Most people attribute ‘Success’ to ‘Passion’. The common assumption is that passion drives the individual through hardship and generates the fire for success.
According to social psychologist Robert J. Vallerand, passion is ‘a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy’.
But not all passionate individuals are successful. The question is why?
In recent years, a new understanding of passion has emerged shedding light on the circumstances when passion can lead to success and when it hinders success.
It may sound strange that passion could be detrimental to success. Let’s consider these two cases: Simon and Dave are colleagues in the accounting department of a corporation. They both read and update themselves on the latest developments in their field and spend time discussing work processes. They love their work and find it an important part of who they are.
While both Simon and Dave are ‘passionate’ about their work, there are key differences between them. Simon believes that his work is so important to him and that he could not live without it. He devotes himself fully to his work and cannot stop thinking about work even on his way home. He is willing to put in long working hours, staying in the office till late, willing to forego important reunion dinners with friends, sacrificing family time and putting his hobbies and any pleasurable activities second to his work. And despite being sick, tired and sometimes exhausted, Simon would still show up in the office or get through his emails from home. Over time Simon’s attitude has created conflicts between his work and his personal life. The conflicts are slowly taking their toll on him and he is starting to feel increasingly drained and disengaged at work.
On the other hand, there is Dave. The guy who, amidst intense work pressure, tight deadlines, and juggling multiple projects, appears to still be able to walk in the office day after day with a smile and great energy. More often than not, he leaves on time and makes time for social activities while attending to his role as a father of three children. Dave loves his work but also has other interests in life. At the end of a work day, he looks forward to spending quality time with his children and his evening runs in the park. Dave’s flexible engagement with his work protects him from conflicts between work and personal life. In addition, focusing on other activities after work allows him to recharge himself. Hence, Dave is able to step in at work everyday fresh and with a keen attitude, promoting a great experience of satisfaction at work. Unlike Simon, Dave is protected from experiencing the emotional drain and exhaustion.
In recent years, research has shown that, besides other social factors, a key factor contributing to the difference between thriving and being burnt out at work is the attitude each individual has towards work.
As shown in the two cases above, both Simon and Dave have passion for their work. But one is consumed by his work, which eventually leads to tension with his other life activities. This weighs on Simon’s ability to sustain his passion for his work and drives him towards an emotionally drained state.
On the other hand, Dave’s passion is able to fuel him with energy to fully engage with his work and to get a sense of satisfaction from it. Yet, it still allows him to pursue other life activities, which seem to be protecting him from burnout.
Both Simon and Dave have developed two distinct types of passion, professionally referred to as ‘Obsessive Passion’ and ‘Harmonious Passion’ respectively.
In the case of obsessive passion, the individual engages in an activity because of a (perceived) reward, such as social acceptance, recognition, boost in self-esteem, sense of competence etc., which can be self-imposed or from external pressures (e.g. society, peers, colleagues, family etc.). Hence, Simon feels compelled to engage with work because of the ensuing rewards. He loses control over when he engages with the activity (work), which eventually takes disproportionate space in his life leading to an unbalanced state.
On the other hand, harmonious passion puts an individual in control of when to engage or disengage from an activity such as work. Hence Dave develops a greater sense of control over his choice of activities both work and non-work related. With a greater sense of autonomy Dave has a positive experience with work, and when off work he is able to give his full attention to his other life roles e.g. being a father, without the intrusive thoughts of work activities.
Over time, Simon may develop a negative perception to work, and yet is compelled to engage with work due to the rewards. As such, Simon is likely to experience decreased engagement, lack of personal responsibility and commitment when work conditions become challenging. Whereas in Dave’s case, he is likely to develop a more productive engagement with his work. He experiences a greater sense of autonomy over his choices, which boosts his sense of self-worth. And this positive experience will spill over how he generally feels about himself and will help him to sustain a positive outlook on his life.
The moral of the story is this: not all passions are the same! It’s probably time to check ourselves so we can avoid obsessive passion and start building harmonious passion.
Jean Bernard Sampson is a Counsellor at an institute of higher learning in Singapore. He is a Registered Counsellor with the Australian Counselling Association, and a Professional Member with the American Counseling Association. He is a Supervisor Member and Faculty Member of the William Glasser International. He is certified in the administration and interpretation of MBTI® and Caliper profiling. He has a Master of Guidance and Counselling from James Cook University and a Bachelor of Science from the National University of Singapore. His professional interests include multicultural counselling, counselling individuals with special needs, physical disabilities, and minority groups. Website: http://www.jeanbernardsampson.com