Arts  •  April 28, 2003

Ego, Talent, Reward, and Passion

If you are good at something, are you also passionate about it? If you are naturally talented with math, do you also love it? If you are a child prodigy of violin, does it mean you are passionate about music? I would say not necessarily; or at least there is no reason to believe that this is necessarily the case. First off: If there were correlation between innate talent and passion, the more talented you are, the more passionate you would be. Empirically this can be ruled out. There are just too many people who are passionate about something but not talented with it, and who are talented but not passionate about it. My own experience also serves as an example: I am gifted with making photo-realistic paintings, but have no urge, desire, or passion for it. I have no talent for music, but was and am passionate enough to have studied, practiced, and written music for years.

It is difficult to define what talent is, but I would approximate it as a special ability we were born with; something in our genetic, neurological, or physical structure. What makes a great basketball player, racecar driver, mathematician, composer, poet, or painter, is not something we can point our finger to, but there are some obvious and specific skills that we can say are parts of what constitute a talent. Many famous composers had so called “perfect pitch” or “absolute pitch” where they can name a note without having any reference tone. This is a talent that can be clearly tested. Most of us do not have it. From the perspective of the perfect-pitched composers, those who do not have it, are equivalent to painters who are colorblind. Though having perfect pitch is a clear advantage in the field of music, it is by no means a measure of how passionate someone is about music. There are even those who do not care much for music even though they have perfect pitch. By the same token, being able to see color would not automatically make you more passionate about visual arts. If we look at less romanticized fields, this becomes even clearer. There are those who are naturally talented at being lawyers, salesmen, accountants, or computer programmers. As you could imagine, there are many who go out of their ways to deny their own talent in these fields.

What makes this analysis confusing is that one’s ability is a combination of what is acquired through experience and what is given to him by birth. If you were passionate about something, you would naturally be good at it by the amount of experience alone. How much of it comes innately is not something we can scientifically measure.

To further complicate the issue, capitalism has a way of commodifying our abilities by rewarding them proportionately to the market demands. (This is not a critique of capitalism; rather it is an observation of an effect of capitalism.) This environment combined with our will-to-power puts priority on social success over our passion. By “social success” and “passion”, I mean our objectives beyond subsistence. That is, what we aim for in life, if survival is not an issue.

Capitalism’s way of using money as the ultimate measure of all things, permeates through every aspect of our lives, down to how we are raised as kids. We cannot help measuring and categorizing everything we achieve. What matters in our educational system is not that kids learn, but how much they learn. So, we subject our kids to a series of tests, grades, and degrees. We group them by age and process them through a standardized curriculum, much like the way we manufacture cars. Some pass the periodic quality-control tests, some fail, and some exceed expectations.

From a more humanistic perspective, the only thing that matters is that kids learn, period. In this, there is no need for grades or degrees. All schools down to kindergartens could be organized like college where you take classes that best suit you. In each subject, for instance, there are 10 levels, and you take whichever feels right for your ability. One year, you might take: English level 3, math level 7, history level 6, and art level 4, doing away entirely with age categorizations such as elementary school, junior high school, and high school, as well as grades within each level of school, and even the concept of diplomas and degrees (undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D.). The point is to encourage learning, but not necessarily achievements.

With our current educational system based on measuring and rewarding achievements, we are more likely to subordinate our passions to our abilities and talents. This can manifest in a variety of ways. You might set aside your passion for music, 1. because you are not good at it, and 2. because you are naturally talented with computer programming. You might be passionate about Ecuadorian culture, but since there aren’t many career opportunities associated with the knowledge of Ecuadorian culture, you might choose to study finance. In a capitalistic society, your concerns are with where you rank on the bell curve of competence and with how big the market demand is for the field of your interest. The problem is: Although your abilities and talents have correlation to market demands, your passions do not. You could be passionate about something, but you may be towards the tail end of the bell curve, or what you are passionate about may have no market value.

Being recognized in a society is something we all strive for. The joy of recognition is often confused with the joy derived purely from your passion. What you thought you enjoyed about music, for instance, could be coming from the joy of fame and success. What you thought was driving you to write music may also be coming from the same source. Writers’ block, for instance, is a symptom of this confusion. If you write, because you enjoy it, you should be able to stop writing when you no longer enjoy it. If you can’t write or if you don’t feel like writing, then the obvious solution would be to stop writing, but you can’t because being a “writer” has become so much part of your identity that the pain of the loss of the identity is too great for you to simply stop writing. So you whip yourself for the preservation of your ego. This is not to say that you should not struggle in pursuing your passion. Two separate issues here: there are struggles that you enjoy, like athletes pushing their own limits, and struggles that you do not, like writers’ block that pushes you to depression. Unless it is a matter of survival, you should be able to avoid the latter.

