Does Passion Always Drive Performance and Emotional Well-Being?

Is the advice "Follow your passion" harmful or, at best, ill-advised?

We commonly think of passion as an essential and beneficial emotion that leads to success and fulfillment in life and career. Yet we often find that the same drive, enthusiasm, and zeal that fuels breakthroughs – whether in sports, science, entrepreneurship, or the arts – can be just as destructive as it is productive to performance and mental well-being.

The word passion derives from the Latin root "passio", which means "to suffer". In its contemporary usage, the word rather designates a strong motivation for a particular activity that people love, value, and invest a lot of time and energy in – and which is part of their identity. This motivation is internalized and becomes a key feature of a person’s identity, it becomes self-defining: a basketball fan does not just play ball. He or she is a basketball player.

Different types of passion lead to different outcomes

This internalization of motivation for the activity gives rise to two qualitatively distinct forms of passion, harmonious passion, and obsessive passion, both of which aim to improve performance but lead to opposite outcomes, according to Robert Vallerand, professor of psychology at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

A harmonious passion refers to an autonomous internalization where individuals have freely engaged in an activity that is important to them, without any contingencies attached to it. This activity occupies a significant but not dominant, place in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of their life. For example, a person plays basketball for the pure enjoyment of it and not for other extrinsic reasons, such as popularity or fame.

In contrast, obsessive passion refers to a controlled internalization of an activity, where the activity takes over and the person becomes controlled by it. It often manifests itself as intense pressure to perform at all costs and is motivated by diverse contingencies, such as the need for public recognition and self-esteem. In the business world, a notorious example of the consequences of passion gone awry is that of Jeffrey Skilling, whose relentless zeal to boost Enron's financial performance led to one of the most monumental corporate frauds and bankruptcies in history.

On a smaller scale, the pressure to perform at all costs is often exhibited by people who identify strongly with their work – "work is who we are" (see related post: Retired – Who Am I Now?) – whose "mental space" is controlled by the limitless demands of their organization, at the expense of their personal well-being. Such obsession results in a myriad of issues, including major disappointments, burnout, and psychological distress - because when passion ends, so does purpose.

Harmonious passion drives better performance

Conversely, harmonious passion inspires commitment to perfecting and mastering skills, which leads to higher levels of performance and well-being. One study of musicians showed that those who were “in tune” with their passion were more likely to engage in regular "deliberate practice" which resulted in improved performance, as measured by the number of solo concerts they played throughout their careers. By contrast, obsessively passionate musicians were more likely to focus on avoiding the risk of failure than on outperforming other musicians, and thus reported giving fewer solo performances during their careers.

In essence, harmonious passion energizes and encourages, so those who are harmoniously passionate derive greater benefit from their efforts to achieve mastery than those who are obsessively passionate.

The difference between obsessive passion and harmonious passion lies perhaps in the way we define success

In light of these observations, the advice " Follow your passion " deserves to be revisited.

Perhaps the key difference between obsessive passion and harmonious passion lies in how we define success. If your aspiration for success is primarily driven by external achievement and validation at the expense of personal satisfaction, your passion(s) and well-being may suffer. However, if the success you seek is tied to the experience of the activity itself, to the personal fulfillment of giving it your all, your passion(s) and your life are more likely to be harmonious.  

We might just tweak the advice to say: "Follow your passion – as long as it is in harmony with who you are and not contingent on rewards alone."

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