Tangent on Passion

This article is adapted from ideas in The Passion Paradox by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness.

A conversation ensues between a kid and their parent: “I don’t know what I want to do in life,” says the kid. “Follow your passion, the money will come,” the parent advises. “Follow your passion” because passions can lead to success. Passion can be lucrative: it can help you find work, get into college, and be fulfilled. But although passion can be beneficial, Brad Stulberg, coauthor of The Passion Paradox, argues scientific research shows that passion causes burnout, depression, immoral behavior, and anxiety.

  Passion can become a dangerous pathway to overachievement. Simone Biles, a famously passionate Olympic gymnast, surprisingly withdrew from the 2021 Olympics, leaving the United States without a team leader at a critical point. 

“We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” said Biles. She had been trying to be a role model, while remaining athletically competitive. Perhaps she did love gymnastics, but after pursuing it on a national level, the sport became more about being exceptional than about enjoyment. Biles attested this decline to pressure from teammates, coaches, viewers, and stakeholders. When Biles reached the point of gymnastics being about impressing organizations and took it to the next level, people likely thought, “Wow! What a genius. Now that is the power of passion!” Unfortunately, the price of such “passion” was the deterioration of her mental health and love of the sport. 

The Latin Christian use of passion, passio, refers to when Jesus was crucified on the cross and martyrdom, a curse. The notion of suffering for love then emerged throughout the Renaissance as a form of romanticism, which is still prevalent today. You may imagine yourself as the main character who suddenly discovers they are incredibly brilliant in a certain field and perhaps feel that you have discovered your “passion!” In reality with this type of philosophy, passion may be finding something you like which results in a dose of instant gratification. Then, as this pursuit evolves, you realize that pursuing this passion might be harder than you thought; this can lead to a decision to find another passion and thus fall into a “fit mindset” trap. 

“That’s because again, if you have such a high expectation that it’s going to feel great from the get-go, then once that expectation isn’t met, you just assume, this must not be the thing for me,” Stulberg writes. Although various people think this way, research indicates that this mindset doesn’t help people discover and develop a long-term passion; on the contrary, it generally has an opposite effect. The myth is, that if it were your passion, you would be talented at it: you wouldn’t encounter any frustrations. Stulberg alludes to the “fit mindset” trap of envisioning a soulmate for oneself; if you believe you will discover the ideal match despite evidence to the contrary, you are more likely to remain single. If you have high expectations to begin with, when they aren’t realized or a setback is experienced one is likely to call it quits.

Finding a balance between external validation and mere self-interest when pursuing a passion that reflects what you care about is important. In a world about end results, sometimes caring a little about external validation is conducive to success. Like Simone Biles, as one improves at something they are passionate about, they can aim higher, which allows them to enjoy it more and maybe make a living off it for some stability. Obsessive passion, on the other hand, is when reaching higher supersedes enjoyment of the passion, leading to a collapse of one’s self-worth. This is what happened to Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France; once he realized he couldn’t be the best he began using performance-enhancing substances and got kicked out. “​​But if you are harmoniously passionate, then you are more process-oriented—that is, your identity gets tied to the process. What’s important here is that I can often control the process more than the outcome. And if my identity is tied more to the outcome than the process—and I can’t control the outcome—then that’s going to cause a lot of distress,” Stulberg explains. As an athlete, one has to remember that winning and losing aren’t always in one’s control.

Harmonious passion is extremely difficult to achieve unless you live like a Buddhist monk, so let’s keep it simple. The key to passion is not immoderation (so you can excel at it), but taking the time to let an interest grow. As a Westminster student, I need to learn how to accept failures in my passions without them turning into obsessive passion. Stulberg recommends giving yourself 48 hours to obsess after a significant success or failure in whatever you’re doing. Stulberg suggests returning to the work itself while reminding yourself, “Hey, what I like is the activity, not all the fortune, fame, external validation from the activity.” If we adapted this for Westminster students it would be: “Hey, what I like is the activity, not all the benefits that could get me into college, fame, or being better than the other person.”  

“Everyone talks about being passionate, but no one says…that if you really care about something, and you invest your all into it, moving on from that thing is going to be really hard.”-Stulberg

Edited by Eleanor Knight