Passion is an ongoing, living process that needs to be reignited on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, most of the elements that sustain passion are precisely the same ongoing practices that sustain quality of life in general. In particular, there are five practices I can describe that will help you sustain passion, regardless of your environment.
Engage in a Spiritual Practice
To sustain passion we need some kind of spiritual practice that helps us cultivate a strong center. Prayer, meditation, yoga, solitude, time in nature—regardless of the form, spiritual practice is essential. Without a spiritual practice we’re like tiny boats without oars or rudders on the great turbulent sea of life.
Spiritual practice is the most powerful tool you have for staying healthy—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—amid the stress of passionate work. When you find your passionate calling, complexity and challenges increase and more is demanded of you on all levels. You need a place to stop to replenish your energy and confidence. Your spiritual practice will help you sustain courage and energy.
In the last several years, I’ve taught in a beautiful Benedictine monastery on the Hudson River in New York. The monks at this monastery have taught me an enormous amount about passion and spiritual practice. This is a vibrant monastery where the brothers host thousands of visitors a year and lead hundreds of dynamic programs, yet they pray five times a day to cultivate a strong spiritual center. Having this center allows them to be present through each moment of the day. I have witnessed their deep attention to each person, each challenge, and each stress. They have taught me that many present moments add up to an entire passionate life.
Practice Self-Responsibility, Showing Up, and Being Real
The next practice is easy to describe but hard to do. So often we lose our passion in work because we’re hiding. We are hiding our gifts, our ideas, our enthusiasm, our boredom, our anger, our power, our originality, our disagreement, or our exhaustion. The energy it takes to hide our real self steals vital energy from doing passionate creative work.
The degree of passion you sustain in your work is equivalent to how real you are. What does it mean to be real at work? It means that who you are at work is who you really are. There is a large component of personal responsibility inherent in this idea—for the good, the bad, and the ugly without blaming others. A passionate person does not hide from herself or from the world. A passionate person shows up, beautiful mess and all, and generously gives her gifts to the world.
Stay on the Leading Edge of Challenge
To sustain passion in our work we need to be honest with ourselves about when we are stale. Such stagnation can build subtly because when we love the work, we coast too long without stretching ourselves with vital new challenges.
Some years ago, I noticed that I was still helping transform people’s lives, but I wasn’t being transformed myself anymore. I realized that I needed to work much more deeply and for longer periods of time with the same students if I was to reengage with that sense of personal transformation. I created a yearlong spiritual growth training program that took people into the most fundamental questions about themselves and the nature of the human condition. I was, to put it mildly, challenged by this endeavor and found that my passion was reignited. I was so inspired by my students that I wanted to write a book about what I was learning. My inner witch said, “Don’t even try!” But I knew that writing was the next challenge I needed in order to keep growing and learning. As hard as it was, and still is, writing is now a rich part of what brings passion to my work.
Protect Your Inner Life
Like everything in life, passion has a shadow—workaholism and burnout. Without the balance of an inner life, sooner or later you will find yourself automatically going through the motions of an outer life that will lead to burnout. As someone who has experienced the shadow of my own passion—I can tell you in no uncertain terms, that passion cannot survive without an inner life.
I use the metaphor of the breath to represent our need for both the in-breath of self-care and the out-breath of giving our gifts to the world. To thrive on all levels, we need to find our balance of breathing in (caring for self) and breathing out (offering our best to life). Our passion has turned into workaholism when we find we don’t have a life outside work anymore.
There’s only one thing to do at that point. Take that radically courageous first step of reclaiming our inner life, start gardening again or playing the piano. I’ve found that even a small dose of in-breath—a long hike, a beautiful dinner with friends, an evening of reading or music, an afternoon of silence—goes a long way to protecting the inner life. Our inner life doesn’t require a lot; it simply requires that we honor it.
Create Ongoing Support Systems
The very essence of passion is the support with which you surround yourself. To meet the risks, challenges, and demands of doing passionate work, we first need the support of our family. This includes the phase in which we jump empty-handed into the unknown, as well as the times when we have wild successes or dismal failures and are confused, elated, or overwhelmed. Our family needs to know why it is important for us to follow and fulfill our calling in life. We also need to support them in doing the same. Passion, after all, is contagious.
Our family support provides us with an even deeper level of self-knowledge than we may be aware of. After all, the roots of our passion are in our own lineage. This lineage gives us profound insight into our passion. In our toughest moments we can go to back to our roots to find the strength we need.
We also need support systems among our colleagues and mentors. Such people are invaluable resources when it comes to testing ideas, collaborating, obtaining honest feedback, and staying on the cutting edge in our fields. I have been in a woman’s support group for over 20 years, and these colleagues and dear friends have been an intrinsic part of sustaining my own passion. One of the most crucial things that your family and your collegial support system can offer is to let you know if you’ve fallen into the shadows of passionate work. They are there to remind you to protect your inner life.
Excerpted from Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership . Copyright © 2011 by Gail Straub.