Passion and wisdom. Youth and age. Most of us would say that these are two ends of the spectrum. Many say that one can either be passionate or wise, but not both. Passion typically prevails in one’s youth while wisdom gains prominence with age and experience.
I want to challenge this belief. In fact, passion and wisdom amplify each other – each one alone has far less impact than when the two are combined. Rather than opposites, these two are powerful complements.
Defining passion and wisdom
Both passion and wisdom have many meanings, so let me begin by offering my own interpretation of each. As I have written before, I focus on the passion of the explorer – a sustained commitment to exploring a particular domain and to achieving constantly increasing levels of performance and impact in that domain over time.
Wisdom also has many meanings but the one that resonates with me is ability to draw out optimal value from people, shaped by a deep understanding of existing performance capabilities – both one’s own and those of others. Wisdom understands the value that matters the most and seeks to draw more of it out in a sustainable way, given existing performance limits. Sustainability is a key attribute here – anyone can squeeze hard in the short-term to draw out the next increment of value but being able to sustain that value over time is far more challenging – and rewarding for all concerned.
Common elements of passion and wisdom
From this perspective, both wisdom and passion are concerned with performance limits. Wisdom focuses on existing performance limits but seeks to derive as much value as possible within these limits. Passion on the other hand focuses on overcoming these performance limits and achieving higher and higher levels of performance. In this context, it is perhaps easy to understand why these two attributes are often viewed as opposites – wisdom accepts and operates within existing performance limits while passion continually seeks to challenge and go beyond existing limits.
But both wisdom and passion are dynamic - they both seek to go beyond what has already been achieved. Wisdom is not passive – it always looks for new approaches to increase value within existing performance limits. In contrast, passion explores ways to transcend existing performance limits. Neither one passively accepts the status quo – both are engaged in a quest to realize more value given current conditions.
The perils of passion and wisdom in isolation
Wisdom in isolation falls prey to diminishing returns. No matter how thoughtful and creative we might be, we ultimately run up against the limits of current capability. The longer we work at it, the harder it becomes to find the next increment of value within current performance limits.
Even more seriously, wisdom is vulnerable in the Big Shift. The unstated assumptions and insights about limits, often developed in an earlier time, are prone to becoming incorrect and even barriers to progress. In isolation, without continual testing, wisdom can become an obstacle to innovation as “wise” leaders apply the experience gained in an earlier era to changed circumstances. If “wisdom” remains wedded to earlier views of capabilities, it narrows and confines, rather than expanding and exploring.
On the other hand, passion in isolation falls prey to reckless risk-taking, increasing the prospect of catastrophic failure. Without a clear understanding and appreciation for current performance limits, we embark on initiatives that take us well beyond the edge into the abyss beyond.
The imperative to integrate passion and wisdom
In a world of mounting performance pressure where current limits become prisons that ultimately crush participants, effectively integrating wisdom and passion is not just an opportunity, it is an imperative.
We need the productive friction that comes from bringing together passion and wisdom. Wisdom calls us to understand deeply existing limits while passion calls us to embark on a never-ending quest to expand those limits and discover new levels of performance. Passion continually challenges our assumptions about limits while wisdom continually reminds us that we must pursue paths that honor who we are today. The friction comes from the tacit knowledge that shapes both passion and wisdom – it can help to render this tacit knowledge more explicit and test and refine it.
In practice, the people that continue to achieve new levels of performance within a particular domain demonstrate a remarkable ability to integrate passion and wisdom. Think of extreme athletes or top tier players in World of Warcraft. These participants are constantly probing beyond current levels of performance but they deeply understand existing limits for themselves and those they collaborate with. It is precisely this careful balancing act that enables them to take appropriate risk and successfully discover new approaches that define new levels of performance.
Passion and wisdom come together in a remarkably powerful form of bootstrapping. Passion relentlessly seeks out new edges to drive performance to new levels, tempered by the understanding of limits provided by wisdom. Wisdom strives to extract as much value as possible within current limits, tempered by the continual urge provided by passion to test and extend those limits. By integrating both of these, we make the most of what we have while constantly striving to find ways to reach new levels of performance. This is precisely the definition of success in a world of mounting performance pressure – making the fullest possible use of the resources available to us while never accepting the limits imposed by those resources. By combining these two attributes, we make thrivability, rather than sustainability, our reality.
The power to build trust-based relationships
These two traits also have a profound social impact as well. They combine to produce deep, trust-based relationships that help to draw out far more sustainable value than could ever be accomplished by any individual in isolation. As I have noted elsewhere, passion is marked by a strong connecting disposition. People with passion are constantly searching for others who either share their passion or who can be helpful to them in their quest to achieve new levels of performance.
But passion does even more. People with passion are not just connecting with others; they find it far easier to build deep, trust-based relationships. Think about those you know who have passion. They have little patience for the carefully crafted facades that business texts urge us to present – accentuating our strengths and accomplishments while hiding our weaknesses and limits. Passionate people have to time for such facades. What you see is what you get. They present themselves as who they are – something that helps to build trust more quickly.
But there's something even more powerful. Think about it. Very shortly after meeting someone with passion, he/she is likely to start describing a really gnarly problem they are wrestling with, acknowledging that they don’t have a clue what the answer might be and inviting others to offer any ideas or suggestions that they might have. Passionate people quickly and willingly express vulnerability. Sharing vulnerability builds trust – in fact, it is virtually impossible to build trust without sharing vulnerability.
Now, let’s combine passion with wisdom. Wisdom deeply understands existing limits. This also helps to build trust. If a passionate person communicates they understand their own limits as well as the limits of those around them, others are likely to trust that the person will act prudently in ways that will not expose themselves or others to unnecessary or unexpected risk.
By building trust more effectively, wisely passionate people are able to mobilize people and resources far beyond their own sphere. They are far more effective in leveraging the capability of others and, with relatively modest resources of their own, they can achieve significant and lasting impact. In fact, for them, small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion.
The tragedy today
Given all of this, why do we continue to treat passion and wisdom as opposites, in deep conflict with each other, rather than as complements, that are increasingly needed to amplify and reinforce each other? Even more importantly, why are passion and wisdom in such short supply within the corporate world?
The answers to these questions are perhaps worthy of another posting. For the moment, though, let me offer a high level response. Both passion and wisdom, properly understood, are long-term quests, inspiring continuing creativity and exploration in search of ways to generate ever more sustainable value.
As such, they stand in stark contrast to our prevailing push mindsets, practices and institutions that reward, and in fact demand, short-term predictability. These approaches seek to enforce well-defined and tightly integrated programs to ensure predictability. Our push world relentlessly seeks out more and more efficiency while both passion and wisdom focus on creating more value from available resources.
Even more fundamentally, both passion and wisdom are not predictable – that is in fact their great strength, they are continually coming up with new ways to create more value. The tragedy is that, in today’s world, this makes both of these attributes deeply suspect even though they are both more needed than ever.