The Passion Paradox

How Using Our Talents in Service of Others May Help Keep Obsessive Passion in Check

by Kim Wimmer

So, I have this… friend who felt called to express herself and impact others through the performing arts. She’d always wanted to be a great actor and singer. She spent the first 30-something years of her life in service to that calling. She made countless sacrifices at great cost to her personal relationships, financial stability, life experience, health, and well-being. She had a career that, to many, looked like a big success. But to her, it was never enough. She’d been told that she was going to be the next big thing so often—to no avail—that it was excruciating. She studied and trained harder. She dieted and highlighted her hair. What was preventing the Hollywood gatekeepers from anointing her as the new it girl? Who knows? The Hollywood audition process is a black hole of feedback. So she started making up stories about all of the things that must have been wrong with her and her love for performing began to dwindle. And since she clearly couldn’t “do it right,” she began to dread her auditions and became depressed and despondent. One day she found herself on a stage in Las Vegas, singing to an indifferent crowd of several thousand people, unable to let go of the image that she’d developed a meaning-shaped hole in her soul.

Have you ever had one of those how-did-I-get-here-and-who-have-I-become type realizations? The truth of the matter is that pursuing a passion-based career, perhaps regardless of the industry, inevitably results in some loss of agency. It means no longer doing the thing we love entirely for the intrinsic satisfaction of doing so. Making a living off of our passion requires external validation in order to pay the bills—often to the tune of burnout or depression. How could we dedicate ourselves to the thing we love most and somehow manage, with near surgical precision, to eradicate all of the joy, engagement, and meaning that inspired our endeavors in the first place?

Maybe the answer is somewhere in that murky transition from harmonious to obsessive passion. Vallerand distinguishes these two camps by how we internalize the passion within our identity. Harmonious passion comes from autonomous, intrinsically motivated desire, while obsessive passion demands outside validation. It’s ego-driven and consumes everything in its path.

Spoiler alert—the “hypothetical friend” is actually—wait for it… me. I know. You’re shocked. Thankfully, through a series of unexpected opportunities gifted by a benevolent universe, I became a professor of acting at a performing arts college and discovered, quite unexpectedly, that I found tremendous meaning and satisfaction in teaching. My college students were qualitatively different from the actors I had taught in Hollywood. I think that the primary difference is that these students self-selected for a college program that also gave them opportunities to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth through an arts education outreach program. With each incoming class, I have witnessed this experience prove to be universally life-changing for them. Consequently, I began to recognize in them a powerful knowing I had had in my own experience of using my talent in service—long before my career eclipsed all else. I couldn’t help but wonder if service might be part of the key to meaning, well-being, and the maintenance of harmonious passion. It was clear that through this service learning opportunity, my students were using their love for performing as a tool for connection, compassion, inspiration, and real impact on the lives of others who desperately needed to know that they mattered. And mattering seems to work in both directions.

Stepping Outside Ourselves

 Unlike other altruistic behavior like donating blood or writing a check, volunteering is highly associated with:

  • Elevated happiness
  • Better physical and mental health
  • Improved access to social and psychological resources
  • Increased self-reported happiness while countering depression and anxiety

What’s more, by using their talents in service to others, my students’ service learning experiences provided the following benefits:

  • Buoyed self-efficacy, self-esteem, and confidence
  • A positive outlet for dealing with stress, feelings of alienation, or guilt
  • A strong sense of meaning and purpose
  • Put volunteers’ struggles into perspective through working with “at risk” populations

A person-activity fit for volunteering

However, volunteering is not a one-size-fits-all proposition; the type of volunteering we do matters. Consistent with Lyubormirsky’s research on positive interventions and the importance of person-activity fit, (based on an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, goals, etc.), robust research on volunteerism suggests that the helper’s benefits will vary based on the degree of “fit” between the volunteer’s needs, motivation, and the type of service work performed. In other words, an actor might derive more meaning from, say, volunteering to help children with incarcerated parents express themselves through writing and performing their own show than organizing a book drive.

Here’s where it gets very interesting—Musick and Wilson argue that volunteer work is elevated in significance among populations whose other roles have been diminished (e.g. the elderly). What about those performing artists stuck in the audition loop—who continue to offer their creation only to have it unceremoniously dismissed? If volunteering benefits populations whose roles have been diminished, what effect might it have on those who are “at risk” for abandoning their (potentially obsessive) passion-based careers if they have an outlet to meaningfully share their gifts–where they may actually be received and have a positive impact on others?

When a passion becomes a calling and that calling leads to a career, the forced reliance on another’s permission to practice it can be soul-crushing. Volunteering provides an eye-opening reality check and has been shown to reinforce volunteer satisfaction and gratitude for what they have in comparison to what the recipients they serve may lack. The resulting outward focus is a powerful reminder that, in the words of Chris Peterson, “other people matter.” Of course, the primary purpose of volunteering is to give of oneself to uplift another who is in need. It is a welcome consequence that doing so can greatly benefit the giver and the recipient.

Maybe the boost in positive affect, renewed passion for craft, and a revitalized sense of meaning and confidence from using our talents in service to others could also help us maintain harmonious passion. If so, by providing a pathway for the passion to be practiced and honored in service to others, rather than in service to one’s career, volunteering could be a protective factor against burnout and depression.

A version of this article was featured in Positive Psychology News on May 30th, 2018

The Passion Paradox



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