The Right Way to Follow Your Passion


Passion can be a gift or a curse.

Passion can be an energizing, fulfilling force, the stuff upon which businesses are built, works of art are created and Olympic medals are won. However, if you’re not careful, passion can become an equally destructive curse, leading to suffering and distress. Understanding how this happens — and how you can prevent it — is integral to mental well-being and living productively with passion.

We don’t celebrate stories of passion gone awry, but look closely and they’re all around. It usually goes something like this: You start an activity and develop a love for it, so you do it more often. Over time you improve and begin to experience positive results. You receive praise, recognition and rewards. Subtly, maybe without even realizing it, you start to become more passionate about the external validation you gain from doing the activity than the activity itself.

Psychologists distinguish between these two sides of passion, what they call harmonious passion versus obsessive passion. In harmonious passion, you are absorbed in an activity because you love how the activity itself makes you feel. A harmoniously passionate writer writes because he or she loves the craft. In obsessive passion, you are hooked on an activity because of external rewards and recognition. An obsessively passionate writer writes because he or she wants to boast about published stories and attain best-seller status.

Research shows that obsessive passion is associated with burnout, anxiety, depression and unethical conduct. One reason for this is that people who are obsessively passionate tie their self-worth to outcomes that are often outside their control. Being passionate about — or, perhaps better put, a slave to — the achievement of an external result that you cannot control creates a volatile and fragile sense of self. The consequences are often disastrous.

Jeff Skilling, of Enron, and Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos, oversaw two of the biggest corporate frauds in recent American history. Before the scandal-ridden downfalls of their companies, both were widely celebrated for their passion and obsessive drive, something Ms. Holmes said was a most important asset. Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong, two of the most notorious cheaters in sports, were also two of the most passionate competitors. When asked by Forbes for his top three pieces of career advice, No. 1 on Rodriguez’s list was “find your passion.” What all of these individuals have in common is that their passions went awry because of an incessant focus on results, results, results. When the results weren’t meeting their exceedingly high expectations, they turned to unethical behavior to close the gap.

Even if you experience legitimate success, as each of these entrepreneurs and sports heroes initially did, if the success is the outcome of obsessive passion — fueled by a longing for external results, recognition and rewards — trouble lies ahead. That’s because people typically crave more. More money. More fame. More medals. More followers. Once you become passionate about external validation, dopamine, the neurochemical associated with striving and addiction, floods your system and makes it nearly impossible for you to feel content. You get sucked into a vicious cycle of striving, your well-being at the whims of your most recent result. Long before psychologists defined obsessive passion, the Buddha called this suffering.

Unless you have the perfect genetics, vast mental training or years of spiritual guidance, completely disregarding external results isn’t realistic. Every athlete gets a jolt from winning. Every writer feels good when books sell. Every salesperson loves closing a deal. Even Facebook and Twitter users get a slight tingle upon receiving a new friend, follower or “like.” 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.

When you sit down to write, sit down to write, not to sell books. When you show up to work, show up to make a meaningful contribution, not to get promoted or earn bonuses. When you train and compete, do so to get better, to master your body, not to win awards or improve in the rankings. When you love — be it a partner or a child — do so to nurture a special relationship between yourself and the object of your affection, not because you want to chronicle your relationship on social media for all to see. In other words, your passion should not come from the outside. It should come from within.

This kind of passion, the harmonious kind, is associated with health, happiness and overall life satisfaction. Harmonious passion doesn’t happen automatically, especially in today’s hyper-connected, comparison-oriented culture. Rather, it requires viewing passion as an ongoing practice, as a force that must be handled with care.

A few linchpins of this practice can be particularly helpful:

Don’t judge yourself against others. Judge yourself against prior versions of yourself and the effort you are exerting in the present moment.

Practice the 24-hour rule. After a big achievement or a tough failure, give yourself 24 hours to celebrate the success or grieve the defeat, but then get back to work. Doing the work has a special way of putting both success and failure in their respective places.

Focus on process over outcomes. Evaluate yourself not on whether you accomplish an external end-goal but rather on how well you execute the process of going for it. Results make up only a small fraction of life. The vast majority of life is the process.

Embrace acute failure for chronic gains. If you take the long view and focus on a lifetime of progress instead of point-in-time results, then failure shifts from being something terrible to a source of rich information and an opportunity to grow.

Regularly reflect on your overarching purpose. Thinking about why you got started with your passion in the first place helps keep intrinsic motivation at the forefront of your pursuit.

Put simply: Passion can be a gift or a curse. The good news is that the form it takes is largely up to you.

By Brad Stulberg