When Passion for Work Is a Bad Thing
The passion backlash continues.
Just about every American has heard the old saw advising people to "follow their passion," so perhaps it’s inevitable that some career experts would turn to debunking this approach to your career. Arrayed against the massive army of "do what you love" proponents is now a force, nearly as large, firing cannon balls at this conventional wisdom.
Classic attacks range from the bluntly practical ("Um, no one wants to pay you for your passion for 17th-century Flemish dance") to the more philosophical ("Thinking passion comes before work decreases the chances you’ll actually develop a passion"). But now, the anti-passion brigade has a new piece of artillery in its arsenal, thanks to a recent post on the blog of University of California, San Diego, neuroscientist Bradley Voytek.
In the post, he tells the story of his own career journey, from aspiring astrophysicist to brain scientist, beginning with his school-age passion for physics and his determination to make a career for himself doing what he loved. Voytek sounds like the ideal case study for the pro-passion contingent--he had an early and clear passion, for example, an advantage many of us lack--but it turns out things were more complicated for Voytek.
Harmonious vs. Obsessive
After enrolling in college, he discovered the reality of his physics classes was less inspiring than his dreams of the discipline--and much less fun than socializing. His grades dipped. But he was extremely reluctant to give up his passion for physics.
Why? As Voytek later discovered as part of his studies in psychology, there are actually two kinds of passion. "Modern psychological thinking generally breaks ‘passion’ into two distinct subtypes," Voytek writes, distinguishing harmonious passion from obsessive passion. If you’re not put off by some scientific jargon, the Voytek post offers an in-depth description of the difference between the two kinds of passion, but the essence of the distinction seems to be that with obsessive passion, your identity and your passion become intertwined; with harmonious passion, you simply want to be doing the work you’re doing more than anything else.
Voytek’s passion for physics, needless to say, was the obsessive kind. "Once you start defining yourself by one thing--political belief, religious affiliation, career, family, whatever--you lose identity to that thing. You reduce the number of paths to happiness and success and wrap your entire self around it," he writes. "To put it mildly: That can be unhealthy."
By integrating physics into his sense of self, Voytek made it more difficult to evolve and adjust on the basis of his changing interests and feelings. Quitting physics, he says, "felt like I was abandoning my identity."
You Are Not Your Job
To all the entrepreneurs out there, I ask: Does this sound familiar? We all know people whose identities are so wrapped up in their businesses or job titles that they’d be lost without them. Quitting becomes unimaginable. Those folks are passionate, sure, but they’re also unhealthy, inflexible, and blinded to information that might disturb that identity (such as the fact that they’d be happier or more successful taking another road).
Voytek concludes with a question all of us would do well to ponder periodically: “Ask yourself if you are harmoniously passionate or obsessively, and if the answer is the latter, remember you are not your job, your belief, your class, your color, or your passion.”
Which type is your passion?
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.