Passion: a Gift or a Curse?

Beware: Balance is an illusion.

Passion can be an incredible gift — fuel for scientific discovery, artistic genius, athletic accomplishment, and other groundbreaking work. But, at the same time, passion can also be an awful curse — a maladaptive obsession that can lead to unethical behavior, anxiety, and even depression. Many of the world’s happiest and most heralded individuals have been labeled as passionate, but the same is true for many of the world’s most upset people and biggest frauds.

As a relatively young writer becoming more and more passionate about my craft, I wanted to explore what, if anything, separates the good kind of passion from the bad. The initial result of my months-long inquiry is here, “Do You Control Your Passion or Does Your Passion Control You,” a story just published with New York Magazine. While I’d encourage you to read the full article, I’m sharing three of the key themes that emerged here:

  1. Cultivate drive from within. When your motivation to do an activity comes from the inside that activity is almost always more enjoyable. You should throw yourself into something not to impress others, but because of how doing the work itself makes you feel. Likewise, your satisfaction should not come from earning external recognition or winning awards, but from knowing that you gave something your all. You should constantly ask yourself if you are doing something to gain the validation of others, or for more personal inner reasons. If you find yourself answering the former more often than the latter, you’d be wise to re-evaluate your passion because…
  2. Getting caught up in external validation almost always leads to suffering. The minute you start to care more about and judge yourself based on what others think of your work rather than against a self-set standard, you are flirting with disaster. In essence, you are tying your self-worth to things that are outside of your control. As a result, when things go south — and they inevitably will; for the path to all great success includes at least some failure — you’ll be more likely to try to preserve the illusion of success (i.e., cheat) or become downright miserable. This isn’t just self-help preaching. Psychological science backs all of this up.
  3. Balance is an Illusion. When you become really passionate, when you’re really going for something, even if you do so driven primarily by internal reasons, there’s still a great cost: everything else you must leave behind. In other words, passion more often than not requires great sacrifice. As a result, I’m hesitant to say that passion is ever “good” or “bad.” It just is. There are big tradeoffs associated with passion, and the best you can do is to be constantly aware of and evaluate these tradeoffs — something far easier to say than to actually do.

Passion is a fascinating topic with very real implications for anyone who considers themselves a “pusher” in any area of life. If you want to learn more, I’d highly recommend reading the full magazine story here. Hopefully being more aware of both the good — and the bad — that comes with passion will help ensure that your passions are always a gift and never a curse.

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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine, and is a co-author of the forthcoming book (now available for pre-order) Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

Follow Brad on Twitter @Bstulberg