Daniel Lerner: Cultivating Healthy, Harmonious Passions

Bob Vallerand of the University of Montréal
has begun to look at passion—well, he began 25 years ago. And his findings, for me, are among the most
exciting in psychology right now. He’s found that there are two very distinctive
routes. One is harmonious passion, and the other one,
which no one brought up, is obsessive passion. So, we can be passionate about something,
but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a healthy thing. When we look at harmonious passion, we see
these characteristics: It’s when we’re intrinsically motivated to do something. It’s freely chosen. It’s autonomous. The ideas that no one else encouraged us to
do it. I look at my students and say, “It’s not because
your parents want you to do it.” And in our cases, it’s not because of outside
influences; it’s because it’s something that we have chosen of our own volition. We’re flexible and adjustable with harmonious
passion. So I see a lot of students, and they’re fascinating
people, because these are people who are going to become excellent at what they do, in music,
and they’re practicing 12, 14 hours a day. It’s crazy, these pianists. In the middle of the day, if someone knocks on their door, and says, “Hey, let’s go get a slice.” It’s New York, so, you know. “Let’s go get a slice.” People with harmonious passion: “You know what? I’ve been at it for five hours. Yes, let’s go get a slice.” They take a walk. They get out with their friends. They take an hour, and they forget about the
piano for an hour. They engage with others. They have these positive relationships. They’re experiencing positive emotions. And then they go back to the piano. It’s very, very different than obsessively
passionate people: “No, I can’t,” and they keep pounding away. Or, “OK, fine, I’ll go,” but they feel guilty,
and all they think about is the fact that they should be back practicing. So they don’t nurture those friendships. They don’t talk to their family as frequently
as they might. They have no other hobbies, because if they’re
doing anything else, they’re not digging away at what they must do. They don’t pursue other interests. With obsessively passionate people, it’s about
the money, or the fame, or the fact that someone else wants them to do it; for the rush of
the applause. They do it not to enjoy it, but they do it
not to lose. I always think about passion when it comes
to six-year-olds, because every six-year-old in the world, since the creation of this world,
has done the same thing, which is, every six-year-old, everyone in this room, has raced to the fence. That is to say that at some point, either
you, or someone challenged you to race to that fence over there. And you have two ways of racing to the fence
when you race to the fence. You either run as fast as your little six-year-old
legs will take you, with your hair flying behind you, and your eyes on the fence, and
a big smile on your face, just trying to get to that fence, or you’re obsessive about it,
and you race and constantly look over your shoulder, and you do not want to lose. And at some point, if you are, you stick your
hand out to stop them, which means you’re not training yourself as deeply, as richly
as you can, but you’re too focused on others. It ends up becoming all-controlling and unmanageable. That is to say, when we’re obsessively passionate,
we cannot remove ourselves from situations. Your mentees who insist on keeping their heads
down and never picking them up, never spending any time, never having anything else around
them, will not have—as my client said—should they stumble and fall, they will not have
that support when they go home. As far as I’m concerned, the kiss of death
for you, and certainly for your mentees, is burnout. And there are tremendous rates of burnout when we pursue our passions in an obsessive way. What could be worse than having this beautiful
flame that you are here to help build, and watching it be extinguished? And I also think about our industry in particular. It’s not like we’re millennials and we’re
going to go job-hopping every couple of years. We’re in this for the long run. So, if someone burns out early, the next 20
or 30 years for them are going to be incredibly hard and unhappy. So how do we nurture passion? Well, one of the ways we nurture passion is
by encouraging people to simply do those things that we know have to do with harmonious passions. Make sure that every single day, you take
time with a friend. Every single day, you make time for something
else. Go out and exercise, if that’s your hobby. Go out and do something that makes you happy. Make sure there’s something else there. And it might be really challenging to make
the transition from obsession to harmonious, but if you do one at a time—make sure you meet a friend every day for an hour—it becomes habitual.

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