As a child, I early on embraced reason as a safe haven from the deep and dangerous emotions that swirled around me and scarred me with memories that were impossible to forget. Like many of us, I believed that reason and passion stand in opposition to each other. One had to choose one or the other or risk being pulled apart by the competing demands of each. Throughout history, we have seen many champion the need for choice - rationalists side with reason while the romantics and assorted others (often not quite so appealing) side with passion.
As I have grown older, I have come to challenge this basic assumption. In fact, reason and passion need to be tightly integrated if we wish to achieve our full potential and make a difference in the world around us. Far from undermining each other, they build on each other and powerfully reinforce each other. I would even go so far as to say they are essential for each other. In fact, in isolation, reason is a very shallow pool to swim in. From my perspective, that pool needs to be deepened with passion in order for the journey to be fruitful and satisfying.
Over my life, I have become deeply skeptical of efforts to force choices between apparent opposites – stability vs. change, freedom vs. discipline, stocks vs. flows, nature vs. nurture, risk vs. safety. Most of what makes life interesting are the tensions created by these contradictions. Seeking to resolve these contradictions by picking one or the other side only creates the appearance of simplicity, while blinding us to the richness that makes life so damn interesting
So it is with reason and passion. Both terms have a broad range of meanings, so a good place to start might be to explain what I mean by them. Reason is a process of observing the world around us, systematically applying rules of logic and experimentation and generating conclusions that others can follow. It often seek s to abstract from the particular so that general conclusions can be derived and defended.
Passion is commonly used to refer to strong emotions of any type. When I use passion, I use it in a much more specific way to describe a particular blend of emotions - excitement, anticipation, curiosity, desire, love, joy and wonder and empathy - that motivate us to venture deeper and deeper into particular domains defined by the passion. These emotions motivate us to move beyond our comfort zone, provide us with the dedication and commitment to build capabilities in these fields over extended periods of time and help us ultimately to achieve the potential that resides within each of us. In particular, I focus on the passion of the explorer who is motivated by a desire to gain new insight into a particular domain by working with others to drive performance to new levels.
So, how do passion and reason reinforce each other? Think of agency versus structure. Passion provides the first by generating energy and creating a sense of freedom. Reason provides the latter by imposing constraint and discipline. Without structure, agency becomes an aimless whirlwind of activity, constantly distracted by the bright lights, but unable to maintain forward movement. And, of course, without agency, structure remains an inert mass, sinking deeper and deeper into the ground below it, seeing but unable to explore the world around it.
Kahlil Gibran in his classic book, "The Prophet", put it eloquently:
Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.
Closer to home, Ben Franklin, expressed similar views much more succinctly: “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”
We can gain more insight into the tight relationship between passion and reason by looking at four attributes that need to come together for us to achieve our full potential: focus, action, relationships and friction
We need to be able to carve out specific domains that we can focus on to achieve world-class performance. Spreading ourselves too thin risks that we remain superficially engaged in lots of areas without ever achieving world-class performance anywhere. But, how to pick the domains that offer us the greatest opportunity to excel?
Passion provides the key. If we are not passionately engaged in a particular domain, it is unlikely that we will invest the effort and energy required to achieve mastery and distinctiveness. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, "Outliers", emphasizes that successful people generally invest considerable effort over time in mastering their domains – he estimates that 10,000 hours is the minimum investment made by these people to achieve mastery. In fact, in a world of constant change, one could make the case that 10,000 hours is just table stakes – sustained excellence demands continued investment. It is very hard to sustain that kind of investment over a period of years without passion to provide the motivation. If we rely solely on reason to select an appropriate domain, we may have a compelling logic but that alone is unlikely to sustain us as we begin to encounter obstacles and distractions along the way.
On the other hand, having chosen a domain to focus on, reason provides a valuable way to frame questions and test the experiences that we accumulate as we explore the domain. It helps us to choose the most productive directions to pursue as we venture into the domain and helps us to solve the difficult puzzles that we encounter.
It is not enough to choose the domain – we must engage with it and explore its farthest reaches (dare I say edges?). It is not enough to sit in an easy chair and contemplate; we must roll up our sleeves and dive in to really experience the textures and particulars that help us to gain insight into what is really going on.
Leaving that easy chair and venturing forth into unknown territory presents real risks and can be very scary. Reason alone rarely helps us to overcome those fears. In fact, it can deceive us into believing that we can process information about the domain at a distance, keeping our attention focused on the forest, without the distraction of all those trees.
Passion will have none of that – it demands our engagement and will settle for nothing less. It propels us forward, giving us both the energy and courage to welcome any challenge as an opportunity to test ourselves, regardless of the risk.
