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Do You Control Your Passion, Or Does Your Passion Control You?

Passion that leads to obsession can do more harm than good. There’s a better way.

Brad Stulberg

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Common advice is to find and follow your passion; to be passionate. It’s what parents, teachers, managers, coaches, and commencement speakers champion.

A life of passion is a good life, or so we are told. But it’s not that simple.

The same drive, enthusiasm, and zeal that fuels breakthrough — whether it’s athletic, scientific, entrepreneurial, or artistic — can be every bit as destructive as it is productive. Yes, passion can be a wonderful gift but if you’re not careful, it can become an awful curse. Psychology researchers refer to this distinction as the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion, and argue that understanding the difference is key not only to cultivating long-term health, happiness, and performance, but also to avoiding suffering.

Consider one of the most fiercely driven executives to ever live, who once said, “I value passion probably more than any other attribute.” As CEO of a $60 billion company, he saw to it that only the most passionate employees were recruited, and he encouraged the pursuit of performance at all costs. He worked with unabashed fervor, arriving early and staying late, trading his biological family for his corporate one. During his reign, his company, rated by as the most innovative in America, dramatically outperformed the market.

The CEO’s name was Jeffrey Skilling, his company was Enron, and his unadulterated passion to keep growing its financial performance gave rise to one of the most monumental corporate frauds and bankruptcies in history.

Skilling isn’t alone:

  • “The purpose of school, to me, was to learn the tools to be able to pursue what you love. And I felt like I had those tools to be able to go obsess over what it is I wanted to be doing no matter what,” said Elizabeth Holmes, who, in 2015, the Washington Post extolled to illustrate “the importance of passion.” Only one year later, the 31-year-old’s biotech company, Theranos — which promised a “world-changing” blood-testing and analysis product and boasted a peak valuation of $9 billion — had the federal government threatening sanctions for failing to meet performance standards and not providing sufficient evidence of efficacy, and is also facing a lawsuit from a leading investor accusing the company of securities fraud.
  • “Find your passion. Work at it. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” These words are the career advice of Alex Rodriguez, who was lauded as one of baseball’s greatest hitters — that is, until he was busted in one of baseball’s most notorious doping scandals.

Each of these could be read as profound examples of what happens when passion goes awry (though it’s safe to say other factors were surely at play, too). Yet similar disasters occur on smaller scales all the time. All too often people become passionate about achieving a goal, and end up wrapping their identity in that goal and losing sight of their inner reasons for setting out to accomplish it in the first place. They take on a success-at-all-costs mind-set, and as a result hurt themselves and others.

This is what University of Quebec psychology professor Robert Vallerand calls obsessive passion. While nearly all passions can lead to feelings of obsession (just ask an Olympic athlete or a teenager falling in love for the first time), Vallerand’s “obsessive passion” refers specifically to those that are motivated by external achievement and recognition more so than by internal satisfaction. With obsessive passion, people tie their self-worth to the validation an activity might bring, and become more passionate about that than about doing the activity itself.

With this mind-set, the experience of failure, or even just lack of progress — both of which are inevitable for anyone pushing boundaries — feels like a personal attack. Every step backward or in the wrong direction and your ego, your literal sense of “self,” takes a hit. When someone speaks poorly about your company or dislikes your work, they aren’t attacking an object or an output; they are attacking you. It’s no wonder that Skilling, Holmes, and Rodriguez went to such extremes once they began to falter in their respective pursuits. They weren’t protecting their companies or team; they were protecting themselves.

Even when someone experiences legitimate success (as Skilling, Holmes, and Rodriguez all did at first), if it is the outcome of obsessive passion, they are bound for future trouble. That’s because they’ll always crave more: more money. More fame. More medals. More followers. And so it becomes easy to get sucked into a never-ending cycle of searching for satisfaction. Modern behavioral science calls this cycle hedonic adaptation, or the finding that people quickly adapt to a state of happiness or contentedness, and it’s not long before they are left wanting. Centuries before hedonic adaption became a term, the Buddha called this suffering.

“Our very success can be the cause of a greater anxiety for further preservation of our success,” writes the poet David Whyte. He’s right. Vallerand and colleagues have found that regardless of the field, individuals who display obsessive passion are not only likely to engage in unethical behavior but are also at a high risk for anxiety, depression, and burnout. Their relationship with their passion is likely to erode, and their overall life satisfaction is poor.

A Better Kind of Passion

Fortunately, obsessive passion is not the only path. Its opposite — what Vallerand refers to as harmonious passion— emerges when a person becomes wrapped in an activity primarily for the joy of doing the activity itself. Unlike with obsessive passion, research shows that harmonious passion is linked to happiness, health, life-satisfaction, and longevity in one’s pursuit. (Of course, there is still a cost associated with really going for something, even if you do so with harmonious passion: everything else that you sacrifice as a result.)

A harmoniously passionate individual pursues progress not for the sake of rewards or recognition, but for the internal fulfillment that accompanies personal growth and mastery. This isn’t to say you should (or even can) completely disregard all external results. Unless you have vast mental training and years of spiritual guidance, doing so isn’t possible. Every athlete gets a jolt from winning. Every writer feels good when they sell books. Every businessperson gets at least a slight tingle upon signing a deal. The key is to recognize these emotions when they arise and to keep them at bay, to prevent them from becoming the predominant forces underlying your passion.

Perhaps the ultimate difference between obsessive and harmonious passion comes down to how you define success.

Ask yourself: When you sit down to write, are you sitting down to write or to sell books? When you show up to work, are you doing so to learn and make a meaningful contribution or to get promoted and earn bonuses? When you train and compete, is it to get better and master your body, or to win awards or improve in the rankings? When you love — be it a partner or a child — are you doing so to nurture an intimate bond, or so that you can chronicle your relationship on social media? The lion’s share of your passion should not come from the outside; it should come from within.

The literature on passion echoes a theme that runs throughout other dimensions of psychology: Relying too much on external motivation or trying to be perfect in the eye’s of others is often a recipe for distress and failure. Researchers who study motivation, for example, argue that in many cases, external incentives actually hinder, not help, long-term performance. Likewise, psychologists who study perfectionism have found that trying to be perfect to impress or earn the respect of others can be detrimental to mental health.

In the final analysis, perhaps the ultimate difference between obsessive and harmonious passion comes down to how you define success. When the success that you strive for is closely tied to external validation, your passions (and your health) are likely to suffer. But when the success that you strive for is related to the experience of doing an activity itself, to the internal satisfaction that comes from giving something your all, then your passions — and your life — are more likely to be harmonious.

Brad Stulberg researches and writes on sustainable excellence and wellbeing. He is bestselling author of the new book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.

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This post originally appeared on Brad Stulberg and was published March 22, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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