There was once a CEO of a major company who valued passion above everything else. He only employed the most passionate people, and he expected his whole organization to emulate his high level of performance. Under his stewardship, Fortune named the organization America’s “most innovative large company,” and it was valued at $60 billion. This company was called Enron, and its CEO was Jeffrey Skilling. But Enron no longer exists, as Skilling’s relentless passion for enriching both himself and Enron’s shareholders led to one of the biggest corporate fraud cases in modern history. When the dust settled, Skilling was behind bars and Enron had declared bankruptcy.
Skilling is now a convicted felon and a classic example of what happens when our passions become obsessive and go awry as a result.
This shift begins when we lose sight of what originally motivated us to work toward our goals and become increasingly focused on things like external validation, rewards or recognition. And when these things replace our original goals, we’ll go to any lengths to achieve them. Whether it be writers engaging in plagiarism to get that book published or athletes using illegal substances to set new records, these sorts of obsessive passions can turn initially joyful pursuits into sinister undertakings.
Remember how kindling a passion and developing a drug addiction both involve increasing tolerance to dopamine? Well, that’s precisely where such obsessive passions can begin. We think that more money or recognition will satisfy our cravings, but as dopamine is only released during the process and not upon reaching the goal, it’s never enough – we always crave more.
And just like when a drug addict goes cold turkey, when people with obsessive passions fail, the sudden, massive drop in dopamine can trigger devastation and depression. This is the point where our passion has morphed back into its original Latin meaning – suffering. Another unhealthy driver of passion is fear. In the short term, fear of failure can be a useful motivator. If you’ve just started a new job, for example, fear of messing things up at the beginning may help you to learn your way around the position quickly. But in the long run, fear of failure also leads to burnouts and depression.
Luckily, if you feel your passion is becoming obsessive or fueled by fear, there are a number of techniques that can help – we’ll explore these next.