The ‘passion’ nonsense: why it does not predict success

by Isabel Wu

There is no doubt that the internet has made it easier for people to access information to enhance their lives.  Predictably it also enables the faster spreading of nonsense presented as expert advice.  If you believe what you read you there is an undisputed key to success: passion.

Mills & Boon cover

Mills & Boon: an endless supply of bodice-ripping passion

Since when did ‘passion’, the word used to describe desire and lust, become an attribute for commercial or professional success?  A Google search of the phrase “passion leads to success” will give you 209 million – give or take a few hundred thousand – sites explaining how.  Undeniably, it is a compelling story: you loved something so much you willingly ‘went the extra mile’ until one day you were rewarded by success.  It naturally follows that if people attribute their success to their passion, it could be used as a predictor of success too.  By declaring your ‘passion’ for something you are making a statement that your performance is all but guaranteed.  If their authors were not so sincere, the résumés in which job seekers profess their passion would almost be comical.  In one example, a 19-year-old girl supplied an application for an entry-level position in which she managed to state no less than five drivers of her passion including a ‘passion’ for customer service and her ‘passionate’ desire to learn.

Claiming to advise people on how they use their passion to build success is really a free ride for many wannabe coaches and consultants.  You can give this advice with so much authority because who can prove that it wasn’t passion oil that turned the right wheels?  If someone ‘fails’ you can always make the case that they ‘weren’t passionate enough’.

What do the facts tell us?

  • Skills matter.  Failure occurs when a person cannot do something or does not have something needed.  A business needs cash flow, and no amount of love, passionate or otherwise, will pay the bills to keep you in business.  Whole nations have cringed at the singing performances of people whose passion took them to reality television show auditions.  If you cannot sing, you cannot sing, no matter how you feel about it.
  •  Skills can look like emotions.  Highly developed skills become automatic and instinctive.  Nobel Prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman describes in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a human mind consisting of two systems.  System 1 houses our innate skills, while System 2 allocates attention to effortful mental activities.  System 1 not only kicks in when we know the right response, but often when we don’t.  System 1 will make a substitute heuristic (defined by Wikipedia as experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that gives a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal) response available.  Because System 1 operates so responsively and instinctively it has all the hallmarks of emotion.  Add a dose of immediacy or urgency, and a person can easily  believe that it was ‘passion’ that guided their decision-making or overcame the obstacles to success.
  • Luck plays a huge part.  Like passion, luck can be hard to pin down, so when a person wishes to substitute, “I got lucky,” with “I was passionate,” who is to say it wasn’t true?  In a Forbes article, How to succeed, since success is random, Kare Anderson writes, “Two often intertwined instincts are our deep desire to understand why unexpected things happen, and to want control over the events that affect us or our business.  This leads to another mistaken notion, especially in business. We are eager to believe that the success of a company or individual is determined by what they are doing right.”  When what the person is doing looks like the same thing that everyone else is doing, the explanation needs something else, some personal quality – passion.
  • The strong feelings associated with passion result from the reactions of different regions in the brain.  It might feel as though we are driven to do something because we love it, but it is more likely that we love it because we were rewarded for doing it before.  For example, the mesolimbic pathway rewards new and novel stimuli with sensations of pleasure.  Our brain also draws on different areas to learn associations between certain patterns – like a special person’s voice or the coupling of red wine and chocolate – and rewards.

The ideas we have about passion could also be explained by the rope bridge effect.  In 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted an experiment in which male subjects were asked to walk across one of two bridges.  Some crossed a standard footbridge and others walked a rope bridge swaying over a 230-foot drop.  At the end of the bridge an attractive female researcher approached the subjects asking them to complete a questionnaire.  Each interviewer would then hand the subject her telephone number with the offer to be available to help with any questions the subjects may have later.  After controlling for various conditions, such as with the use of a male interviewer, the results showed a significant correlation between the precariousness of the bridge crossing and the degree of sexual content in the responses and the likelihood that the subjects would call the interviewer.  The adrenaline rush triggered by excitement of the rope bridge walk was enough to stir up these subjects’ passions.

Our perceptions of passion which we think drives our actions, could in reality be how we attribute our reactions to the environments our work or business take us to; where there are plenty of novel stimuli, where we our days constantly test us as well as deliver us scores of tiny, and occasionally big, triumphs.

If this is all ‘passion’ for our business or work is all about, many would argue what difference does it make?  So what if it helps people feel better about their jobs or gets them over setbacks more quickly?  It would be the business version of the stone soup folk story (in which hungry travellers enter a village only to find none of the villagers is willing to offer them food.  The travellers take a pot and begin boiling a large stone.  They explain to the curious villagers that stone soup is delicious and if they would be kind enough to provide a few small ‘garnishes’ the travellers would happily share their soup as soon as it was ready.  Various vegetables and seasonings were provided and the hearty soup was enjoyed by all.)

It is not harmless when this advice convinces under-prepared and under-skilled people to make poor decisions.  Investing in a business or leaving a job to ‘follow your passion’ is irresponsible advice when luck and skill play far greater roles.  Teaching people that passion and success are cause and effect does give many people hope and confidence to try something they may not have otherwise.  The value of hope and confidence cannot be underestimated for those who want to make something different of their lives but it is not a technique any more than the laws of attraction promoted in the book, The Secret, is (otherwise there would be a MBA available in this too).

Perhaps our use of the word ‘passion’ has more to do with its original meaning to do with religious martyrdom: ‘pain; to suffer, submit’, hence ‘the passion of Christ’.  For many their passion was their sacrifice.