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When Your Passion is a Curse

When Your Passion Is a Curse

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May 2019

This is the time of year that almost 4 million young Americans graduate from college, and as they receive their diplomas, commencement speakers tell them to pursue their “passion” as they enter the world of work.

Managers tell them the same thing, with very little thought for what this advice actually means and even whether most of us have a passion in the first place. In The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All In, Finding Success, and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life, Brad Stulberg, a former consultant for McKinsey & Co., and Steve Magness, a distance running coach, apply some discipline to the subject, with refreshing results. The answers below are Stulberg’s.

The way we define passion, you write, suggests that our culture doesn’t quite understand the concept. Can you explain?

That’s true. For most of human history, the word “passion” was closely connected to “suffering.” The root is passio, a religious concept that goes back more than 1,000 years, originally referring to Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross. The idea emerged from Christian experience. Only in recent years, relatively speaking, did the word have anything to do with sexual desire, and only in the past 50 years or so — since the 1970s — did we begin to talk about passion in terms of our work and our careers. The idea that we have passion we need to discover and then pursue is new. But it is a valuable one all the same, as long as we understand it and don’t trivialize it. We need to remember that passion does involve struggle.

How so?

Pursuing your passion, whatever form it might take, really does require sacrifice, and that implies some level of suffering, some deferring of gratification and a great deal of discipline. It also can involve a degree of imbalance in your life, if you are serious about it, and we find that a lot of people who approach their work with real passion do find that their lives become unbalanced. Addressing that problem is a central concern of our book.

Unbalanced in what way?

They can become so wrapped up in whatever it is that motivates them that it becomes addictive — literally. That’s not to say we don’t believe people shouldn’t try to discover those activities and interests that make them feel alive in a special way and where they can make a special contribution. That’s good and healthy. What’s troublesome is when their passion takes over their lives and becomes an addiction.

How does that happen?

Psychologists use the term “hedonic adaptation,” which refers to the way we respond to that sense of exhilaration we feel when we are pursuing our passion — that sense we have of being alive — which involves the neurotransmitter dopamine. We “chase that first high.” We can get so wrapped up in our activities or interests that we become obsessive, and no achievement satisfies us. We want more, and we lose our ability to make healthy decisions. That’s the paradox. Those commencement speakers and career coaches that tell you to “find your passion” never seem to question whether there is a dark side to this pursuit. But there can be.

Our culture romanticizes the suffering artists whose life is unbalanced, but you say that a more useful example might be with athletes.

That’s right. Think of the unimaginable hours a young person that wins a gold medal at the Olympics has put into their sport. There’s a tremendous amount of sacrifice involved in that achievement, and the competitiveness is extremely intense. But think, too, of the professional athlete — a baseball player, for example, whose career is suddenly over at 32. That is when the careers of other people their age are just hitting stride. There’s a high incidence of depression and substance abuse among professional athletes when they retire. Now nobody recognizes them at the airport. No one asks for their autograph anymore. All that fame and adulation and sense of achievement is gone.

But their sport is still what they are passionate about, right?

That’s true, and it is very tempting, unless you are really thoughtful about it, to let those external rewards that come with high achievement become ends in themselves. So when those rewards are gone, you have very little left to get any satisfaction from. That’s when the downside becomes apparent.

But you’re not suggesting that pursuing a passion is a bad thing, are you?

Not at all. We just want people to keep their balance as they do so. They need to maintain a healthy relationship with the thing they’re passionate about. To do that, they always need to make sure that the validation comes from within — from that feeling of accomplishment and mastery, and not from the external rewards. We also want people to understand what passion involves, and the traps they fall into if they don’t understand it.

What traps?

People who don’t understand what passion involves often can find themselves flitting from one project or idea or activity to the next and feeling frustrated that none of them gives them the feeling they think they should have. They don’t understand that a sustained passion often begins as a curious interest that will develop over time if they are patient enough to actually experience a sense of improvement, a sense of competence and mastery. And sometimes this won’t happen in the workplace. Most people don’t feel invigorated as they go from one corporate meeting to the next, which is why the thing they really are passionate about is something they do outside the workplace — distance running, for example, or art or music — where there is a clear path to mastery.

How can they avoid the addictive aspects of this pursuit, whatever form it takes?

Some of this advice might seem corny or trite, but it is important all the same. Think of those professional athletes who at 32 are out of their jobs. The ones who have not let their heads get too big are better equipped to make the transition to a more normal life outside of the spotlight. The ones who have maintained their connections to their family and friends and local communities will be more likely to do better. We all need to remember this when we pursue our passions, so we make it a productive gift and not a curse. Having something you are passionate about can be a good thing, but it can also be dangerous. You might think of it as rocket fuel. You just need to point it in the right direction.

Reach Stulberg at 734.645.9264 or [email protected].

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