Passion: A Gift or a Curse?
Unrelenting drive must be carefully handled
The word passion gets thrown around all the time. We praise passionate lovers, passionate students, passionate employees, and passionate athletes. Passion is a prerequisite to excellence in almost any endeavor, a hallmark of mastery. But if it’s not carefully handled, passion can come with great costs. After all, the word passion comes from the Latin “passio,” which means to suffer.
We can’t be certain as to what causes passion. It’s likely part biological and part psychological — a mix of our DNA and upbringing. (For more on the forces underlying passion, see this article I wrote for Outside Magazine.)
What we do know is that there are two types of passion, each with very different implications for performance, health, and happiness. Harmonious passion is when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity because they love how the activity itself makes them feel. It’s driven by a bond between actor and act, a drive to master craft. Obsessive passion is when an individual gets hooked on something because of external rewards — things like fame, fortune, and the positive opinion of others.
Research shows that individuals with harmonious passion are happier, healthier, and less prone to burnout. Individuals with obsessive passion, on the other hand, are not only more likely to experience dissatisfaction and burnout, but they are also more likely to engage in unethical behavior, be it using steroids in the playing field or illicit stimulants in class or in the workplace.
The implications of this ought to be clear: Do what you can to cultivate harmonious passion in yourself and in others. This requires developing a relationship with activities based on how doing an activity makes you feel, not based on how the rewards of doing an activity make you feel. Celebrate effort, process, and the intrinsic joy of doing the work more than you celebrate results — this may very well be the key to long-term success and fulfillment.
And finally, beware of a common trap: Harmonious passion can all too easily turn into obsessive passion as one’s work begins to gain praise and external recognition. Always come back to the craft. Putting craft first leads to success and happiness. Putting success first often leads to unhappiness and the deterioration of craft. Enjoy good results, but never become attached to fame, fortune, or followers.
Thanks for reading. If you like what you read, I’d be honored if you considered my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.
Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.