Obsessive or Harmonious Passion?

Working with non-profits, it is clear that passion and internal motivation is a huge driving factor in providing free or low cost services for our community.  Passion motivates people to join AmeriCorps programs like NEO Literacy Corps to provide a year of service on a small living stipend.  Passion drives faith-based communities to serve our neighbors in times of need.

But can passion be harmful?

Harvard Business Review recent article Why Your Passion For Work Could Ruin Your Career highlighted the work of Robert H Vallerand who proposes a Dualistic Model for Passion.  Good passion is harmonious, increases our quality of life and relationships, and satisfies us on a deep level.  Bad passion is obsessive, is motivated by guilt and low self esteem, and drives compulsive work which breaks relationships due to an inability to enjoy the rest of life.

This concept hit me on a deep level.  To use religious language, I felt convicted.  As a consultant working from home, I often struggle to break away from work, to avoid the temptation to hop on the computer as soon as the kids lie down for a nap, to not take calls when I’m weeding the garden or watching a movie.  Starting a new business and career level has meant a steep learning curve and feelings of doubt or inadequacy resulting from mixed reviews of my work.  Most importantly, I feel it in my bones: my passion for my providing accessible educational & economic opportunities can border on obsessive at times.

Am I headed for burn out?

My interest was sparked and I found a few other articles of interest on the topic, but my favorite is The Quest for Passion, Creativity, and Wholeness by Michael Sheep, PhD.  His central metaphor–longing “for the endless immensity of the sea”–provides a grounding and healing framework to approach what I have come to realize as the doldrums of my service.

I can no longer be driven by the excitement and anger inspired by the novelty of serving people trying to survive and recover from lives of poverty and violence.  Successful work and the admiration of others is also not a motivator, because I’m in a “sophmoric” phase where I’m successful enough to continue, but am very far from the top of my field. New relationships and experiences don’t hold their thrill because I already have so many other relationships and skills that need continual maintenance and development.

So where does my motivation come from?

What do I long for? For me, it certainly isn’t the endless immensity of the sea. To quote Dr. Sheep, “If people are passionate about an activity, then their motivation to do it well comes from deep within.”  I know that in the past, I have been a quitter, that when I have taken on too much or get too frustrated, I have cut out the less satisfying activities and moved on to new things.  This has been a psychological help for me: it allows me to live out of choice, to know that I am not trapped and have flexibility in my schedule and future career. It helps me to know there are many paths to my destination.

But what is the destination? I know that there is something deep in my heart, some small voice I have been too busy to hear, that urges me to keep going in my current projects.  It is not a voice of guilt, anger, or obsession.  It’s the voice of patient practice that can handle the discord of clumsy fingers in their way to learning a concerto.  It’s the voice that keeps tossing the ball after missing the basket.  It’s the voice of Jesus who accepts the expensive perfume and the lavish display of affection, saying you will always have chances to serve those who are suffering, but you will not always have this moment, these people to enjoy and love.

What do I long for?

48 years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his dream on the steps of Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.”

I do not share MLK’s dream.  I dream of a day when neighbors care for each other, even when one’s character is mean and nasty. I dream of a day when we consider siblinghood as important as brotherhood, and daughters as important as sons.  I dream of a day when people are rewarded not for their value to the production and distribution of goods, but for their investment in a thriving and peaceful community.  I dream of a day when leaders of all institutions receive feedback from and are held accountable by the entire community they serve, not just those with money and power.

But is that what I genuinely long for? 

Right now, I feel the ache that I have dreaded my whole life, the terrible realization of my greatest fear: that I will work my hardest and give my best and still not be the best.  In high school I would not write, because I didn’t know how to handle being less than James Joyce or Emily Dickinson.  I stopped doing poetry slams in college because I never won.  And now as a consultant, when I get a mediocre or negative review of a training, I alternate between wanting to quit and staying up all night to try and improve it.  Is it because I long for my dream, or because I am chasing some vision of personal success and adulation?

I am being hard on myself, both in my assessment of my skills and in not acknowledging the many ways I have a healthy work-life balance.  Still, my goal is to impress upon myself the importance of the deep work I need to do “off the clock” to perform the best I can…and most importantly, to be satisfied with myself even though I’m not the best in the world.

I want to end by quoting not Lifehacker, but a comment on his article Why Passion Can Ruin Your Career (And What You Can Do About It).  Geolemon replied with this wisdom:

“Yet, to defend yourself against the chess moves of business, to avoid getting dumped and screwed as I ultimately was, you simply can’t ‘let go’.  It takes absolutely heightened awareness to play the game and mitigate the risks.
…which begs the question ‘how do you maintain awareness and focus, and avoid burnout – to ultimately find success?'”

I think the answer for me lies in not focusing on the success, but rather allowing myself to enjoy life as it is with its successes and failures, to accept satisfaction when it comes and allow myself to feel disappointed when it doesn’t.  My dream is the acceptance and social inclusion of all people, and that means acceptance of myself.  I can notice the negative feelings and let them pass, or process them and wait until the appropriate time to act.  My emotion is not what makes me effective, and my personal performance is not the end goal.


One thought on “Obsessive or Harmonious Passion?

  1. The desire to grow and improve is what makes you the Best. Because your best today won’t hold a candle to your best tomorrow! I love how you pointed out that “off the clock” is an important part of performing well “on the clock” – Great Article!

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