Passion & Optimism

A Theme for the New Year

A few days before Christmas, I was invited to lunch with colleagues in the opulent dining room of the Royal Automobile Club in London. As the Christmas pudding settled in our stomachs, talk turned to the question of what makes for a long, happy and fulfilled life.

Many ideas were floated, ranging from our genes to not drinking or smoking. My own conviction was it might be having a sense of purpose. But as we talked, two factors more than any others seemed to be the most important: passion and optimism.

Look at the people around you and the people you know. I think you will find those who are happy and fulfilled are passionate about what they do and optimistic in their outlook. Certainly, when I think of the people I most admire, from musicians to racing drivers, they all display an intense and abiding passion for their chosen field, coupled with a deep and optimistic conviction in their potential for success.

If this is right, then perhaps, in thinking about our plans and intentions for the coming year, we should focus on these two things: passion and optimism.


I heard it said recently that the greatest source of unhappiness in the western world is the mismatch between people’s occupation and their passion. If we don’t truly love what we do, how can we truly be happy?

We are often envious of those who follow their dreams: musicians, writers, actors, athletes. We often hear them say they feel fortunate to make a living doing the thing they love. I’ve just finished reading Jenson Button’s autobiography “Life to the Limit”. His passion for motor racing, instilled as a young boy by his exceptional father, shines through on every page.

But what about the rest of us?

Some of us are fortunate. We have found joy in our work and perhaps even passion. I’m privileged to work with many young entrepreneurs; creators and founders of innovative technology start-ups with deep passion for their chosen fields. This is a highly infectious condition.

But what do you do if your job is not a source of passion. You can’t just “switch it on”. Either you’re passionate about something or you’re not. So, how do you stop living the life you don’t want and start living one you’re passionate about?

I think there are three approaches:

  • The first is to indulge your passion in your leisure time. One of my great passions is driving open-top sports cars on winding mountain roads. I’ve yet to find a way to make a living doing this, so it’s something I only do once or twice each year. But I do have friends who pursue very successful interests (as musicians, sportsmen, horse riders, cyclists etc.) and who pour their passion into these activities.
  • The second, is to find something in your current job which you do feel passionate about and focus on that. As a management consultant I was able to marry my passion for customer service with my chosen field and, although I can’t say I was ever passionate about being a management consultant, I was often very passionate about helping my clients.
  • The third, and most radical, is to search for what it is you are truly passionate about and make that the focus of your working life. This is the approach taken by many of the entrepreneurs I work with who throw themselves heart and soul into making their ideas reality. It’s also something I see a lot in the current generation of young people leaving university who are often much more discerning in their choice of career than were my generation.

This is all well and good, but what if you don’t have a passion or find it hard to become passionate about anything you do?

In this case, deeper introspection is required. Passion can be something you feel naturally or something you develop early in life (as with Jenson Button) or it can be something that comes from the way in which you engage with the world.

My friend Janet Panagakis (aka The Educated Traveller) knows what she is passionate about (travel and culture and history and art) but more than this she has a way of approaching life which lends itself to the inculcation of passion. As she wrote in a recent article:

  • “Our memories enrich our experiences over time. A combination of new places, different landscapes and alternative ways of thinking, create a diverse and fascinating tapestry to discover and explore. Experiences do not have to be positive, they can be disturbing, annoying and unsettling. However, it is really important, in my opinion, that travel experiences provoke an emotion, an understanding, some empathy, in the heart of the visitor. It is vital to set aside trivial concerns, to enable the individual to fully experience a new and different environment.”
    Perhaps this is the way to approach the coming year “to seek out the disturbing, annoying and unsettling … to provoke an emotion” as a first step on the road to finding passion.

Perhaps this is the way to approach the coming year “to seek out the disturbing, annoying and unsettling … to provoke an emotion” as a first step on the road to finding passion.


Do you know any happy, fulfilled pessimists? No, I thought not!

So much has been written about the power of positive thinking, and the perils of negative thinking, that it almost goes without saying. Nonetheless, it is not always easy to be optimistic about our chances of success or about our ability to be successful.

With regard to our “chances” of success, the key is the notion that luck somehow plays a part in determining whether or not we will achieve our goals. It’s often said we make our own luck, or that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and I firmly believe this is true, up to a point.

So, the first step in becoming an optimist is to recognise we can, to a very great extent, influence our chances of success by being open to opportunities and making smart decisions.

With regard to our “ability” to be successful, the key is largely a question of confidence. Do you really believe you can do this? The truth is we often don’t know until we try, so perhaps it’s not so much whether you believe you can do it, but whether you’re prepared to give it your best shot!

This is illustrated beautifully in the documentary film “Last Man on the Moon” which tells the story of Gene Cernan, whose space exploration career spanned the Gemini and Apollo programs. He piloted Gemini 9, was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 10 (descending to within eight miles of the moon’s surface) and commanded Apollo 17, the last of the Apollo missions.

I strongly commend this film to you and challenge you to be anything but humbled by his story. Gene sadly passed away shortly after making this film, which gives added poignancy to his closing words in the documentary:

  • “I often tell young kids and particularly my grandkids, don’t ever count yourself out. You’ll never know how good you are unless you try. Dream the impossible and go out and make it happen. I walked on the moon. What can’t you do?”

As we head into the new year, are you ready to seek out and pursue your passion and will you approach it with a sense of optimism?

Relevant Links

The Last Man on the Moon

The Educated Traveller

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