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Passion vs. Obsession


In my recent post about consuming vs. producing, I mentioned a distinct but semi-related distinction: passion vs. obsession.

The proximate source for my thinking about this topic is an old blog post by venture capitalist Brad Feld, entitled "My Obsession with the Product." Feld is often asked what makes for a successful entrepreneur, and his answer is: "A complete and total obsession with the product."

In my mind at least, this answer leads to more questions:

While thinking about the distinction between passion and obsession, I've realized that there are indeed differences and that these differences are material. For instance, at some level it's easy to be passionate about many things (say: running, travel, fine wine, your marriage, and your kids), but it seems that there isn't room for more than one obsession in life, at least at any given time.

More personally, I've had to acknowledge that I haven't achieved much in some domains that I've always been passionate about (e.g., although I've been playing guitar since I was twelve years old, I never seem to get around to recording any of the music I've written). By contrast, I think I might be somewhat obsessed with wisdom, which is why I'm always reading and reflecting and writing about philosophical topics. In true philosophical fashion, I suppose I'll need to ponder that further...

(Cross-posted at


Consuming vs. Producing


During my Open Reading interview with Sal Inglima a few months ago, I mentioned my opinion that producing poetry is more fulfilling than reading poetry. Although this is an opinion that it might be best for me to let go of, before doing so I'd like to generalize and expand on the idea.

I suppose it boils down to the modern cliché that life is not a spectator sport. Yet some might question that notion: mightn't it be more fun to, say, witness the Super Bowl in person than to play a game of pickup flag football in your neighborhood park, or hear a masterful performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto than to struggle with learning to play the violin with a local teacher? I sense a few separate considerations:

  1. Skill Levels: Someone who has truly mastered a skill such as writing poetry or playing guitar will perform far above my level in those pursuits, even though I've dabbled in them for most of my life. Yet I find it inspiring, not depressing, to encounter such mastery: it gives me something to strive for and learn from in my own efforts.
  2. Passive vs. Active: In these days of "content" (how I loathe that word!), we're all encouraged to "consume" what's thrown in front of us by algorithms and marketing machines. Yet consuming content is essentially passive. By contrast, as Aristotle realized long ago, living is doing. We weren't made for passivity, but for activity.
  3. Pleasure vs. Fulfillment: Hearing a great concert might light up every one of my ears' pleasure centers, but there is something especially satisfying about understanding a craft from the inside and enacting it through my own efforts. For instance, even my halting efforts to learn the Bach Cello Suites have given me a much stronger appreciation for these great works of art.
  4. Appreciation and Engagement: A true aficianado or connoisseur of a given craft is emotionally, spiritually, even ethically committed to knowing all about it. Sometimes that involves pursuing the craft (say, learning to draw), other times that involves becoming deeply familiar with its theory and history (say, studying art history). At this level, "consuming" is no longer passive but is transformed into an active engagement or appreciative encounter with the craft and its most proficient practitioners.

These reflections indicate that we don't need to choose exclusively between producing and consuming. Anyone who cares deeply about a given domain of human endeavor will do both with correspondingly deep passion: you can't become a better writer if you don't regularly read great literature, a better musician if you don't have what the jazz players call "big ears", a better athlete if you're not a student of the game, and so on. At the highest level, we might observe that the true greats aren't merely passionate but obsessive. However, that's a topic for a separate post...

(Cross-posted at


Frames of Mind


In my recent post about snares and attachments (and in my older post about idealism and identity), I observed that it's all too easy to become attached to one's opinions and ideas. In his book On the Wisdom of America (pp. 229-230), Lin Yutang makes a similar point with regard to what he calls frames of mind:

It is all a frame of mind, this enjoyment of living.... Things don't give us anything except what we bring to the enjoyment of them. One may be a habitual cynic, taking pleasure in his cynicism, or a shallow optimist, or a sentimentalist, each frame of mind being as subjective as the others. How to select our spectacles through which to look at life is all a matter of personal choice. A frame of mind may become habitual and fixed, and then it becomes for that man a philosophy of life, an attitude toward it. A wise man would be careful not to let any particular frame of mind settle down into a permanent attitude, knowing that once he has got it, he will take a stubborn pleasure in it. A crusty old fool will delight in being just a crusty old fool, and a young sophisticated cynic will wallow in his cynicism.

Despite what Lin says, I'm not convinced that "selecting one's spectacles" is purely a matter of personal choice, because I suspect that one's psychological dispositions and biological characteristics play a role: by nature some people seem to be, say, more energetic or upbeat or sensitive than others. Be that as it may, I think it's a worthy goal to achieve a greater versatility in one's frames of mind. In my experience, it can help to have friends with perspectives different from one's own and to imagine how historical personages or fictional characters might approach a given situation. With practice, I suppose one might even create a repertoire of "spectacles" that one could don as needed - but I haven't advanced that far, yet!

(Cross-posted at


Aristotle Research Report #18: Summaries


It's been almost two years since I last reported on progress with my forthcoming book about Aristotle's conception of human fulfillment, so here's a brief update. As mentioned last time, I'm working my way back through the key books and scholarly papers I've read so far. This involves reviewing thousands of dog-eared pages and marked-up passages to identify the most important points. Here's a photo that gives a sense of what that looks like (this shows pages 124 and 125 of Matthew D. Walker's excellent book Aristotle on the Uses of Contemplation)...

Once I've completed that mark-up process, I've been typing a summary of each work into files on my computer, one for each book or paper (e.g., one for Walker's book). Doing so will give me a "database" of key passages and my comments thereon, which I can search through as I reflect further on particular topics such as flourishing, character, and practical wisdom.

As a scholar friend of mine said to me recently when I explained my methodology: "The amount of research you have done for your book is very, very impressive. It's MASSIVE!"

(Cross-posted at


Tao Te Ching §56: One with the Way


Following up on my previous renderings of chapter 1 and chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching, here is my initial attempt at chapter 56:

Those who know don't say
Those who say don't know

Close the mouth
Shut the door
Blunt the edge
Loose the knot
Dim the glare
Join the dust
Be one with the Way

Reach this and you'll be
Neither far nor near
Neither helped nor harmed
Neither praised nor blamed
Yet prized by all the world

The first section echoes the initial line of chapter 1: "the way that we can say is not the ageless Way." I read the middle section as recommending the Taoist practices of silence, moderation, humility, curiosity, simplicity, and naturalness. Cultivating these practices can help you become one with the ageless Way. As a result, you will be neither too distant nor too familiar with other people; you will not be influenced too positively or negatively by other people's opinions; and you won't attach too much significance to praise or blame. Paradoxically, your excellence of character will lead you to be prized by all the world.

(Cross-posted at


Attuning to Beauty


When describing recently my practice of daily forethought, I mentioned that every day I try to attune myself to the beauty of the world around me. This might sound pompous and grandiose because often we associate beauty only with the fine arts, but for me it's much more practical and prosaic. Here are some of the activities I engage in toward this end:

I also read a few poems and listen to lots of music.

Although we tend to think of beauty as just one quality, in fact there are many different kinds of beauty. In his book The Importance of Living, Lin Yutang lists a number of them:

There may be beauty of whimsicality and waywardness, beauty of rugged strength, beauty of massive power, beauty of spiritual freedom, beauty of courage and dash, beauty of romantic charm, beauty of restraint, beauty of soft gracefulness, beauty of austerity, beauty of simplicity and "stupidity," beauty of mere regularity, beauty of swiftness, and sometimes even beauty of affected ugliness.

So yes, beauty is all around us if only we know how to attune ourselves to it.

Cross-posted at


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