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True Believers and Misled Passion

Persistence and incrementalism get us further in life and work


“I believe counts, right now, for more than “the evidence shows…”

Belief based on emotion is dangerous. We need to be humble. The world can make us so. Passion is important, but not enough.

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer was originally published in 1951, and most recently reissued in 2019. The True Believer speaks to belief, fanatical belief.

The author examines various movements, and finds common characteristics and stages with them, even if the purposes or missions vary dramatically. The book is our source of the disparaging term “true believer.” Both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Hillary Clinton have referenced the book for its relevance, decades apart.

If passion is the most important value, we place primacy on emotion and place other factors as secondary. While this value sounds convincing, what is the difference between an individual’s commitment to passion and a mob’s commitment to passion?

What is the difference between belief and reason?

I came of age participating in and celebrating some of the movements which grew out of the 60s — the civil rights movement, the activist movement protesting the Viet Nam War, and the women’s movement. This is not to denigrate the passion and activism of those examples. However, the civil rights and women’s movements were rooted in law and a progression of judicial decisions and new legislation.

The emotion came from the frustration and anger that “it is our turn.”

Frustration and anger are fueling populist movements now. I have difficulty even applying the term “populist” to what I view as radical fringe, but the news and election cycles tell me to get up to date.

I was riveted by the testimony of the election clerk and her mother in the congressional hearings on the January 6 insurrection. Her simple commitment was that she did her job. Her grandmother told her that voting wasn’t guaranteed to older generations, so she wanted to assure that people had the access to vote, especially those who were older or disabled.

What was unsaid is that she and her family are African American, and African Americans were disenfranchised by the system up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Intimidation was a primary method.

Because even people down to the clerk level were identified publicly and publicly defamed by the “Stop the Steal” originators and allies, she and her mother and grandmother have had their lives upended. I am sure others like me watched riveted and weeping.

The True Believer purports that if one is in a cult or movement, that person is off the market for other movements.

But in our country movements have morphed. The evangelical right has allowed right-wing ideology to become the “I believe” faith of purported Christianity and uses the language and trappings of religion. There are no boundaries. The Strong Man has replaced a gentle savior.

Christianity is reshaped to fit voting the right way, against abortion, for gun laws, whatever is the political agenda. Abortion didn’t use to be a protestant issue at all but was cynically used as a wedge issue. The True Believers have been identified and gaslit to serve the purposes of local preachers and national politicians. Remember when the grift of televangelists was limited to their building their mansions and portfolios?

The targeting of conservative Christians does not mean that all conservative and Christian churches have fallen prey to corruption. The January 6 hearings revealed that many public servants were committed to upholding their oaths to the Constitution because their faith called them to do so.


What about us who are in the middle, feeling like we are side-lined?

I think it is important to behave in ways that uphold our agency and don’t let the bullying and gaslighting, hide us away.

One of the chairs of the hearing asked the election clerk how many employees from the November 2020 election had quit. Her answer was “all of them.”

A powerful role the committee plays in its hearings is publicly holding up these persons as examples of heroism, and thanking the individuals for service to the country. It is all our gratitude publicly honored.

We can express gratitude individually. We can thank people for their service.

Likewise, we have oversold passion as a reason for work.

I assess students who are applying to medical professions. About half of the students said they were passionate about their chosen career, and that passion would carry them through to be great medical professionals.

Others talked about the importance of compassion, and that deeply caring for patients was critical to becoming great medical professionals.

Motivation is a good attribute. I applaud compassion but understand compassion is balanced by many factors. I expect 22-year-olds to be idealistic and earnest.

However, we have over-sold passion as a criterion that makes the difference in a satisfying career, a cause, or a belief system. The Harvard Business Review (June 4, 2021) in “Your Job Doesn’t Have to Be Your Passion” by Lauren Howe, Jon Jachimowicz, and Jochen Menges points out that passion is likely to lead to burnout in a job, or at the least contribute to a lack of boundaries.

The Atlantic Monthly published an article by Ern A. Cech in 2021 based on her book The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality. Cech states “According to my research, which draws on surveys and interviews with college students, graduates, and career coaches, more than 75 percent of college-educated workers believe that passion is an important factor in career decision-making. And 67 percent of them say they would prioritize meaningful work over job stability, high wages, and work-life balance.”

I was starry-eyed and believed that if enough people of goodwill just put their shoulders to the wheel and worked hard enough we could eliminate poverty, solve homelessness, or… (fill in the blank).

I mentally criticized those people I saw as jaded and cynical and uncaring.

Then I learned it’s easier to talk about affordable housing in the abstract than face a room full of angry citizens protesting a proposed development in their city and accusing you of having qualities that you find offensive.

It is easier to care for patients in the abstract than feel compassion for a neo-Nazi with swastika tattoos on his chest and biceps. This patient was recovering from a gunshot wound and ordered delivery of camouflage gear from his hospital bed. He also cussed out every nurse and nursing assistant who entered his room, who continued to care for him.

I did get burned out and jaded and cynical. But then I pivoted and learned other things. I learned I loved team-building. I learned I loved working with complexity, and figuring out a strategy for a new project as if it were a chess game.

I learned I loved supporting and developing staff and seeing them hired away into leadership positions. I learned about different aspects of a job, or other commitments, that satisfy that motivation to make a difference. I also learned to accept that change is incremental, most times.

Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

Passion and compassion will be dulled by many small hits.

Maybe a system, or lack of system, is undermining. Pointless regulations can undermine. People working with the best intentions at cross purposes can undermine.

I have had the responsibility but not the authority. I have had the charge but not the budget. I have had the market demand but not the staff. I had the expertise but not the political savvy.

You may be energized by trying to find a solution to all these problems, or you may be worn down. You may become self-righteous and impractical. You may give in and compromise on a dime. You maybe will do all of these things. I did.

I find that what kept me going was curiosity; openness to new experiences; the willingness to be wrong. I learned to ask real questions, because I wanted to learn, not to score points. I needed to find the best available information, the evidence. I finally learned that I didn’t know the best or the most. I had to depend on a team of trained and multi-talented people to know more than I did.

A commitment to passion over curiosity may speak to our current cultural moment.

We need boundaries around work-life balance, working uncompensated hours for the job which has become a cause. We need movements that are grounded in reason, not just in frustration and anger. We need moderation, and the ability to ask genuine questions, for clarification, for the best information about each other.

We need fewer true believers and more people willing to say “Help me understand.”

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