Passion is essential. It’s what drives us to manifest our skills and talents, creating real change in the world. But not all passions are created equal, says cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Wired to Create.
Understanding the difference between “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion” — one is driven by intrinsic reward; the other, extrinsic — will help guide us toward making truly fulfilling choices. And once we put effort into the right kind of passion, says Kaufman, we naturally become even more passionate.
I’m a big fan of passion. Because I think that it is what fuels us to create our greatness. We can have all the skill in the world and we can have intelligence, we can have a good ability to think about different possibilities, but if we’re not motivated to actually translate it into something that has utility value or even something that can be fleshed out in a more mature way, it’s just going to lay inert. So there’s different forms of passion that are important. There’s harmonious passion where the activity that you’re engaged in is really healthfully integrated into your identity. So every time you engage in that activity it’s something that makes you feel really good about yourself. So you’re saying oh wow this is really congruent with the rest of my value system. You feel in control of your activity. You feel like I could stop right now; I don’t need to keep going. You don’t feel like there’s any external contingencies to perform the activity. The scientist Robert Vallerand is a leading researcher on this form of passion called harmonious passion. And he makes the distinction between harmonious passion and obsessive passion. So whereas harmonious passion is helpfully integrated into your identity, when you’re obsessively passionate about something there are all sorts of external contingencies, not just external contingencies but self-esteem contingencies like I’m engaging in this because I want to feel good about myself or I’m engaging in this because I want to please my grand mom or I’m engaging in this because I want to win, win, win, win. Like I don’t know who I’m referencing there and all but people who are constantly talking about winning are excessively passionate about what they’re doing. It’s not coming from an intrinsic place. And the research on creativity, in particular, shows that it is that form of harmonious passion and intrinsically driven motivation that leads to some of the most creative insights.
So a lot of people say follow your passion. I think that’s probably very trite advice to just follow passion. You’re constantly following a passion that’s one step ahead of you, you should be one with your passion and that’s what harmonious passion is. So what it is it’s so tightly integrated into the core of your identity that it’s not like I like basketball, it’s I am a basketball player. And so these words matter and the stories we tell ourselves of matter. I saw a terrific elementary school classroom here in New York recently and all over the wall they had the kids write I am a writer because… and they wrote a little paragraph about why they are a writer. It was an English classroom. So it was so tightly part of their identity and it’s something that made them feel good about themselves. So that such an important aspect of it. You’re not following your passion, you’re the one with your passion. But it’s bidirectional with effort in the sense that sometimes even if you don’t have a passion beforehand and you put in the hard work and effort into something and you develop a competency or you develop mastery in something, that actually increases your passion for the activity. And then the more you increase your passion the more it fuels the motivation to learn more and it increases your skills. So it’s a cycle. So effort and passion is this continuous cycle and that’s what the latest science is showing.