The Paradox of Passion – By Reena Jana

May 01, 2012


Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman talks about the fine line between motivation and obsession.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who specializes in the development of intelligence, creativity, and personality, reflects on his approach to applying serious scientific research in education, business, and society, which he does via ultra-accessible—even conversational—articles and talks. Kaufman’s easy-to-read analyses of current studies in psychology labs can be found in such publications as Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review online, and Scientific American, as well as on his newly launched Web site,

In his writings, Kaufman often discusses the role that passion plays in any kind of creative pursuit, whether it be forming a family or finishing a doctoral dissertation. The affable Kaufman, who holds a PhD himself (in psychology, from Yale) and teaches at New York University, is not only interested in the feel-good context of creativity and passion. He is unafraid to discuss how an intense desire to accomplish a certain goal can be harmful to one’s health—even in an ultra-competitive environment that values an obsessive strain of passion. For Kaufman, it’s possible to tell the difference between harmful passion and productive passion. It’s also possible to deflect the former and nurture the latter.

Can you share a condensed definition of the psychology world’s definition of “passion”?Passion is the energy that can fuel a project, or a task. It has a similar role to inspiration. When we engage in something we are passionate about, we feel free from external constraints and in control. Time recedes into the background, and we feel allowed to engage in flow. Research has shown that flow correlates directly with passion.

Psychologists have been studying “passion” for years in the lab. But only recently have we been conceptualizing it. We understand lots of different conditions of passion, especially what is known as harmonious passion, or positive passion. It’s actually very important to distinguish between different types of passion. Sometimes we encounter wolves in passion’s clothing—otherwise known as obsession. Robert Vallerand has done the large majority of research in distinguishing obsessive passion from harmonious passion.

So there are two types of passion? At least two, with very distinct fingerprints. Interestingly, in studies, people who self-report either harmonious or obsessive passion perceive their drive is “passion,” without qualifying it. They value their sense of passion highly, but that is where the similarities end. With obsessive passion, unlike harmonious passion, a person feels controlled by work, as if not in control. Harmoniously passionate people can engage in work in an intense way, which they self-report as “concentration.” This feeling of being able to concentrate at work correlates more with harmonious passion than obsessive passion. The key difference is the extent to which a person is in control of his or her environment. People who experience harmonious passion feel more intrinsically motivated.

So, how do you self-test for obsessive passion? Do you feel capable of disengaging when you want to? This ability is associated with self-esteem, and correlates with harmonious passion.

Obsessive passion, on the other hand, correlates with negative self-esteem. You may have obsessive passion if you have a constant interior monologue of thoughts of “I must do this. I have to do this, because my whole self is dependent on this one task.” This suggests an unstable ego.

It sounds like some obsessively passionate people may, however, fool themselves into believing they’re harmoniously passionate. Yes, you can fool yourself. Some people with obsessive passion believe the only way to be productive is to be extreme. They tend to think they are hard workers, that the more they put in, the better work they will do. And many managers believe this is the kind of worker they need to hire. In the long run, it adds up; it leads to burnouts. I realize this sounds like common sense, but research—by Vallerand and his colleagues—confirms this.

They perform this research by asking people to self-report the hours they put into a task, and how they feel about their work. Harmoniously passionate people and obsessively passionate people can put the same time into work—even in extreme ways—but the difference is that those who say they feel more in control of their time on their task are harmoniously passionate. There is a mindset difference that is clear. We’re not saying that people shouldn’t work hard or try to unrealistically balance work and personal life.

Of course, it is completely reasonable, for instance, for you to decide that you want to focus on getting a PhD and don’t want kids or a spouse. Completely reasonable. But it is important when making that type of life-versus-work decision to ask where the desire to do so comes from. I advise taking a second look. Take a step back. Are you just trying to prove you’re smart? Is it really because getting a PhD will offer the same fulfillment as a spouse and children?

Let’s talk about how passion and obsession get messed up at the office. Is it possible to manage others’ passion—both good and bad, at work? I think Google is good at getting the best out of their workers. You know, the old 20 percent policy to pursue projects that each employee wants to pursue, and not dictated by their job. It’s like supporting playtime. There’s a cheeky mindset to this that works, obviously.

It would be great if more workers and managers could become well-versed in understanding passion. Lots of managers don’t take time to see if workers are happy for the right reasons. The way to do this is by accumulating and sharing internal knowledge. Find out if people feel in control.

Sometimes employees need help finding their passions. But this is a paradoxical concept. The more we try to force passion, the less likely people are to discover it for themselves. Making employees think about passion won’t get you there!

There is a mindset that employees need to cultivate to discover their passion: self-efficacy. Perhaps it is better to ask when and how employees feel like they have mastered something. That is most likely the key to their passion.

What if, after years of pursuing your passions, you and your team fail to meet success? How do you know when to give up? The feeling of constantly failing has the danger of increasing an obsessive focus on a particular goal. Constant failure might make you more driven to prove you can do it. Simply, you need to ask yourself if you are no longer enjoying following your passion.

The growth mindset—the harmoniously passionate one—accepts that it is okay to fail. Someone with this way of thinking learns to fail and overcome obstacles.

There is no magic bullet. Lots of people don’t take time to self-reflect on what their reasons and motives are in pursuing a passion. This can be part of the process of pursuing a goal driven by passion. Every so often, assess your interior monologue. How high is your enthusiasm for your goals? How high are your energy levels in terms of following your passion? Do you feel joy when you engage with your work, or do you feel negative, compulsive emotions?

Also, it can be helpful to consider finding the best fit among your proclivities in an environment that allows you to do so. And remember: You can’t control passion itself, and when you feel most in control, you are likely engaging in harmonious passion.

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University. He is the co-founder of The Creativity Post and the chief science officer of The Future Project, as well as a contributing writer to Psychology Today,Harvard Business Review, and The Huffington Post.

Reena Jana is the executive editor at frog and a former editor at BusinessWeek. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wired,, and other publications.

Hello Sunshine [Hardcover] – Ryan Adams (Author)

Editorial Reviews
From Publishers Weekly
Ryan Adams is among his generation’s most gifted and important singer/songwriters. Just into his 30s, Adams has already released a dozen albums jammed with soul-stirring songs and frighteningly precise lyrics about love, loss, and youthful wildness. Unfortunately, these distinctions and qualities do not translate to his poetry, which seems to be more a kind of performative journaling than an attempt at high art. But perhaps that’s a kind of poetry too. If so, it’s poetry in the manner of late Charles Bukowski—alternately ecstatic, drunken, droll, bewildered, jokey—and will appeal to a similar audience: teenagers looking for a guide through the confusing maze of adolescence. Adams’s many rabid fans will find much to enjoy in this second collection, following right on the heels of his poetry debut, Infinity Blues (2009). Adams takes his readers through his crazy days, high on adrenaline (bicyclemad/ born dizzy/ i am/ flying off the cliff of panic hill), praising the beloved (i love her/ my bug/ she knows…) and finding the symbolism in the everyday: the sky…/…just got back from the grocery store, smiling/ new particles to add to the table of contents/ in some lunar book/ written in wishes. (Dec.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author
Ryan Adams is an alt-country/rock singer-songwriter best known for his song “New York, New York.” In addition to releasing 5 solo albums, Adams has also produced an album by Willie Nelson and contributed to albums by Toots and the Maytals, Beth Orton, The Wallflowers, Minnie Driver, Counting Crows, and Cowboy Junkies. Also appeared on CMT’s Crossroads with Elton John.

AMAZON book details

Infinity Blues [Paperback]- Ryan Adams (Author)

Book Description
Publication Date: April 1, 2009

“Ryan Adams, one of America’s most consistently interesting singer/songwriters, has written a passionate, arresting, and entertaining book of verse. Fans are going to love it, and newcomers will be pleased and startled by his intensity and originality. The images are vivid and the voice is honest and powerful.” —Stephen King, author of Duma Key

“Infinity Blues is Ryan Adams at his personal, unforgettable best. Strong and beautiful and funny and pure. Like all his work, it’s soul poetry of the highest order.”—Cameron Crowe, filmmaker

“This is much better than reading a friend’s journal. It’s more like watching somebody you love in the bathtub talking to himself. You’re like, wow, he’s even good at taking a bath. After reading Infinity Blues (which I think is a great title), I give Ryan Adams the best compliment I ever got—and the only reason for reading anyone’s poetry. Ryan, I really like your mind.” —Eileen Myles, author of Cool for You

“Ryan Adams writes with equal parts precision and recklessness; the blood he draws from the text is easily as unnerving as its unapologetic tenderness. He is proof that poetry will find its writer.” —Mary-Louise Parker, actress

Brilliant book for anyone who loves how Ryan Adams writes his songs May 16, 2009
By James Blevins
I think this move to books was a flawless move for Ryan Adams. This book is an enchanting journey through the many worlds that Ryan is able to create with his words. His songs are merely a slight glimpse into a world that he can describe beautifully in this book. I read the whole book in one day and found myself coming back to phrases or lines coined in some of the poems and thinking how apt and revealing they are. Ryan is such a master at hitting the mark and writing that are so close to the bone. Some songs for me are too close that I couldn’t even listen to them after a break up. Just too much. This book is very much like that in that so much has seemed to happen to this guy and so much was said, it’s hard to grasp it all in the first read. Many multiple readings are required to really fully grasp how much is revealed in this debut. I can only say bravo! I look forward to more releases such as this.