Some of you may be thinking: What about all those great writers who drowned their souls in alcohol from depression? I would not argue their greatness, but again, this is an achievement-centric way of thinking. It is for someone who is willing to sacrifice anything for achievements and recognition in history. If you are talented enough, you can slave yourself for the sake of your ego, and still create something of historical significance. In this paper, I am not suggesting that following your true passion will lead to greatness. Rather, I am questioning the meaning of achievements and recognition at the price of alienating yourself.

Another way your passion can be subordinated to your ego is when what you are passionate about is socially looked down on. Those in their 20?s are especially vulnerable to this. Someone who genuinely loves talking to and relating with people may actually enjoy being a salesman, but because of the social stigma attached to being a salesman, he may consciously avoid pursuing it. In my generation, there were many who avoided being computer programmers because of the image of nerds. Some men may avoid occupations that are perceived to be feminine: nurse, floweriest, ballet dancer, interior designer, and so on.

To recap what we have discussed so far. There are many factors at play dynamically influencing one another, four of which are: 1. Ego (your image of yourself in a society). 2. Talent (special ability you are born with.). 3. Reward (fame, recognition, wealth, etc..). And 4. Passion (natural desire, enthusiasm, or fascination.). I argued that talent and passion are unrelated, that reward and passion are often confused, that talent and reward are correlated in capitalism, that ego can subordinate passion, and that ego and reward are closely related. The only relation left out is that of ego and talent, but this is an obvious one: Talent fuels ego.

My primary concern in this discussion is with nurturing of our passions, because that factor, out of the four mentioned above, is the most vulnerable in our capitalistic society. As I indicated above, I am not interested in criticizing capitalism or endorsing some other economic system. It isn’t the economic system per se that is a problem. The lack of attention to our delicate passions is what lets the societal pressures crush our passions. If enough attention were to be paid, capitalism in itself isn’t a problem.

When we were kids, we were fascinated with everything around us. I believe that anything can be interesting even in our adulthood. The reason why we lose interests in most things and left with a few things, or none at all, is because, as our egos develop, our interest in achievements and recognition takes over our passions. In this competitive world, we can excel in only so many fields, so we must be selective in what we pursue. Thus our interest in success subordinates our passions so much to the point that they are eventually extinguished completely. In other words, you become alienated. The only thing you have left is an impressive image of your self (ego), and nothing real.

Ego is an accumulation of interpretations of our selves over the course of our lives. Oliver Sacks, in his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, calls it a “narrative”. Part of our brains functions as a depository of our interpretations. In it, there is a narrative of our own selves which is constantly in flux. This ego, a narrative, is a source of so much of our pain and agony. Many of us are not even aware of any selves outside of it, so much so that we are not even aware of egos being the images of our selves, that is, our egos are us, period. Here, I am not referring to the colloquial sense of the term “ego”, which is to be egotistical, to have over-blown images of ourselves. I am using the term simply to mean an image of one’s self, whether greater, lesser, or accurate than/to reality.

In chapter 2 of his book, Oliver Sacks describes a patient named Jimmie G. who suffered from anterograde amnesia, which is a type of amnesia where your memory of the past up until the point of the incident is intact but nothing after it can be stored in memory. This has the effect of being stuck in time. This particular patient was stuck forever in 1945, when he was 19 years old, though he was 49 years old when he was first introduced to Dr. Sacks. He would panic whenever he saw himself in a mirror, unable to comprehend his sudden aging. Even if he were told he had anterograde amnesia, he would simply forget in a few minutes.

His affliction has an interesting implication for the notion of ego, because his ego cannot change or evolve. What is interesting about this particular case of Jimmie G. is that, though he was incapable of evolving or changing the image of himself, his soul was able to develop through art, music, and religion. Although he could not find any meaning in the idea of his self, such as achievements, recognition, wealth, success, fame, and so on, he was able to find meaning in life through what nurtured his soul. He could not be motivated by the idea of success, achievements, and recognition, not because he could not compete with others, but because any such achievements would simply be forgotten by him. This is a state where he is living purely for his own passion, not for his ego. In it, ego, talent, and rewards mean nothing. Many people are utterly incapable of doing this.

Beyond satisfying our needs for survival, our focus should be placed on our own passions. Everything else may or may not follow, but that should be irrelevant, because without our passions, we have nothing but ghostly images of our own selves.