What Can Steve McQueen Teach Us About Passion?

October 14, 2017 •  3 minute read • by Saeed


“I scrounged around for the next couple of years, trying to get the scam on the human race and just where the hell I fitted in – I discovered there were no openings.” ~ Steven Terrence McQueen

Follow your passion.

That’s pretty much the mantra of every self-help guru you can shake a stick at. Let’s not stop there. Steve Jobs famously espoused the same formula for bliss. But is that really how it works?

Examining the life of an iconic actor may be instructive in understanding how passion, purpose, and vocation inter-relate.

Steven Terrence McQueen was born on March 24, 1930, in Beech Grove, Indiana.  One of the most popular film actors of the 1960s and ’70s, he was known for his rugged good looks and cool, tough guy persona. McQueen was also a walking paradox. The ‘King of Cool’ was painfully insecure and harbored antediluvian attitudes about women. He said: “I’ve spent too much of my life feeling insecure. I still have nightmares about being poor, of everything I own just vanishing away. Stardom means that can’t happen.”

In his youth, McQueen worked various odd jobs –  oil rigs, carnivals and even as a towel boy in a brothel. In 1947, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and became a tank driver. In 1952, McQueen found himself studying acting with Stella Adler in New York and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1974, at the height of his fame, Steve McQueen was the highest-paid movie star in the world with a net work of $30 million. One would have thought McQueen had found his passion. But McQueen hated acting. Even though his popularity placed him in high demand and enabled him to command large salaries, he was combative with directors and producers.

“I really don’t like to act. At the beginning, back in ’51, I had to force myself to stick with it. I was real uncomfortable, real uncomfortable.” “I’ll never be as good an actor as I want to be….but I’ll be good.”

Indeed, he was disparaging of his craft. He once said: “In my own mind, I’m not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing.”

McQueen only saw acting as a way to become financially secure. His childhood was hard and he grew up poor. As he remarked, “Stardom equals financial success and financial success equals security… I just want the brass ring and the pine trees and my kids and the green grass. I want to get rich and fat and watch my kids grow.”

For McQueen, acting was a job that allowed him to pursue his real passion: racing. As he said, “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts.”

McQueen owned more than a hundred motorcycles and more than 50 classic cars. He was so knowledgeable about motorcycles that he wrote a series of reviews of various models in Popular Science in the mid-1960s. He was often credited with popularizing dirt biking and in 1978 he was rewarded for it by being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame. He tried to tanslate his passion to film when he starred in “Le Mans,” a 1971 film depicting a fictional 24 hours of the famous car race. Much to his disappointment, the film was a box office flop.

His need for speed also included airplanes. He got his pilot’s license and bought several classic old aircraft, including a 1945 Stearman, a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub and a 1931 Pitcairn PA-8 biplane. Towards the end of his life, he lived in an airplane hanger with his third wife and his many acquired toys. His massive collection was sold at auction after his death for many times what he paid for them.

“Racing is life.” McQueen would say. “Anything before or after is just waiting.” That is the very definition of passion.

So for McQueen, even though he was incredibly successful at acting, it was not his passion. One could argue that it was his purpose, but not his passion.

Sadly, 1980 was the year McQueen was diagnosed with mesothelioma, possibly due to contact with asbestos in ships during his time in the Marines and also in sound stage insulation and in the protective suits he wore while racing.   

One final note. McQueen had a reputation for being cheap, which he apparently picked up because of his strange behavior of making unusual demands in his contracts. He asked for cases of electric razors, blue jeans and sanitary items. Later, it was discovered what he was up to. McQueen never forgot the California Junior Boys Republic – a private, nonprofit, nonsectarian school and treatment center for troubled youngsters – where he spent part of his youth. McQueen was obtaining these items and then donating them to the school. He also visited the school to give talks to the boys, established a scholarship there in 1962 and left them money in his will. He was 50 years old when he died.

 

 

 

 

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