How to get Intimate with Your Passion: Passion Part Two

August 28, 2015 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.33.54 PM“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living” – Nelson Mandela

Having preceded this with one targeted at the limbic (emotional) part of your brain, I will now try to engage your prefrontal cortex. As you, hopefully, will have previously learned – your subconscious has already made an emotion based “decision” – we are now just going to give your conscious brain ammunition so it can rationalize that decision.

There is a certain uneasiness in me as I try to juxtapose hard science and the ultimate intangible (emotion) that is passion.  Could it be an oxymoron? Will the Supreme Court be disappointed in me? Nevertheless in the spirit of our Business Brain Model – I will give it a go.

intimate_passionI am mindful that passion is one of those topics that is a Pandora’s box of issues within issues. Having repeatedly declared I am not a neuroscientist and/or psychologist as well as confirmed I am not offering new information in these areas – I will skim across the surface of these disciplines and try to point out a few things relevant to Kirchner Group’s Business Brain Model and with a focus on our two usual perspectives.

Neuroscience of Passion

I have chosen a provocative (I believe he would agree) set of ideas posted by John Hagel to put a neuroscience spin on passion. He put forward these ideas under the title “Passion and Plasticity – The Neurobiology of Passion” which appeared in his blog “Edge Perspectives with John Hagel” in January 2011.

Regular readers will recognize my bias here – I have touched on plasticity several places since I think it is relevant to several aspects of our Business Brain Model. Now back to what Hagel thinks.

He opens with a challenge: “What if you could unleash a virtuous cycle that connects passion (my emphasis), practice and performance?”  As he goes down into the weeds, he then divides passion into two categories (what he calls dispositions): “Questing and Connecting.”  Where it becomes pure neuroscience is when he gets to neurotransmitters.  He maintains that “two of the brain’s most powerful neurotransmitters – dopamine and oxytocin – map surprisingly well to the questing and connecting dispositions respectively.”

From an endocrinologist point of view: dopamine and oxytocin complement each other. Dopamine adjusts our focus to the long term while oxytocin to the short. Dopamine stimulates attraction but oxytocin has a calming influence – in particular on stress hormones. Dopamine provides the endurance to realize our passion!

Hagel continues: “Is there in fact a neurobiology of passion? If so, what are its constituents and the relationships that they weave together? Does passion in fact re-shape our brains in ways that make it harder and harder for those who lack this passion to compete with us?” (Emphasis is mine.)

Passion as a competitive advantage – who would have thought?

Psychology of Passion

“Psychology helps to measure the probability that an aim is attainable.” ~ Edward Thorndike

In my opinion (or IMHO if you rather), the most practical work in this area is being done by two of the leaders in the area known as “positive psychology.” Specifically, they each focus on a word (description) that in many ways seem to be precursors, if not synonyms, with passion.  Incidentally, I introduced both Angela Duckworth and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in an earlier post.

Just to be clear – the highlighting of the words in the following is my not so subtle way of making a point.

Grit:  Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). “Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (6), p. 1087.

“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”

In May 2016, this work will be coming out in popular press as “Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success.” Until Duckworth’s book comes out she has a great (albeit brief) Ted Talk. In it she asks a great question: “Everyday parents and teachers ask me ‘How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?” Her honest answer will surprise you.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Perhaps, best described in his interview of Dame Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) who said:

“Look for your passion. What makes you excited? What turns you on?…. Go towards companies that you really like, really admire…. Spend if you can an internship there, or just knock on the door and say: ‘Hey, can I work here for cheap?’…. Find organizations that move your spirit if you can. Work along side them…. And have fun. There’s so much fun to be had…. When you spend 95 percent of your life in a work environment, it can’t be dour.”

And if we go back to our visual dictionary – I urge you (again) watch Bernstein from “The Sound of Your Passion Aroused.” In that video you will see passion personified by someone meeting every requirement of flow.

How do you get there?

Given, the intimate relationship between flow and passion then, it is important to look at the conditions of flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi and as reported in “Neuroscience for Leadership,” by Tara Swart, Kitty Chisholm and Paul Brown. These points are so well made I kept them as direct quotes from their materials.

  • The tasks people engage in must be just beyond their current reach – but not their potential, so that discovery, creativity, innovation and personal growth might be elicited.
  • The tasks must have clear goals, which can be pursued within a system where there are rules which enable timely, appropriate, feedback on progress, whether from others or preferably oneself.
  • The individual must be capable of focusing attention (certain conditions such as acute anxiety might prevent attention being focused).
  • There must be an element of freedom in the choice of the activity.
  • There must be an absence of threats which distract attention and elicit avoidance emotions and behaviors.

Too much of a good thing?

I have two salient caveats reflecting passion.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist who directs the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, cautions against obsessive passion, which is consistent with negative self-esteem.  In an online interview titled “The Paradox of Passion,” he said:

“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.”

Also, George Krueger and Mary-Lynn Foster in a blog titled “3 Differences Between Passion and Purpose” which appeared on highlights the need to combine passion with purpose. They said:

  1. Passion can be selfish. Purpose can’t.
  2. Passion can be unbridled. Purpose is focused.
  3. Passion is what. Purpose is why.

In closing, I repeat a question I asked in an earlier – if you aren’t passionate about why you are doing what you are doing – why would your team – customers – clients – partners get that way?

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.” Howard Schultz

About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.