Passion and Work

I’m generally hesitant to write about studies I haven’t read yet, but I was so fascinated by this piece about passion and work that I’ll break my own rule. (But I’ll get the original article when I’m back on campus next week!)

I came across this piece as part of some research I’m doing on meaning-making and intrinsic motivation. Passion – what an awesome thing to study! But what really captured my imagination was Vallerand’s distinction between two types of passion: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

Harmonious passion, Vallerand argues, is passion that fits into one’s life. Work is experienced as joyful, harmonious, and consonant with one’s larger life values. Obsessive passion, on the other hand, involves uncontrollable urges and a sense of lack of control. Instead of work fitting into one’s life, the work becomes one’s life.

While I couldn’t easily find the passion type questionnaire online, I used the examples quoted in the article to give myself a quick self-test. Do I engage in my work with a harmonious or an obsessive passion? Based on their six questions – half the test – I seem to be harmoniously passionate.

What was most useful to me about this model was actually how I feel about my passion. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m not more obsessive about my work. I’m very happy when I’m singing, or sailing, or reading, or talking to interesting people. If I couldn’t do the work I do, I can imagine other work that would satisfy me. For a long time, I’ve wondered if that dooms me to being creatively and professionally second-rate. Conceiving of this experience as successful harmonious passion, instead of unsuccessful obsessive passion, lets me see the power and advantages of my approach. I call it my ‘magpie mind’ – my ability to see all the things I do in the context of the questions that interest me. When I’m singing or reading or sailing, I’m doing so as the same person who writes and designs studies and conducts research. That lets me bring the lessons of those experiences back into my professional life.

On the other hand, I do have an obsessive passion. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you can probably guess what it is: reading. I think about the books I read all the time. If I don’t read, it impacts my mood. I sometimes can’t stop myself from reading when I really should be doing other things.

According to the article, obsessive passion is linked to a whole host of negative experiences and outcomes – but reading is an enormously positive force in my life. I wonder if that’s because it’s a core part of my identity. It’s part of my work and part of my play, part of my relationships and part of my deeply private life.

All that said: after some of my recent reading, I can’t stop hearing the class assumptions behind any discussion of work and passion. I’ve definitely got to get my hands on that original paper to see whether they’re conflating a psychological experience with a sociological construct. You may be hearing more from me about this then.

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