Drive vs. Passion

June 11, 2008

Contemporary corporate culture often seems to favour people who show exceptional drive in their careers.1 How does one distinguish between drive and passion?

Randy Komisar, a practicing Zen Buddhist and author of The Monk and the Riddle, explains the difference between passion and drive in simple terms. According to Komisar, passion pulls you forward and creates energy, whereas drive consumes energy by requiring you to push yourself forward.

Given the above distinction, one would certainly seem to prefer a passionate life to a life that is driven. Passionate people are fully engaged in their pursuits. They relish whatever they do, so that although they work hard, they are seldom exhausted. Yet many people choose to be drive themselves hard, to grind their gears until they push themselves (and often others) over the cliff of burn out.

Unlike drive, which implies a one-track mind, it is possible for one to balance multiple passions. Thinking of my life over the next decade and beyond, I would like to be in a position to balance commitments to family, work, hobbies, and service to my community.

Passion particularly matters at work, considering that people spend one-half to three-fourths (and sometimes more) of their waking hours working. I am incredibly fortunate at present to be doing work that I find fulfilling and challenging, work that allows me to learn and grow professionally each day.

During most weeks I manage to balance work and personal life; weekends allow me time to write, watch a film, explore the city, or hit the hiking trails. Nonetheless, questioning my lifestyle and asking myself whether I am finding meaning and engaging my passions serves as an insightful daily meditation.


  1. The word career is derived from the French word for racecourse. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocatio for call.

The South Indian Monkey Trap

June 4, 2008

Monkeys are a menace in many parts of India.1 The South Indian monkey trap is a simple device for capturing a monkey. It consists of a coconut hollowed out from one end and chained to a stake in the ground. Some sweet rice is placed inside the coconut. The hole in the coconut is big enough for a monkey to put its hand in and grab the rice, but too small for it to remove its fist with the sweet rice.

Robert Pirsig used the South Indian monkey trap to illustrate the concept of value rigidity in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Curiously, there is no physical barrier preventing a monkey from escaping this trap; there is only a mental barrier. Monkeys have been known to grab the rice and try to withdraw their fists in vain until their captors arrive. Monkeys’ inability to reevaluate rice in the context of the trap costs them their freedom.

People too have their own ‘sweet rice’ that prevents them from achieving true freedom. They find their thoughts and actions constrained by mental barriers of their own creation. Such imaginary constraints often lead to poor decisions.

To achieve freedom, then, we must recognize our mental barriers, be fully aware of value rigidity that may creep into our thought process, and consciously choose our values, thoughts, words, and actions everyday.2


  1. This does not necessarily represent my personal opinion of monkeys.
  2. The title of this blog refers to the Klein bottle, a surface with no distinct ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. A genie inhabiting such a ‘bottle’ would be a free spirit, which is something I aspire to become through introspection and conscious choice.

The Strange Loop of Art

June 1, 2008

“Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile” – Hippocrates

(“Life is short, the craft long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.”)

Drawing Hands - M. C. Escher
Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher

Does an artist create art or does art create an artist? Ever since I asked myself the question a few years ago, the answer has seemed to be “both simultaneously.” As an artist practices her art over time, the art reciprocates by refining her skills and influencing her aesthetic judgment. Gradually the painter’s hands become one with the paintbrush, the flute becomes an extension of the flautist’s lips, and the harpist’s fingers meld with the strings of the harp. As surely as a sculptor carves, chisels and sands a block of marble into an elegant sculpture, the marble shapes his raw talent into informed perspective and nuanced judgment.

Almost every aspect of life can be approached as an art at an abstract level. Any field that requires acquisition and refinement of skills over time can be considered an art, whether music, writing, mathematics, sports, human relationships, research, engineering, skilled trades, or the visual arts. By being creative and developing innovative variations over time, one can bring an artistic flair to otherwise mundane tasks such as cooking, driving, yard work, and grocery shopping.

Research in psychology has shown that it takes at least ten years to develop expertise in any area of practice. Moreover, experts tend to approach their discipline differently than amateurs in the field, applying more intuition and spending less time on basic analysis. Any endeavour worth pursuing requires dedication, keen focus, patience and perseverance. While the art takes a lifelong commitment from the artist, it rewards her with an intuitive grasp and mastery that allows her to practice it with rare finesse and sophistication.

Life can be seen as a process of learning and practicing a wide array of arts. While attaining mastery may be the end goal in each art, experience gained along the journey is to be savoured. It allows us to develop as human beings and is, after all, what makes life unpredictable and exciting.