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Is it better to follow passion or strategic planning?

At the moment I am very uncertain about what the best way to live is: Do I need to be strategically rational about my life, or should I simply follow my passions and ignore strategic sensibilities? It would seem that the results of a strategically planned life should be more predictable. Which of course doesn’t mean that those results would be better than the results of any alternative path. But there’s a way to figure that out: Examining my past life.

Evaluating my life decisions

In my case, so far, both paths seemed to have ended in disaster. That’s a result is mostly attribute to my underlying disease of ME/CFS, which continuously and persistently seems to ruin my life. This disease makes my life way more difficult than a regular life, even without adding additional complications. It’s something I have to deal with. Complaining about my biological handicap doesn’t improve my situation. If life gave me a bad card deck, I just need to become much better at playing.

Even in retrospect it is hard to evaluate whether my life choices have been good or bad. Perhaps the best approach is to compare the results to my baseline default of discontent, unhappiness, and misery. In the following, I will review certain actions or decisions and their results on my subjective long term well-being, using three subjective values:
Passion quotient: To what percentage was my decision motivated by passion alone?
Passion intensity: How strongly did I feel about the subject matter of the decision? How passionate or interested was I about it?
Result rating: How has this decision impacted my long term well-being compared to the baseline?

#1: Multiplayer gaming

During my years at school my main strategy consistent in improving my mood by playing video games. For long stretches of time that worked moderately well – as a coping mechanism (on the other hand, what is really not a coping mechanism?). Especially with online multiplayer games the effect was to distract myself from my problems. I didn’t have to feel alone or rejected. I didn’t have to face the reality that my health problems made me feel like a zombie. Was that a deliberate strategy? No, I simply followed a relatively common passion for video games.

Passion quotient: 100%
Passion intensity: 100 (I simply take this as a baseline value for my passion)
Result rating: +20%

#2: Studying mathematics and physics

After school I was uncertain what to study. I felt a passion for philosophy, and yet decided to study mathematics and physics, because I thought it would allow me to become a better philosopher (which I still assume to be true), and in order to still have good chances at getting a job that kinda pays well. So, it was a strategic decision partially motivated by passion and partially by pragmatism. How has that worked out for me? Well, it didn’t make me feel better, at least most of the time. Almost each weekend I would become desperate and ask myself why I am doing this hard and dry challenge to myself. In the end my health problems forced me to drop out. Was it worth it studying mathematics anyway? It helped me to think more clearly and in a more structured way, but I guess studying computer science would have had roughly the same overall effect, while it would have probably been easier for me to do that. In retrospect, the best decision for me probably would have been to study computer science with a minor in mathematics. So why didn’t I do that in the first place? Because I also had the hope that I would become a science fiction writer, and I considered mathematics and physics to be a quite superior choice for that purpose. So, here we have another strategic decision that was a result of passion and pragmatism.

Passion quotient: 50%
Passion intensity: 30
Result rating: +25% (mainly due to instrumental utility)

#3: Blogging

During my studies I got really depressed and at one time started a pretty sinister blog in which I shared my thoughts rather freely. That was really not a strategic decision, but rather a coping mechanism motivated by sheer desperation. What were the results of that? First of all, it didn’t fix my depression (I had a slight hope that it could do that). A few people got slightly interested in some of the stuff I have written. I got a little bit of trouble for some things I have written, but that was manageable and didn’t really have lasting consequences. On the other hand it opened up a few opportunities that I was too depressed and scared to really take use of. In the end, the blog vanished into nothingness when another serious phase of depression made me neglect a necessary renewal of my hosting contract.

Passion quotient: 100%
Passion intensity: 60
Result rating: +10%

#4: Transhumanism

When I really got fascinated by transhumanism that made me get in contact with really interesting people, but overall it didn’t make me feel less depressed. On the contrary, I feel that following that direction made me slightly more depressed, though I’m really not sure why.

