The Paradox of Passion

The Paradox of Passion

Conversations May 01, 2012 / By Reena Jana
The Paradox of Passion

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman talks about the fine line between motivation and obsession.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who specializes in the development of intelligence, creativity, and personality, reflects on his approach to applying serious scientific research in education, business, and society, which he does via ultra-accessible—even conversational—articles and talks. Kaufman’s easy-to-read analyses of current studies in psychology labs can be found in such publications as Psychology TodayHarvard Business Review online, and Scientific American, as well as on his newly launched Web site,

In his writings, Kaufman often discusses the role that passion plays in any kind of creative pursuit, whether it be forming a family or finishing a doctoral dissertation. The affable Kaufman, who holds a PhD himself (in psychology, from Yale) and teaches at New York University, is not only interested in the feel-good context of creativity and passion. He is unafraid to discuss how an intense desire to accomplish a certain goal can be harmful to one’s health—even in an ultra-competitive environment that values an obsessive strain of passion. For Kaufman, it’s possible to tell the difference between harmful passion and productive passion. It’s also possible to deflect the former and nurture the latter.

Can you share a condensed definition of the psychology world’s definition of “passion”?Passion is the energy that can fuel a project, or a task. It has a similar role to inspiration. When we engage in something we are passionate about, we feel free from external constraints and in control. Time recedes into the background, and we feel allowed to engage in flow. Research has shown that flow correlates directly with passion.

Psychologists have been studying “passion” for years in the lab. But only recently have we been conceptualizing it. We understand lots of different conditions of passion, especially what is known as harmonious passion, or positive passion. It’s actually very important to distinguish between different types of passion. Sometimes we encounter wolves in passion’s clothing—otherwise known as obsession. Robert Vallerand has done the large majority of research in distinguishing obsessive passion from harmonious passion.

So there are two types of passion? At least two, with very distinct fingerprints. Interestingly, in studies, people who self-report either harmonious or obsessive passion perceive their drive is “passion,” without qualifying it. They value their sense of passion highly, but that is where the similarities end. With obsessive passion, unlike harmonious passion, a person feels controlled by work, as if not in control. Harmoniously passionate people can engage in work in an intense way, which they self-report as “concentration.” This feeling of being able to concentrate at work correlates more with harmonious passion than obsessive passion. The key difference is the extent to which a person is in control of his or her environment. People who experience harmonious passion feel more intrinsically motivated.

So, how do you self-test for obsessive passion? Do you feel capable of disengaging when you want to? This ability is associated with self-esteem, and correlates with harmonious passion.

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, correlates with negative self-esteem. You may have obsessive passion if you have a constant interior monologue of thoughts of “I must do this. I have to do this, because my whole self is dependent on this one task.” This suggests an unstable ego.

It sounds like some obsessively passionate people may, however, fool themselves into believing they’re harmoniously passionate. Yes, you can fool yourself. Some people with obsessive passion believe the only way to be productive is to be extreme. They tend to think they are hard workers, that the more they put in, the better work they will do. And many managers believe this is the kind of worker they need to hire. In the long run, it adds up; it leads to burnouts. I realize this sounds like common sense, but research—by Vallerand and his colleagues—confirms this.

They perform this research by asking people to self-report the hours they put into a task, and how they feel about their work. Harmoniously passionate people and obsessively passionate people can put the same time into work—even in extreme ways—but the difference is that those who say they feel more in control of their time on their task are harmoniously passionate. There is a mindset difference that is clear. We’re not saying that people shouldn’t work hard or try to unrealistically balance work and personal life.

Of course, it is completely reasonable, for instance, for you to decide that you want to focus on getting a PhD and don’t want kids or a spouse. Completely reasonable. But it is important when making that type of life-versus-work decision to ask where the desire to do so comes from. I advise taking a second look. Take a step back. Are you just trying to prove you’re smart? Is it really because getting a PhD will offer the same fulfillment as a spouse and children?

Let’s talk about how passion and obsession get messed up at the office. Is it possible to manage others’ passion—both good and bad, at work? I think Google is good at getting the best out of their workers. You know, the old 20 percent policy to pursue projects that each employee wants to pursue, and not dictated by their job. It’s like supporting playtime. There’s a cheeky mindset to this that works, obviously.

It would be great if more workers and managers could become well-versed in understanding passion. Lots of managers don’t take time to see if workers are happy for the right reasons. The way to do this is by accumulating and sharing internal knowledge. Find out if people feel in control.

Sometimes employees need help finding their passions. But this is a paradoxical concept. The more we try to force passion, the less likely people are to discover it for themselves. Making employees think about passion won’t get you there!

There is a mindset that employees need to cultivate to discover their passion: self-efficacy. Perhaps it is better to ask when and how employees feel like they have mastered something. That is most likely the key to their passion.

What if, after years of pursuing your passions, you and your team fail to meet success? How do you know when to give up? The feeling of constantly failing has the danger of increasing an obsessive focus on a particular goal. Constant failure might make you more driven to prove you can do it. Simply, you need to ask yourself if you are no longer enjoying following your passion.

The growth mindset—the harmoniously passionate one—accepts that it is okay to fail. Someone with this way of thinking learns to fail and overcome obstacles.

There is no magic bullet. Lots of people don’t take time to self-reflect on what their reasons and motives are in pursuing a passion. This can be part of the process of pursuing a goal driven by passion. Every so often, assess your interior monologue. How high is your enthusiasm for your goals? How high are your energy levels in terms of following your passion? Do you feel joy when you engage with your work, or do you feel negative, compulsive emotions?

Also, it can be helpful to consider finding the best fit among your proclivities in an environment that allows you to do so. And remember: You can’t control passion itself, and when you feel most in control, you are likely engaging in harmonious passion.

This article originally appeared at design mind (published by permission of frog)

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University. He is the co-founder of The Creativity Post and the chief science officer of The Future Project, as well as a contributing writer to Psychology Today,Harvard Business Review, and The Huffington Post.

Reena Jana is the executive editor at frog and a former editor at BusinessWeek. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wired,, and other publications.

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