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Your Passion Can Be Your Poison

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Passion is a vital trait for success, especially in entrepreneurs. But it can also be your downfall. 

I came across an excellent HBR blog about how your passion for work can ruin your career. The author talks about the Dualistic Model of Passion, where passion has two faces: harmonious and obsessive. Those with harmonious passion engage in their work as it brings them intrinsic joy. They have a sense of control of their work, and their work is in harmony with their other activities in life. At the same time, they know when to disengage, and are better at switching off work when they wish to enjoy other activities or when further engagement becomes too risky. Thus their work doesn’t conflict with the other areas of their lives. When they are spending time with their family for example, they aren’t constantly thinking of work, and they don’t feel guilty for not working. Questionnaire items measuring harmonious passion include: “This activity reflects the qualities I like about myself”, “This activity is in harmony with the other activities in my life,” and “For me it is a passion that I still manage to control.”

Obsessive passion paints a different picture. Like those with harmonious passion, those with obsessive passion see their work as representing a passion for them, and view their work as highly valued. They have an uncontrollable urge to engage in their work. This means they feel more conflict between their passion and the other activities in their life. Questionnaire items measuring obsessive passion include: “The urge is so strong. I can’t help myself from doing this activity,” “I am emotionally dependent on this activity,” and “My mood depends on me being able to do this activity.”

Striving for perfection could be a strong contributor to obsessive passion. If you’re obsessed with getting a concept or a task perfect, it occupies most of your time at the expense of other more important aspects of your life.

When I was studying my MBA, I saw many of my classmates overly focused on getting cum laude for their MBA, at their expense of their careers and families. A classmate who got the balance right taught me a valuable lesson: family first, then career, then MBA – that way you still have a family and career when you’ve completed the MBA!

My 6-year-old son is a very talented little artist, and him and I share the same passionate perfectionist streak. On the one hand we want to encourage his talent, especially since he enjoys drawing so much. At the same time, as parents we feel his pain when he is usually the last to finish his school drawings and crafts (if he finishes them), because he insists on making them perfect. As he grows up, it is important that we teach him how to prioritise on the important 80%, and let go of the nice-to-have 20% that will cost him 80% of his time and effort. If we don’t, when he is older, this could have negative consequences in many areas of his life. For example, at school and university he could struggle to finish exams, which in turn could hurt him academically and have consequences for his career. As a Type-A personality I have struggled my whole life to find this balance between perfectionism and passion, and I’ve felt the unhappiness this conflict causes. Like any parent, I want to save my son that frustration.

As entrepreneurs, the very passion that makes us successful in our businesses often comes at a high personal cost to our health, our sanity and our relationships. What is the number one reason why entrepreneurs sell their businesses? It is illness. On a conscious level we know this obsession with our businesses is unhealthy, but we almost cannot stop ourselves. Until there comes a time when our health or our relationships force us to separate from the businesses that we love. In nature we find the same unhealthy drive to be with what will hurt you. The Black Widow Spider got its name because the female usually eats the male after mating. However the male cannot help himself, as instinct drives him to reproduce.

Why does it often take a life-changing event like cancer or divorce to help us make the shift? Before it comes to this, how do you let go of an unhealthy obsessive passion, and transform it into a harmonious passion?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this intriguing issue.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

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