Passion quotient: 100%
Passion intensity: 40
Result rating: -10%

#5: Body centred hobbies

During some of my spare time I got into body building, Taekwondo, horseback riding, and archery (roughly ordered by increasing motivation out of passion), all of which was helpful and fun while it lasted, but none of it lasted for very long, even though . Each of those hobbies was terminated by worse phases of depression or ME/CFS, and afterwards I didn’t have the motivation to get back to them.

Passion quotient: 45%
Passion intensity: 55
Result rating: +30% (became fitter and more self-confident)

#6: Veganism

In the meanwhile I slowly became vegan (a decision rooted in passion, and triggered by certain strategic considerations), which was really awesome at the beginning, especially because it caused some moderate health benefits. On the other hand, swimming against the stream of mainstream carnist society took a toll on my energy levels which negated my initial enthusiasm in the long term.

Passion quotient: 60%
Passion intensity: 20
Result rating: +10%

#7: Writing science fiction

Later on, I started writing some science fiction stories, into which I’ve put a huge amount of thought and passion. It felt absolutely exhilarating! It made me feel actually alive – much more so than all the other relatively mundane activities – burning with purpose, and using my full potential! Unfortunately, my health problems didn’t allow me to operate on that energy level for extended periods of time. Each dedicated effort at writing ended in devastating energy crashes.

Passion quotient: 100%
Passion intensity: 200
Result rating: +10% (hey, at least I’ve found something that invigorates me, even if it devastates me afterwards)

#8: Quantified Prestige

Motivated by my exploration of transhumanism and science fiction, I started developing a reputation system called Quantified Prestige. Writing down a preliminary documentation of that system is the achievement I have been most proud of in my entire life – everything else was too mundane or ordinary for me to actually count for very much. Doing that was one of the hardest challenges I’ve actually ever faced. It was so hard that I was actually completely surprised and astonished that I managed to develop and write down that reputation system. What made me succeed with that perhaps was my intense curiosity about how a proper reputation system should actually look like.

Afterwards I tried implementing Quantified Prestige as web application. So far, I made three serious attempts at coding that system. None of them ended in a functioning application, because I always ran out of motivation and faced another severe energy crash.

Passion quotient: 75%
Passion intensity: 160
Result rating: +40%

#9: Dealing with ME/CFS

My failures to succeed with my ambitions forced me to deal with my health issues very intensely. I came to the conclusion that I had to be very rational and strategic about this war for health. So, I researched lots of materials about health and experimented with a lot of potential interventions that might improve my health. Most of them didn’t help anything, but some of them improved my health significantly. And I was only able to differentiate between both, because I logged my state of health and my activities meticulously. I continued to build on those things that actually helped, and accumulating a good number of those really made me feel better and have more energy. I am still in the process of dealing with ME/CFS. It feels like I’ve come quite far, but I still have a long way to go, if I am ever to arrive at a place of stable health.

Passion quotient: 25%
Passion intensity: 15
Result rating: +75%

#10: Fractal Future

Starting the Fractal Future community definitely was a decision I made out of passion. It seemed obvious to me that the futurist and transhumanist community needed a really good bulletin board. However, there seemed to be huge resistance against adopting such a board. That resistance just motivated me to create one out of spite and defiance. Interestingly, the F3 helped me stabilize my life somewhat, and obviously it still exists and is seen as quite useful by some.

Passion quotient: 100%
Passion intensity: 130
Result rating: +50%

Overall, this list surprises me in the sense that it shows that many of my decisions were motivated by passion to a large degree. What really ruined my success were the recurrent energy crashes caused by ME/CFS. It’s not that I wasn’t passionate enough. My body simply couldn’t sustain the energy levels required to follow through with those passions.

Interestingly, the list can be split up evenly in totally passion motivated decisions and relatively strategic decisions. Let’s summarize those here with their respective success ratings (and passion intensity added after the “|”):

Totally passionate:

1: +20% | 100
3: +10% | 60
4: -10% | 40
7: +10% | 200
10: +50% | 130

Total result ratings:
Quotient, additive: +80%
Quotient, multiplicative: +96%
Average intensity: 106

Partially passionate (passion quotient in parentheses):

2 (50%): +25% | 30
5 (45%): +30% | 55
6 (60%): +10% | 20
8 (75%): +40% | 160
9 (25%): +75% | 15

Total result ratings:
Quotient, additive: +180%
Quotient, multiplicative: +338%
Average intensity: 56

It would seem that decisions that were motivated by a hefty dose of strategic considerations turned out to have superior results on average.

