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The #1 Rule for How to Inspire Passion in Others

You go first! Passion is contagious (and so is dispassion)

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My father’s principal advice when I headed off to college was this: “Don’t take courses. Take professors!”

He understood that those who are the most passionate about what they teach can make even the driest subject come to life, and me along with it. He knew that what makes the biggest difference in the quality of any learning experience is a teacher’s or mentor’s passion. “More than knowledge of subject matter,” says Robert Fried in The Passionate Learner. “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.”

The physics of passion being what they are, one person’s passion can have a profound effect on the unfolding of someone else’s passion, and certainly if you’re in any position of leadership or stewardship---perhaps especially relative to children and young adults. But whether you’re a parent, teacher, minister, mentor, manager, coach, counselor, performer, politician, or CEO, this much is certain: your passion is critical to their engagement.

And your dispassion is critical, too. The Gallup company did a worldwide poll in 2012 of 142 countries, and found that, on average, 87% of workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” Only 13% were “engaged.” And in the United States alone, the Gallup folks concluded, this amounts to over $500 billion a year in lost productivity. Clearly there’s a connection betweeen passion and productivity.

Not-engaged means checked out, but actively-disengaged means you’re busy acting out your unhappiness and dispiritedness, and spreading the virus among your colleagues, family and friends, to say nothing of the body-politic of which you’re a cell. What it means 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 the Gallup poll is a category for people who are “actively engaged,” i.e., passionate. Maybe so few people were in it, they considered it statistically insignificant, which would be significant in itself.)

But if dispassion is contagious, so is passion. It’s equally catching. You just have to catch it first before you can spread it.

There’s a reason why some of the world’s great myths and fairy tales—Sleeping Beauty, the Grail King, Scheherazade—speak to the idea that when the king and queen sleep, those around them also sleep and the kingdom sleeps. But when the king and queen awaken, those around them also awaken and the kingdom flowers.

This is an idea that’s embedded very deeply in the mythologies and psychologies of the world, and what it tells us is that our individual work is the work of the world, the small steps are the big picture, and when we insist on our own aliveness we stake a claim for everyone’s. Furthermore, not honoring ourselves is fatefully tied up with not honoring others, who suffer from our passivity and detachment, and who are inspired by our conviction and commitment.

Thus, creating a passionate if not compassionate world begins with the individual, with the corpus (body) that defines the corporation (a collection of bodies); with the organism that defines the organization. And it begins with the pick-and-shovel work of self-reflection, of aligning with your own sense of passion and purpose.

And what goes for the individual goes for “the company you keep.” In other words, if it’s challenging to walk your talk, to honor your mission and values, to reconcile your visions with your resources—the higher calling with the bottom line—then it’s exponentially more challenging for the communal body-politic.

But the more you as an individual are willing to address these issues in your own life, these struggles with self-reflection, with alignment and mis-alignment, with healthy and unhealthy passion (healthy passion being flexible persistence toward goals and more of a flow state, and unhealthy passion being persistence at any cost, the passion controlling you rather than the other way around), the more you help encourage the communities you belong to to do the same, inspiring by example.

The psychologist Ira Progoff once said that each of our lives is like a well, and that we’re meant to go down deeply enough into our own wells that we eventually reach the stream that’s the source of all the wells. And there, we hear the call that leads us back out into the world to test our bright swords in real combat—to save lives, teach love, change minds, educate, minister.

And if you wonder, and you must, whether your passion and commitment are enough to matter to the world, my sense is that the difference any one of our individual lives is going to make in terms of human history or evolution or consciousness or suffering is roughly equivalent to throwing a stone into a lake.

However, science tells us that because that stone is now lying on the bottom, the level of the water had to have risen. Archimedes taught us that sitting in his bathtub. You just can’t measure it. You have to take it entirely on faith. Faith that it matters that you’re here and doing your proverbial thing and that the level of the water will necessarily rise, and the kingdom begin to flower.

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