Once again, though, reason provides a welcome companion on the journey. It helps us to reflect on our experiences and to begin to discern patterns emerging from seemingly unique encounters. We start to see the themes that make the particulars less particular and part of a more coherent whole. It provides us with powerful tools to make sense of rapidly evolving landscapes and to begin to zero in on the underlying forces driving and shaping this evolution.
On a related note, Antonio Damasio in his book, “Descartes’ Error”, provides an intriguing perspective, arguing that “emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking” and that “the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make wise decision making almost impossible.”
Experiencing a domain requires engaging with people in ways that go beneath the surface of a casual conversation and help us to see the domain through different lenses. We will need to form relationships that transcend short encounters and begin to build shared understanding of the domain. Relationships involve connecting on a personal level and passion helps to form a common bond. As I discussed in an earlier post, passion inherently drives us to connect with others who share our passion and who can help us to improve our performance. The passion of an explorer provides a capacity for empathy that can be very powerful in forging deep and lasting bonds. Passion also draws out the stories from all participants that are the first and often the most powerful way to express the new knowledge emerging on the fertile edges of any domain.
Our Shift Index research showed a clear relationship between level of passion and degree of connection with others through a variety of avenues, including conferences and social media. Those who are motivated purely by reason are likely to find themselves less connected and therefore at a disadvantage relative to those who are connected through shared passion.
At the same time, reason helps to forge a common bond in relationships with others. A shared commitment to reason can help people to overcome deep differences in experiences, assumptions and perspectives. It can help build a shared understanding that will make it easier to access tacit knowledge that each participant brings to the table. It also provides a powerful framework to reflect on experiences and to begin to sift through the idle distractions and zero in on the elements that are most distinctively shaping these experiences.
I have written about productive friction elsewhere. It is an essential ingredient in any sustained effort to engage with diverse participants in order to deliver significant improvements in performance.
Passion provides a firm foundation for productive friction to emerge and flourish. Shared passion creates a deep emotional bond that encourages people with different backgrounds and experiences to continue to engage with each other even though some of their most cherished assumptions are being challenged. They are all on a shared quest to find the most creative ways to drive performance to new levels and they are constantly on a search for new approaches that offer the potential to deliver performance breakthroughs.
Reason, on the other hand, also provides a useful toolkit for addressing and resolving potentially deeply held differences. It offers some common ground for debating and resolving alternative approaches to a shared problem.
Framing questions and framing answers
Passion frames the most powerful questions and reason frames the most convincing answers – this is another way to express the reinforcing effect of integrating passion and reason.
As Claude Helvetius, a French philosphe during the Enlightenment, observed: “. . . it is the strong passions alone that prompt men to the execution of . . . heroic actions, and give birth to those grand ideas, which are the astonishment and admiration of all ages.” It was Helvetius who entitled one of the chapters in his book, “The superiority of the mind in men of strong passions above the men of sense.” He asserted that “it is , in effect, only a strong passion, which, being more perspicuous (sic) than good sense, can teach us to distinguish the extraordinary from the impossible, which men of sense are ever confounding; because, not being animated by strong passions, these sensible persons never rise above mediocrity . . .” Perhaps it is not surprising that this book, "De l’Esprit", was publicly condemned as heretical and burned by the Catholic Church.
In short, passion prompts us to ask the really difficult and creative questions that “sensible” people would never think of asking. The more I learn, the more I see the insight in John Seely Brown’s observation that framing the right question is the most powerful aspect of learning. With the right question, reason can help us to generate powerful answers but it is the question which focuses the tool of reason and ultimately provides its power.
I held on to the rationalist position for a very long time. It provided me a welcome refuge from the messy world of emotions. But something changed – I moved to Silicon Valley, drawn in part by the rationality of technology. What I had not fully realized until I moved here was the central role that passion played in the evolution of this amazing place. It has quite literally changed my life and taught me that reason becomes even more powerful when amplified by passion.
Silicon Valley is a living example of the power of passion and reason woven together into a fabric that adorns every achievement emerging from this fertile valley. People are drawn here from all over the world by the passion to make a difference, to quite literally change the world, by exploring new frontiers of technology. On the other hand, many of the people driving the most awe-inspiring innovations are engineers, deeply trained in the disciplined rationality that brings forth amazing power from more and more circuits painstakingly arranged on small silicon chips and lines of software code carefully designed to deliver the most functionality in the fewest instructions.
Every day, I see the power of passion and reason coming together. It literally has changed the world, and it has changed me.