When translating the “passion quotient” into a “strategicness rating” by computing it as [100% - passion quotient], I arrive at a correlation between strategicness and success of 0.57. This would imply that “strategicness” and success are quite positively correlated. Increasing “strategicness” may produce superior results on average. In this light, the advice to “simply follow your passions” would seem not to work out very nicely for me. Of course, this is a hugely uncertain result based on very subjective estimates of “passion” and “success” of a rather subjective selection of activities. And I can’t even guess how much of this result is a product of my health issues. After all, my “totally passionate” activities could have worked out brilliantly, if I had been really healthy. On the other hand, the same could be said about my more strategic activities.

Interestingly however, passion intensity does not seem to be correlated at all with the rating of the results! How strongly I feel about something, or my level of interest in it, does not seem to have any predictive value for the eventual outcome. This is a bit baffling indeed. Intuitively I would expect to be more motivated to do interesting stuff I am passionate about, and therefore more effective at producing results. This should be even more true for “results” that are measured by changes in (long term) well-being. Does my finding mean that how I feel about something doesn’t actually matter? Or even that subjective motivation doesn’t matter?

The conclusion

Passion as base for decision-making created worse results for me, on average, than strategic deliberation. Planning my future strategically is therefore a more promising approach than an intense focus on my passions. Furthermore, the intensity of emotional motivation doesn’t seem to have an impact on the eventual results. Of course, this is a conclusion based on subjective evaluation of my own life, and therefore cannot be applied to other persons. If you want to know which path is better for you, you should analytically evaluate your past life on your own.

Have I actually expected this result? No, I have been quite uncertain about what method would turn out to be better. I’m not even entirely sure what personal consequences to draw from this result.


There are a few strategic considerations that are worth making a really high priority. Continued living existence is a major one - it seemed likely that being passionate wont get you out of having neglected that one. Having a good prospect of going on breathing - not worth putting off. You then head your way up Maslow’s tree. I say ‘tree’ because I’m pretty sure there are branches, particularly higher up, not just a pointy triangle. (I’ve got some reasonably digestible stuff on Spiral Dynamics (Beck), if you’re interested, which I think has some more useful things to say than Maslow.)

I found that Positive Existentialism, which I’ve mostly learned about about through the works of Colin Wilson, is worth looking at. That crosses-over with Maslow on the subject of Peak Experiences. One way to look at this is that neither passion or rationality, on their own, are enough to make a human, or a good description of one. So, you need to seek a balance between them, like balance is needed practically everywhere. And, yes, that balance point will move around, over time.

I don’t know if it would be useful, to you, but I’ve found making sure you don’t have a single, over-whealming, passion is useful. It’s hard to be rational or strategic with that. This means you have several obsessions to play-off against each other. :slight_smile:

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I wished I had at least one passion that got me out of bed in the morning consistently. Being obsessed with something feels great, but it usually doesn’t last very long for me. Is there a way to trigger an obsession with something? That would be quite useful. :heart_eyes:

This comes under the heading of “keep doing stuff”, diverse stuff. I recently re-read the E.E. (Doc) Skylark novels. I didn’t realise the first of these was so early, before the first WW. I could see I’d drawn on quite a few strands from them, over the years, that I hadn’t previously realised.

Don’t expect to have the energy to get up each morning, without say 15mins meditation, or morning exercise. I’d not recommend relying on things like coffee/sugar/other drugs, though. Being honest with yourself about how much rest and sleep you’ve had, lately, and whether you’re physically run-down is sensible. There are ‘energy raising’ exercises you can do, but, I’d not rely on those, either. Sometimes patience is the only route, combined with an openness to new things, and a sort of relaxed alertness.

Don’t think that because they’re not currently chewing on your tail that those obsessions have gone away. They are probably still lurking, waiting for you to tempt them back into the light. :slight_smile: