Professional Development Opinion

The Impact of Passion and Dispassion on Living, Leading, Teaching, and Learning

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 15, 2015 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Gregg Levoy author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life and Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion.

When I left high school back in the 1970’s and headed off to college, I remember my father telling me “Don’t take courses. Take professors.” The state of the world and the education of children have changed much since then, but not, I think, the truth at the heart of my father’s advice. In fact, it may be more relevant than ever. Those who are passionate about what they teach can make even the driest subject come to life, and we along with it.

Passion is Critical
The mechanics of inspiration being what they are, one person’s passion can have a profound effect on the unfolding of other people’s passion, and certainly for anyone in a position of leadership or stewardship--especially relative to children and young adults. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, minister, mentor, manager, coach, counselor, politician, or CEO, this much is certain: your passion is critical to their engagement.

As the poet William Butler Yeats once said, education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire, and in order to fan the flames in others, we as leaders and stewards need to tend to the fire within ourselves.

It surely isn’t lost on kids the degree to which we ourselves, as their role models, are engaged in passionate if not lifelong learning, perhaps especially outside our nine-to-five lives. Do we remain interested and involved in the issues of the day? Do we read books though there are no tests to take, sign up for adult-education classes, or even just look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary? Do we lead our own lives with passion?

What makes the biggest difference in the quality of the learning experience for students, says Robert Fried in The Passionate Teacher, is a teacher’s passion. “More than knowledge of subject matter, more than variety of teaching techniques, more than being well organized or friendly or funny or fair. Passion. Passionate people are the ones who make a difference in our lives” (p.16).

Passion Is Contagious
But when we as teachers and parents, coaches and mentors, are no longer learning, we’re no longer teaching, because we’ve left behind the ability to role-model the art of discovery, the love of learning and being intellectually active. We no longer help students become “hunter-gatherers of insights,” as Fried puts it, “just passive consumers of pre-packaged information.”

We lose the ability to inspire by example. We can still palm off information, but it’s once removed from the true purpose of education, a word that means to draw out. We must bring out the passion for learning, not just shove in the data, which will begin to fade from memory the moment the test is over. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The justification for education is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life.”

But if passion is contagious, so is dispassion. A 2012 worldwide Gallup poll of 142 countries found that, on average, 87% of workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” (63% and 24% respectively), and only 13% “engaged.” In the U.S. alone, this adds up to roughly $550 billion a year in lost productivity. Passion equals productivity, and lack of passion sabotages it.

Not-engaged, for instance, means checked out, but actively-disengaged means you’re busy acting out your unhappiness and dispiritedness, and spreading the virus among your colleagues and students, family and friends, to say nothing of the body-politic of which you’re a single cell. What it means, as a business columnist I ran across put it, is that if you’re part of a rowing team out on a river, one of the team-members is rowing his or her heart out, five are just taking in the scenery, and two are actively trying to sink the boat.

Interestingly, what’s missing from that Gallup poll is a category for people who are “actively engaged,” i.e., passionate. Maybe because so few people are in it, they considered it statistically insignificant. But that would be significant in itself.

Being actively engaged, however, is as catching as being actively disengaged. You just have to catch it first before you can spread it.

The Community Follows the Leader
There’s a reason some of the world’s great stories, like Sleeping Beauty and the Grail King---of which there are versions all over the world--speak to the idea that when the king or queen sleeps, those around them also sleep and the kingdom sleeps. But when the king and queen awaken, those around them also awaken and the kingdom begins to flower.

It’s an idea embedded very deeply into the mythologies, and thus the psychologies and philosophies, of the world, and what it tells us is that our individual work is also the work of the world, and that when we insist on our own aliveness, we stake a claim for everyone’s--those with whom we work and those on whose behalf we work.

The Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of a man trying to solve the world’s problems, when his young son comes into the room and asks if he can help. Touched by his son’s concern, but impatient to get on with his task, he takes a map of the world, rips it into little pieces, and gives it to the boy, telling him that he can help by piecing the world back together. The boy doesn’t have a clue what the world looks like, but he takes the pile of paper off to his room.

Two days later he rushes into his father’s study to report to his father that he has put the world back together. And indeed the shreds of paper have been meticulously taped together. His father is stunned, and asks how he did it. The boy turns the map over and explains that there was a picture of a person on the back. He explained he put the person back together and turned it over to see the world was back together.


Fried, Robert L., 1995 The Passionate Teacher, Boston. MA: Beacon Press Books
State of the Global Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide, Gallup, 2012

Gregg can be contacted at www.gregglevoy.com

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