In a Sea of Passion

A discussion on passion and the pursuit of excellence, from conversations with Joel Rosenman, Co-Creator of Woodstock.


This past year I got the chance to chat with Joel Rosenman—the co-creator of Woodstock. While Joel has made it into the history books for putting on the Woodstock Festival in 1969, his broader life philosophy deserves to be etched in the books as well. When I first chatted with Joel, his thoughts on life resonated with me on a deep level, and I hope that something here will resonate with you, too—or at least provide some food for thought. For this post, I thought to share (with Joel’s permission) one big theme from our conversations: passion.

There are two main parts to this post. The first half is setting the stage of the ‘problem of the passionate’, and the second half is a collection of some of Joel’s thoughts on the problem, including a guiding answer. (I broke up the sections to make it more clear when I’m discussing Joel’s words, and when I’m commenting on his ideas.) I tried to keep it more concise, but keep in mind there is a lot more we chatted about, maybe for future posts! :)

Swimming in Passion

So what is this “Problem of the Passionate,” and what has this got to do with you? To set the stage, I want to sketch a few groups that we could address. It’s a simple and imperfect framework, but I think it can help. Three groups of how people might view themselves:

  • Those who think they have yet to discover a passion for something in life.
  • Those who think they have discovered a passion for something in life.
  • Those who think they have discovered a plurality of passions for things in life.
  • The words here most directly apply to those in the third group. But for those in the first group, this might be interesting as the difference I think is more of a mindset shift that can be flipped on/off (heading into group 2 or 3). And for the second group, Joel’s thoughts of being in the moment can apply regardless. And if you don’t know where you fall in—even better, don’t box yourself in.

    With that said, if I had to pick I’d fall into the extreme of the third group. There are a few pieces of evidence I see. And in looking into what you are passionate about, you might have examples, too.

    Take, for example, my inability to answer what I want to do in life. It is not because there is nothing interesting to do, but because it is all interesting. I love it all. I can see myself being a gardener, building rocket ships, writing, the life of an athlete, the farmer, and more. A fictitious, yet possible exchange to illustrate:

    Friend (sarcastic): Hey man, you wanna shovel loads of dog crap today?
    Me (serious): Hell yea! Brilliant idea! Let’s clean up the streets, reuse the crap as manure to beautify the world, and get a great workout at the same. Will be a great way to develop a sense of mindfulness and stoic resolve as well. Depending on how this goes, we can incorporate as a 501c3 to provide for tools and other support. And we can leverage as a fundraising event perhaps! 1 pound of crap = 1 tree donated!

    I can get excited by a lot of things and drink my own delusional Kool-Aid.

    What’s this (good) problem for people that can get excited about shoveling loads of crap (literally or figuratively)? It’s hard to choose. And so throughout senior year of college when people asked me what I wanted to do, I would reply: “I am more concerned about ‘why’ I do what I do (make the world a better place through living to the fullest), and ‘how’ (ethics/integrity). ‘What’ I do is less of a concern. It could be anything.” This problem seems to arise at the points in life where there are big decisions to be made and where there are many possible options to choose or paths to take. Like at the end of college looking to take the first formal step on a “career”, or after transitioning out from a job.

    And I do not believe a lack of focus is the problem here—once something is chosen, the passion rolls forward, with the decision acting as a guide. (Choices/decisions are more dynamic in time—a discussion for later.)

    Yet, practically speaking—this presents a problem. How can you find your passion and choose what to do among many possibilities? That is where Joel comes in.

    Joel on the Zen-Like Passionate Pursuit

    I spoke to Joel about this, and here were some of his thoughts I distilled on the question:

    The only alternative to discovering and finding your passion, is to be your passion.

    In being your passion, you naturally apply the passion to all aspects of who you are, and everything you are doing on a moment to moment basis. Think of this as a zen-like approach. Every single thing you do is everything, encompassing the passion that is you.

    In being you, the actions that flow through from you are actions that are an extension of you. The goal in these actions is to pursue them to the fullest perfection possible.

    This pursuit of perfection as an extension of being you applies to whatever you might be doing. Whether that involves waiting on tables, sewing a button on a shirt, or creating a web-based charity to affect the lives of thousands.

    And in being your passion, the goal of your actions is extended to the passion in achieving the perfection of the particularly thing you are doing. So if you are sewing a button, the goal of your action is to finish with a button sewed to flawless perfection on the shirt.

    If you do that, and really do that well, then it does not matter what you choose.

    If you leverage your skills, and pursue perfection, you will go through life with the success to move on to the direction wherever the activity might take you.

    Joel on Living in the Moment

    In this zen-like passionate pursuit, however, you might not know what the future entails or may not be able to chart out a clear course in life. While some might find that to be paralyzing in making decisions, that need not be the case. You can act, as Joel then continued, by assessing the rightness or wrongness of a course of action in the moment. You can loosely title this as the ‘one foot in front of the other’ answer.

    In this tug-o-war between planning and living in the moment, the longer you are in the moment, the long range becomes part of the current moment. That is to say, there is a simultaneity of time when you live in the moment, where the existence of of the very moment entails the future in a way that is inexorable.

    This clarity in living in the moment is something that can be automated if you discipline yourself. Consider something that might come naturally to those that immerse themselves and dive into things. When you engage in activities where you lose yourself, lose all self-guessing, and lose all distractions—you can become the activity in itself and in the moment.

    Brief Reflection on Joel's Words

    I’ve found Joel’s ideas to be pretty awesome.

    As I’ve gathered, this seemingly all-consuming pursuit of excellence in the moment is a function of doing nothing more than being you—existing mindfully in the sea of passion. But it is not a passive pursuit, but an active one. That is to say, I don’t think we should conflate the natural extension of pursuing your passion with a passive acceptance of your nature. When you are your passion (for whatever timeframe), movement (in whatever direction) is as natural as a river running downstream.

    I hope I am granted life to bring the passion to the service of others, pursuing excellence in making the world a better place.

    Closing in Joel’s words: “We have two fundamental uses for our passion: (a) to live life to the fullest measure of enjoyment, while we have life to live and (b) to do what we can to make the world a better home for all of us...Life is sweetest when, and to the extent that, (a) overlaps with (b).”

    Rock on,

    If you enjoy this kind of stuff, click here to stay in the loop.