Journal Entries As Poetry? August 28, 2009
By Michael W. Smith
I have been a big Ryan Adams fan since the Whiskeytown days, and Heartbreaker is a classic album. I was really excited when I heard this book was coming out. Sorry, but I think Ryan should have kept this one to himself. I know he had a serious drug and alcohol problem, and the text reads like a drunken/stoned rant about some girl(s) he’s trying to connect with but is failing. I heard that he got cleaned up, but maybe he hadn’t yet when he decided to go ahead and publish this book. Maybe with a clearer head, he would have thought otherwise. It’s as if he gathered up all of his journal entries into a pile and threw them at the feet of his publisher. Who knows? Maybe Ryan felt he needed to publish this mammoth volume to purge himself of all his demons. If that’s the case, I understand, but he does a better job at singing his pain through song.

No big deal. I’m sure some readers will get a kick out of some of the passages. The book definitely has its moments and does provide an almost painfully naked glimpse into his psyche. Maybe if it was edited and pared down a bit, it might have retained a more cohesive shape. An almost 300 page book of poetry is usually an anthology of some better poet’s work, not a first collection, and Leaves of Grass this ain’t.

Introduction (From Wikipedia)
Infinity Blues is a book of free verse poetry by singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, published by Akashic Books. The book was set for its official release April 1, 2009. However, it became available in some markets on February 20, 2009. According to Adams, it contains five chapters about “how one person found himself, by losing himself”.

Ryan Adams may be known primarily for acclaimed albums such as Cardinology, Heartbreaker, Gold (which includes the popular hit songs “When the Stars Go Blue” and “New York, New York”), Love Is Hell, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and Easy Tiger, but the world renowned singer/songwriter has always been a poet and fiction writer at heart. With the release of Infinity Blues, his nonmusical writing is for the first time ever unveiled in book form. Mr. Adams’s work rings of an emotional authenticity that provides perhaps an even deeper insight into the man than is revealed through the songs that have resonated with his hundreds of thousands of fans the world over.

Amazon book details

Three Deaths Surround RockNess Festival

Overdoses and fatal bus crash cast shadow over Scottish event

By Rolling Stone
June 10, 2012 11:46 AM ET

A 19-year-old man collapsed at Scotland’s RockNess Festival on Saturday night and died in the hospital early Sunday morning, the BBC reports. Two others were hospitalized on Sunday morning, and police say that drugs were likely involved in the three incidents.

According to the BBC, the police are making inquiries into a prescription medication known as Benzo Fury. “If anyone has the tablets described or any other drug, whether controlled or a ‘legal high,’ in their possession, they are advised not to take them and to hand these in,” the officer in charge of the event said.

Ben Lovett performs with Mumford and Sons at RockNess Festival at Village Of Dores in Inverness, Scotland. Rob Ball/WireImage

The three-day festival, which draws an audience of about 35,000 to the banks of Loch Ness, included Deadmau5 and Mumford & Sons on this year’s bill. In order to minimize the risk of drug-related trouble, event organizers and police are employing searches, drug-sniffing dogs and amnesty bins where people can dispose of controlled substances without fearing prosecution.

“What should be very clear from this information is that legal high does not mean safe, and customers should not go anywhere near these dangerous substances,” said Jim King, the festival’s organizer. “Festival goers should heed the advice given to them by the health professionals and the police, and stay safe by avoiding drugs of any kind.”

RockNess had already got off to a tragic start when a bus carrying concert goers crashed into a van on Friday. The two van passengers were killed and 14 bus passengers were hospitalized.

Bob Welch dies: Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist, ‘Ebony Eyes’ singer

The L.A. Times Music Blog
June 7, 2012

Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist and singer Bob Welch has been found dead in Nashville of an apparent suicide, according to the Nashville Police Department. The musician, who worked with the band in the early 1970s and later had hit solo songs such as “Ebony Eyes,” was 66 years old.

Nashville Police Department spokesman Don Aaron said in a statement, “The police department responded to his address at 12:18 p.m., where Mr. Welch was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.” Aaron added that Welch’s wife indicated that he had been suffering with health issues. A suicide note was found in the home.

Welch was a member of Fleetwood Mac as the band was transitioning away from being a British blues rock band and into the 1970s powerhouse that it became. As a singer and guitarist, Welch was lesser known than the pair who replaced him — lead vocalist Stevie Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham — but his work with fellow band mates including Mick Fleetwood and John and Christie McVie prior to Nicks’ arrival on albums “Future Games,” “Bare Trees” and “Heroes are Hard to Find,” among others, set the tone for what was to come.

Welch left the band amid the chaos of the McVie divorce, just prior to mainstream success with the 1975 album “Fleetwood Mac” and then “Rumors,” Fleetwood Mac’s acclaimed 1977 hit album. The singer went solo, and scored a massive hit with “Ebony Eyes” in 1977. The album from which it was culled, “French Kiss,” featured a number of former Fleetwood Mac members, as well as a rendition of “Sentimental Lady,” a song originally recorded with Mac but reworked by Welch.

Welch was born in Los Angeles in 1945, the son of successful Hollywood movie producer Robert Welch, best known for his work with Bob Hope on a series of “Paleface” films. A full obituary will appear in the L.A. Times.

Remembering former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch

Bob Welch, August 31, 1945 – June 7, 2012.

From the Live at the Roxy show 11/18/81,