Is “follow your passion” actually bad, or at best, ill-informed advice? This simplistic advice appears to discount the fact that passions change over time, and more importantly, that one may not necessarily be skilled in what one is really passionate about. Just because you like singing doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at it – as some talent show judges will say. To a large extent, this is true – it certainly is pragmatic and prudent to consider whether one’s interests, ideals and passions, align with one’s skills. Doing so can help guide us towards the activities that we should devote our time and efforts to, and, importantly, towards those that we could reasonably see ourselves succeeding in. Passion derives from the Latin root word ‘passio’, which translates as ‘to suffer.’ Our modern-day use of the word, however, refers to a strong feeling, inclination for a particular target. The target is usually an activity (performance arts, writing, photography, teaching or sporting activities) that one finds important and central to one’s sense of self. Go ahead and think up an activity that you “personally hold dear.” Such an activity is likely to be one that you identify with, and likely to see yourself building skills or expertise in.
Positive psychology tells us what passion really is. We think that one reason why “follow your passion” is a bad idea is because it isn’t always clear what critics generally mean by the term passion. Luckily, recent research studies – particularly those from positive psychology, helps clear up the concept, and tells us why it can be an important emotion in our lives. Most of the seminal work on passion comes from Robert Vallerand, who thinks of passion as a key emotion associated with activities that “makes life worth living.” Vallerand highlights that psychological research has long focused on strong, unpleasant emotions – fears and phobias, chronic and destructive anger, morbid jealousy, and depression, but says little about how strong positive emotions actually lead to overall well-being. Even studies of work behaviour suggest that (merely) showing up and feeling content at work – getting through the day, is not the same as actually performing to one’s maximum potential. We are far from actually delivering the very best on our jobs. To that effect, perhaps what we need to be feeling is not just contentment – but passion, with our work. Like in our everyday use of the term, Vallerand defines passion as, “a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, find important, and which they invest time and energy” . Vallerand’s more important contribution to research on this emotion, however, is in distinguishing between passion’s two forms: harmonious, and obsessive passion.
Passion has two forms: Harmonious and Obsessive. Harmonious passion is passion that results from “autonomous internalization” of an activity into a person’s identity. When we experience harmonious passion, we willingly, and freely associate ourselves to the activity, and are compelled to engage in these activities without any contingencies attached to them. Put another way, we are harmoniously passionate when we find ourselves identifying and engaging with activities we enjoy in and of itself. Such harmonious passions are also aligned with, and complement other aspects of our lives. The passion is significant, meaningful – but importantly, not overpowering. In contrast, obsessive passion is an emotion that results from “controlled internalization” of an activity. Compared with harmonious passion, obsessive passion motivates persistence because it enhances an individual’s feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem. Obsessively-passionate individuals engage in activities not because they want to – but because they feel the need to. There is an external validation, reward, or contingency attached to the activity. Obsessive passions may still be significant and meaningful to the individual – but they are also likely to conflict with other domains of an individual’s life . Such a distinction helps provide a clearer definition for why ‘follow your passions’ is a generally vague, or unhelpful advice. Are your passions really driven by the core of who you are – or are you engaging in the activity in order to seek validation and affirmation from an external source?
Harmonious passion sustains committed practice, leading to higher levels of well-being and performance. It probably wouldn’t surprise you at this point to state that between the two forms of passions, it is harmonious passion that is more likely to be associated with positive, desirable outcomes. One study of drama students found that those who were in harmony with their passions were more likely to engage in something called ‘deliberate practice.’ Deliberate practice is a highly-structured, motivated approach to practice with the explicit aim of improving one’s performance. Drama students are put through a challenging and highly-selective selection processes before they are admitted to specialized school for further training. The findings from this study showed that among drama students, it is the harmoniously passionate drama students that engaged in this form of practice more regularly. This led them to experience higher levels of performance (as assessed by external assessors) and also higher levels of subjective well-being. The students who were obsessively passionate did not enjoy these benefits. While these drama students did also engage in deliberate practice, they reported lower levels of subjective well-being from their practice sessions .
Another study of musicians provides similar findings. Musicians who were in tune with (pardon the pun) their passions were more likely to set mastery goals. These are goals set with the intention of improving one’s performance. These goals then led to more consistent deliberate practice, and ultimately, higher levels of performance. In contrast, musicians who reported more obsessive passion were more likely to set avoidance goals – goals set with the intention of avoiding failure in comparison to others. As a result, the obsessively-passionate musicians also showed lower levels of performance. Interestingly, the measure of performance for these musicians were the number of solo performance they reported over their careers. Harmoniously passionate musicians, in short, reported giving more solo performances over their careers than those who were obsessively passionate. .
Passion can also impact sporting performance. Sampling athletes across a variety of sports such as basketball, swimming and water-polo, Vallerand and colleagues find that those harmoniously passionate, but not obsessively-passionate with their sport enjoyed higher levels of well-being. Further, as with previous studies, harmonious passion motivated the use of mastery goals, in turn leading to deliberate practice and better performance. The researchers conclude by stating that while both harmonious and obsessive passions can motivate performance, they do so via different routes. Harmonious passion empowers, and encourages – and as a result, those who are in harmony with their passions enjoy their efforts towards mastery and performance a whole lot more than those who are obsessively passionate .
Revisiting the “follow you passion” advice in light of these findings suggests that while passion does motivate intentions to improve and better our performance, it really is important for us to distinguish between whether our passions are in harmony with the rest of ourselves or otherwise. Obsessive passions overwhelm and overpower; they may help us improve our skills, but it seems that it does so at the expense of our happiness and well-being. In contrast, it is when we are harmoniously passionate that we become intrinsically driven to excel, and enjoy the psychological boon of well-being that comes along from this “autonomous internalization.” We might just tweak the advice to say, “follow your passion – but only if it is in harmony with who you are.”