“The difference between passion and addiction is that  between a divine spark and a flame that incinerates.” Dr. Gabor Mate

Around the same time I read Mastery, I also read the Steve Jobs biography and the Phil Collins autobiography. Say what you will about these two gentlemen (I’m a huge Collins fan but admit that his later work doesn’t hold up) but we all recognize that they were clear embodiments of mastery. Not because they were rich and famous. Because they possessed preternatural abilities, a level of demonstrable skill that could astonish. This is the stuff of Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and Collins’ incredible technical ability as a drummer.

Considered in the light of Robert Greene’s arguments, their broader stories reflect a central truth that Greene has uncovered: mastery is not a matter of passion; it’s a matter of all-consuming desire that simply brooks no compromise. It starts with passion but that’s not what carries it forward. To borrow from Greene:

Your Life’s Task does not always appear to you through some grand or promising inclination. It can appear in the guise of your deficiencies, making you focus on the one or two things that you are inevitably good at.

How do you know you are “inevitably good” at something? You simply feel it. There’s a certain sense of rightness, a sense that this is your thing. There is no other way.

That’s the passion part. I argue, again, that this is just the start. We all have something we are passionate about. We have the one or two things we’re inevitably good at. We just don’t find these things at the same time.  

I didn’t discover my love for writing—never even thought of writing—until I was 21 years old. Bryan Cranston didn’t discover acting until he was 19 and in college. George W. Bush didn’t discover his love for painting until he was 63 and retired from the presidency.

Out of the three of us, Bryan Cranston is the only master. I imagine we all share the same degree of passion for what we do but, again, Cranston is the only master.

Why? What separates Cranston? And Collins? And Jobs? Time is one major factor we discussed in Monday’s article. But some of this is about the nature of vocation. To borrow again from Greene:

The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin meaning to call or to be called.


Your vocation is more than the work that you do. It is intimately connected to the deepest part of your being.

So here’s a hard truth about mastery. The people with the deepest passion, the purest vocation, and the time, will gain mastery because they do not see any other choice. Yes, I love writing but I didn’t take on the life of a starving artist, working solely to fuel my craft. Bryan Cranston loves acting and he did, in fact, take the life of a starving artist. For a long time, he toiled in obscurity. Happily.  

Why did Jobs do the work? It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t to conform. Tuesday’s article touched on the fact that masters don’t conform. Why did Cranston shift his entire life to acting at the age of 19? Because, as paraphrased from a past interview he gave, there was no other choice. And Phil Collins?

His father’s initial desire was for Phil to follow the paternal footsteps and work for the same insurance company. Then it was for Phil to become an actor. There was promise in both paths but neither had the same pull, the same feel and satisfaction, of drumming. He couldn’t stop. True to Greene’s description, drumming was “intimately connected to the deepest part” of Collins’ being. Acting was a passion for Collin. He loved it. But drumming was his vocation as expressed in the Latin origin of the term. Consider the following passage from his autobiography, paraphrased for brevity:

“Back in 1968, my sights are firmly set on music. I tell Mum I want to give up acting and make a living as a drummer. She tells Dad. Within the hushed walls of London Assurance it has been a matter of fatherly pride that Greville Collins’ youngest son is a star of stage and screen. But playig with one of thoser pop groups? In short order I’m sure to be a long-haired destitute …

Dad sends me to Coventry for a few weeks. He simply stops talking to me, just to demonstrate his anger.

don’t care, and I don’t wobble.

I embark on the life of the jobbing drummer.”

Imagine the pressure that Collins had to withstand. How did he do it? Was it passion? No, I don’t think so. This is more akin to the sort of rebellious, antisocial behavior we see with addiction. There is a distinction here that matters. As Dr. Gabor Mate has said,

“The difference between passion and addiction is that  between a divine spark and a flame that incinerates.”

No one chooses to be incinerated. No one chooses a path of destitution and parental disappointment. No one chooses a life focused on work rather than comfort. So while Greene doesn’t quite jump to this harsh a conclusion, I feel pretty certain that mastery is the byproduct of a cursed condition. No one applauds addiction. We all understand how dangerous it is. Some just happen to be lucky enough to be addicted to something marketable. We call them masters but are they masters of the craft or is the craft the master of them?

Consider the following from another master, Stephen King, as featured in a NYT article:

Stephen King is addicted to writing. It isn’t a matter of liking to write or even loving it. He needs it, chemically, the way years ago he needed his cocaine and his beer, sometimes a case a day. ”Writing is just this great big conduit, this outflow pipe that keeps the pressure nice and even,” he says. ”It just pours all this [expletive] out. All the insecurities come out, all the fears — and also, it’s a great way to pass the time.”

And if he hadn’t been able to make a career of it?

”Oh, I’d be dead. I would have drunk myself to death or drugged myself to death or committed suicide or some goddamn thing.”

I think this is what it really means to have a calling. I think this is the dark side of the Life’s Work that Greene discusses. I think this is the core seed of finding something that is “connected to the deepest part of your being.” King needs writing. Cranston needs acting. Jobs needed the work he did. Thankfully, they were rewarded. But what about the many other masters or masters-in-development who aren’t as rewarded for the same need? Is it worth the trouble?

These stories prove that if you have to ask that question, you already know the answer.  

Photo by Andy Watkins on Unsplash