passions. Broaden your passions! And your lives will be greatly enriched.”

I think this advice is pertinent to the ongoing conversation and thoughts some of us are having about re-enchanting our lives while being bound to our times. Our desire to live an enchanted life is, I think, a desire to broaden our passions. But, like Dr. Oakley says, it takes time to get good at things and develop our passions. In short, it takes time to fall in love. That falling in love is what re-enchants, but it has to be genuine. To be in love is a disposition of the heart, which must be cultivated slowly and patiently.

I think Dr. Oakley’s insight about procrastination and how to overcome it can apply in this situation. When we our afraid of something we don’t know, we procrastinate by distracting ourselves with things that please us. She says that this procrastination can become an addiction because we are essentially training ourselves to retreat from the unknown fearful object by indulging other lower passions. This can become a vicious cycle that prevents us from broadening our passions.

I think Dr. Oakley’s antidote to procrastination is good advice for how to broaden our passions realistically. She talks about committing to a certain, limited amount of time for focused thinking. By limiting yourself to just giving the time, you don’t have to worry so much about being afraid because it will be over soon. But if you commit to giving that set time again and again, you will eventually feel less afraid and learn to fall in love.

To do this, we must be patient with ourselves, and do one thing at a time, which is difficult when you have high ideals and you’re afraid of being mediocre. We are so hyper-aware of how much good we can do and ought to do (and how little of it we can do) that we find ourselves overwhelmed by the possibilities and don’t actually do anything. We get stuck waiting for the right time, when all the circumstances will be right, when all will align and we can live that perfect romantic life we desire. That’s just procrastination, motivated by fear and pride, and it’s hard to overcome. To broaden our passions takes time, and so we must give ourselves that time.

This is somewhat unfinished, but I wanted to share Dr. Oakley’s talk because I was grateful that it was shared with me. And it’s a somewhat different kind of person than we’re used to hearing. I hope it can broaden your passions to listen and I hope to continue these thoughts later.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Follow Your Passions, Broaden Them!

  1. I like that idea. I think the hardest part for me about broadening my horizons is that lower goods, so to speak, never stop being attractive. Sure, pursuing the higher things leaves me with a deeper, richer fulfillment. But if I am not giving up the lower pursuits for the sake of the higher, as in lent, I always slide back into the habits of spending too much time on the lower goods (like browsing music documentaries on youtube as a real life example). It is always a struggle to strike a balance

    I think abstinence is a possible solution, but can’t be the only one. There has to be a way to build up self restraint to where we can use lower goods in their proper place. Maybe this is just a weakness of mine, but it seems true for a lot of us today. I would like to find a way to build up real temperance in these areas. Not just by giving up lower goods completely, because that seems like a cop out (but perhaps a necessary one, at least for a season like lent). It seems like the ideal is for us to be able to use lower goods with appropriate moderation. What do you think?

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    • I agree that the lower goods should remain as attractive goods and we should be grounded in using them moderately. We should not forget that we are also animals, and God gave us the created world to enjoy. Most of us are not called to the extreme asceticism of those rare saint who lived on the Eucharist alone, and even some of the strictest monks enjoy good food, beer, and the pleasures of lowly bodily work. I think Dr. Oakley was balanced about recognizing this need on a natural level. We cannot stay concentrated in the mode of focused thinking for very long, and so we must break out of that mode and do something lower, like sleep and eat and exercise. Indeed, even Aquinas in the Summa (I-IIae,Q.38) advises sometimes seeking out lower pleasures such as sleep and baths to fight against excessive sorrow and anxiety. And as married persons and not Dominican monks, we have even more options . . .

      I think the most important thing to remember when trying to broaden our passions is the rule of charity. The whole purpose of fasting is to detach from things we may be tempted to love more than God. If our fasting is not done in love, if it leads us to grumble and feel bitter, then it is not worth doing. It really is true that if we love God, we can do what we will, for that is how we love Him. We love Him by receiving and being grateful for the gifts He offers us, which is every created good.

      When I was a sophomore, I remember Dr. Olsson asking one of the seniors this question in their oration: “If we know that a choice is higher, does that mean we should choose it?” I think most of us in our idealist phases of freshman and sophomore year might have felt inclined to say yes at first. But the answer is no. More qualified, the answer is: “We should only choose the higher good if it is the best way for us to love God.” And the answer to that question requires a consideration of subjective factors and not only objective reason. We’re not all called to love God in the highest way. Christ confirmed this when he sanctified marriage as a sacrament, saying that we can get to heaven by enjoying the greatest bodily pleasure, as long as we love Him through that pleasure. I think there probably is a hierarchy in heaven like Dante illustrated, and that we can get there by loving lower goods.

      On that note, though, we can’t get complacent in those lower goods, lest we forget that they are a gift and a means for loving God. That’s where Lenten fasting and abstinence are so helpful. However, abstinence is not the only way to sanctify our love of lower goods. If we are not ready or it is not appropriate in our situation to give up a certain good, then we can make an act of glorifying God through that good. I think of some of the psalms or the Benedicite in Lauds of the Little Office about blessing the Lord through the earth and all of His creatures. Or St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun.” We can enjoy the lower goods well (given we’re not enjoying a mortal sin) so long as we see them as gifts from God and give thanks to Him for them.

      So, when enjoying a music documentary, for example, making a point to thank God for the gift of music and for the talent He gave to this musical artist, is a way to redirect and sanctify our enjoyment of the lower good. If we are loving God, we can do what we will.

      Also, I think broadening our passions applies to expanding our love of lower goods as well. What I mean is, we don’t have to abstain from chocolate and then jump to replace it with daily Mass. That might be too far of a leap. We can broaden our passions with a good of like kind and quality as well. For example, giving up coffee and replacing it with tea. It might seem like a copout if we are enjoying the tea and not feeling the lack of coffee. But in another light, we can thank God that we are able to receive His love through the gift of tea as well as coffee. In this case, we have still broadened our passions, even if only a little.

      More practically, I think Dr. Oakley’s advice about fighting procrastination by setting time limits is very helpful. Instead of abstaining from a lower good for forty days, we can commit to spend twenty minutes a day devoted to a higher good. For those twenty minutes, you are abstaining from the lower good, but putting an attainable limit on yourself keeps your mind from craving the lower good during idle moments in the day.

      These are just some initial thoughts on the matter. Overall, I do think you’re right to recognize that it would be foolish to give up lower goods completely. Even the greatest good we can receive on earth, the Eucharist, is hidden under the appearance of low goods, bread and wine. Maybe that’s something worth pondering in regards to this question.

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