Is Passion a Problem?

The following is a draft blog post I wrote on January 5, 2015 that never saw the light of day because I was concerned with its long, potentially unfocused nature. Because of this I saved it with every intention of coming back and editing, but January turned to June and it never got posted! This morning at the Highway 21 conference Kiffany Lychock made a comment about being a “learning addict”, but mentioned that sometimes this can detract from other important things in her life like family. Immediately I was reminded of the rabbit hole I found myself in during the holiday break, searching for blog posts and articles as well as my own thoughts on the matter. If nothing else I want to archive my thinking and share some of the readings I found interesting so…here is my draft blog post in all its unedited and unfinished glory!


The other day I happened upon an interesting blog post by Corinne Campbell where she asked the question Is Your Passion For Teaching Healthy? The title immediately caught my attention because since leaving the classroom last February I’ve known that, while I wouldn’t change my classroom experiences for the world, my career as a teacher had become very unhealthy. In fact, it is one of the reasons I ultimately made the choice to leave my teaching position and, for the first time in a long time, make my health, well-being, and my marriage the top priorities. I’ve long known that there were a lot of factors contributing to my situation, but something about this article shed a new light on my experiences because instead of citing external factors like a broken education system, unhealthy and inappropriate dynamics in staff culture, or the sheer intensity of the profession it focused inward on a teacher’s passion. Wait, passion? Isn’t passion a good thing? Don’t we want teachers who are insanely passionate about their work and their students? Yes, absolutely we do..BUT, as Corinne started piecing together ideas she read in a September 2012 Atlantic article, The Downside of Following Passionby Karla Starr, I started to wonder how many educators, myself included, have an unhealthy relationship with their passions. The article starts with one very clear, and probably controversial, statement:

“Many are quick to advocate that the key to happiness is finding something you can’t live without. But the research shows otherwise: Overly identifying with some kinds of passion can be unhealthy and detrimental to performance in the long run.”

This idea of there being healthy and unhealthy forms of passion really intrigues me and fits within a theme that’s weighed heavily on my mind over the last month. For the most part I’ve always taken the word “passion” and the concept of going “all in” or giving 110% of heart and mind as things we should be proud of, something to strive for. The quotes, the blog posts, the books, the Tweets…they fly around social media and hang on walls with an adamant message to educators and business people alike – To achieve success and true happiness go all in all the time. Find a passion and run with it, as fast and as frequently as you can. Up until a few weeks ago these messages were right up my alley. “Yes! That’s me, that’s who I want to be, that is exactly the right way to live!” I was so incredibly sure of it, until I wasn’t.

In her article Starr mentions the work of Robert J. Vallerand, a social psychologist known for developing the Dualistic Model of Passion (2003). In very basic terms the model proposes that there are 2 types of passion, harmonious and obsessive, and that the relationship one has to their interests determines whether the passion will help or harm them in the long run. Starr explains,

Those with harmonious passion really love something, but ultimately can leave it, since it’s a “significant but not overwhelming part of their identity.” Harmonious passion doesn’t interfere with other aspects of life, like relationships or education. In contrast, obsessive passion resides in individuals who derive their self-esteem and identity primarily from their performance during the activity itself.

Wow. There’s an awful lot of implications, at least for me personally, in those 3 sentences. I’ve grown up with interests and passions that were such an integral part of my life, it just seems second nature to associate “passion” with something that you can’t live without. When I think about my own passions and read, “ultimately can leave it”, it makes me uncomfortable. “Leave your passions?! Like, just walk away and never look back? No way!” My previous understanding of the words “passion” and “interest” would have me saying that one could leave an interest, but that a passion is something that you live and breathe, that you give wholeheartedly to and it, in turn, gives you more happiness and understanding of yourself and the world around you than seems possible. But then Starr goes on to say, “harmonious passion doesn’t interfere with other aspects of life, like relationships…” Ok, I think I can start to see the other side of this discussion. If a passion is so much of who you are, of what gives your life meaning and purpose, and you invest so much of your time and energy to it that it is taking away from other aspects of your life, does that immediately make the argument that the passion and your relationship with it are unhealthy?

Let’s spend a bit longer considering this idea of “obsessive passion” and the possible implications. For the past few weeks I’ve been stuck on something… “If you go ‘all in’ and give 110% to something, does that automatically mean there are other people and things that you’re neglecting? After all, you can’t give 110% to everything, right? If so, what happens to the other aspects of your life over time when you always invest so much in your passions?” and then I wonder, “When you derive so much happiness and motivation from your passion(s), what happens when they’re gone or are no longer providing the same positive feelings?” A possibility is that you may one day find yourself looking around and wondering what the heck happened to the person you once were, the (other) things you once loved, and the people and things who loved you back. The passion that brought you intense happiness could, instead, bring you intense sadness. “Who am I without this passion? How do I move forward when the passion is such an integral part of my life and my identity?” The concept that one might, “eat, sleep, and breathe” their passion becomes most obviously detrimental when the passion is removed, and Vallerand confirms this tension when explaining harmonious passion: “the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity…”

This discussion becomes especially complex when you consider the well-known Confucius mantra, “Choose a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I have spent the entirety of my working years as well as 2 college degrees searching for just that – a career so entwined with my passions that it doesn’t feel like work, but a privilege, to spend my days engaged in such worthwhile activities. Sure I’ve worked some unpleasant jobs, and endured some co-workers and bosses who were less than ideal, but for the most part I’ve worked hard to create situations where I could follow my dreams, my passions, and be doing work I love. When I am doing work I enjoy, I am happy. When my work feels meaningful, involves helping others, is aligned to my values and has purpose, I am happy. Perhaps my necessity to seek jobs that get me excited and jumping out of bed has something to do with the years I spent battling days of depression where not only did I not want to go to work, or school, or face the world – I actively dreaded it. For a while I think I assumed that the physical sickness and intense negative emotions I had before going to work (or school) were just par for the course. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I found a point in my life when I looked forward to the things my days had in store. I vividly remember getting laid off from my IT Manager job in California and thinking, “Well crap – now I am screwed because I finally found a career I could invest in and a job where I didn’t think about getting up and going to work, I just did it..and most days I quite enjoyed it.” This had seemed so elusive up until that point, and I was intensely worried whether I would ever find such a thing again. It had been so nice to spend several years not stressed about work, not worrying about how to cope with getting myself there every day. I felt, “normal”, and it was pretty damn awesome.

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