When I was a little boy, I was obsessed with chemistry. I had a chemistry lab in my home and I could not wait to retreat to my little lab and conduct the most amazing experiments, exploring all kinds of permutations of chemical mixtures. When I was not in my lab, I was devouring chemistry textbooks. People said I was passionate about chemistry, but they were wrong – I was obsessed. I was using chemistry as an escape from a very difficult childhood. It was a survival mechanism, not a means to achieve my full potential.
We are all familiar with cautionary tales of people so consumed by their passions that they lose their social standing, meaningful relationships, and—ultimately—their mind. Their professional and social lives fall apart as obsession grips their every waking hour, crowding everything else out. It’s no wonder people fear passion.
In a previous blog post, I asked the open question, “When does passion become obsession?” [link], touching upon the possibility of destructive passion – when passion leads to fixation and dysfunction. Having thought about this more, I think I was asking the wrong question.
To say passion becomes obsession is to make a distinction of degree. It implies that obsession is a more passionate form of passion—too much of a good thing. However, I’m now convinced that passion and obsession do not vary in degree, but in kind. In fact, in many ways they are opposite.
What makes this distinction confusing is that passion and obsession exhibit very similar behaviors.
Both passion and obsession are generated within and manifest in outward action or pursuit, which can provide purpose and direction. Passions and obsessions are powerful motivators to take risks, to make sacrifices and step outside of conventional norms to achieve what we desire. Most importantly, passion and obsession burn within us irrespective of extrinsic encouragement or rewards. This can lead to what traditional institutions perceive to be subversive or rebellious behavior, driving passionate and obsessive people to the edges of organizations and society.
It is on the edge that the crucial distinctions between passion and obsession become clear.
Pulled to the edge versus pushed to the edge
The first significant difference between passion and obsession is the role free will plays in each disposition: passionate people fight their way willingly to the edge to find places where they can pursue their passions more freely, while obsessive people (at best) passively drift there or (at worst) are exiled there.
The degree to which free will plays a role in determining who winds up on the edge,will greatly determine their capacity to succeed in this challenging environment.
Sense of self: Achieving potential versus compensating for inadequacy
Passionate people find edges exciting because they have a rooted sense of self. As I discussed in a previous post, passion inspires creation.
Creators have a strong and meaningful sense of identity—defined not by what they consume (which has little or false expressive potential) but by what they make (total self-expression).
When I say that they have a “rooted sense of self,” however, I don’t mean to imply that their identity is fixed. On the contrary, as creators, passionate people are invested in constant personal, professional and creative growth. They want to develop and diversify their talents in order to keep their creations innovative and their passion dynamic, sustainable and alive.
Through the challenge of creation, and the innovative disposition demanded by the ever-shifting edge, passionate people expand their personal boundaries, helping them to more effectively achieve their potential. In other words: passion gives us the energy and motivation to work hard—and joyfully.
When I consider the drive of passionate creatives, I’m reminded of this observation by Ortega y Gasset:
The most radical division that is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands of themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are; without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves….The few individuals we have come across who are capable of a spontaneous and joyous effort stand out isolated….These are the select men, the noble ones, the only ones who are active and not merely reactive, for whom life is a perpetual striving.
It requires a passionate person to generate the strength and enthusiasm to apply the effort needed to achieve and create, which requires they “make great demands of themselves.” Whatever the subject of passion and creation, it is the capacity to direct that energy into actions that reinforce personal growth, which makes the passionate people thrive on the edge.
An obsessive person is what Gasset would call a “buoy on the water.” Obsessives have a very weak sense of identity because they displace their sense of self into the very object of their obsession (this becomes a strange form of self-obsession, which is why obsessive tendencies are frequently associated with narcissism). Obsession, far from the joyful effort and striving inspired by passion, is a strategy of escape. In conflating their identity with an object of fascination, obsessives are not only able to forget their inner-self, they are able to insulate from the challenging world around them.
The obsessive person’s focus is narrow because they are less interested in complex growth than singular direction. Obsessive personalities may be driven to create, but the inner growth needed to be a sustained creator is undermined by their lack of determination to grow as people. As a result, rather than realizing their potential, they are concerned with finding a way to stay focused and compensate for inadequacy.
Breadth of focus: Narrow objects versus broad subjects
It’s not an accident that we speak of an “object of obsession,” but the “subject of passion.” That’s because obsession tends towards highly specific focal points or goals, whereas passion is oriented toward networked, diversified spaces. Objects of obsession are often quite narrow, for example using a specific photo editing tool, developing enhancements to a specific product or developing new art around a specific pop culture character or icon.
Subjects of passion, on the other hand, are broad, for example involving digital photography, innovating within a broader category of technology or experimenting with a certain genre of pop culture. Given this broader focus, passionate people thrive on knowledge flows to stimulate innovation, achievement and growth. The subjects of passion invite and even demand connections with others who share the passion.
Relationships: Expanding versus contracting
Because passionate people are driven to create as a way to grow and achieve their potential, they are constantly seeking out others who share their passion in a quest for collaboration, friction and inspiration. Because they have a strong sense of self, passionate people are well-equipped to form relationships. They present themselves in ways that invite trust – they have little time for pretense and they are willing to express vulnerability and need in order to receive the help they need in achieving their own potential. Because they are passionate, they are willing to share their own knowledge and experience when they encounter someone sharing their passion. They are also intensely curious, seeking to understand the other passionate people they encounter in order to better see where and how they can collaborate to get better faster.
In contrast, obsessive people hide behind their objects of obsession. The objects are what are important, not others or even themselves. As a result, obsessive people are hard to get to know and trust – they share little of themselves and they exhibit minimal interest or curiosity regarding the needs or feelings of others. One of the hallmarks of obsessive people is that they tend to talk endlessly and often repetitively about the same thing, rarely inviting commentary or reaction from others, and ultimately pushing others away with their obsessive rants.
The key difference between passion and obsession is fundamentally social: passion helps build relationships and obsession inhibits them. This becomes a key marker to differentiate between passion and obsession: is the person developing richer and broader relationships or is the person undermining existing relationships and finding it difficult to form new relationships?
A final note: Passion and neurosis
Passion creates options while obsession closes options. Passion reaches outward while obsession pulls inward. Passion positions us to pursue the opportunities created by the Big Shift while obsession makes us oblivious to the expanding opportunities around us.
I was inspired to expand upon this passion vs. obsession distinction because many people object to my advocacy of passion by citing examples of great scientists, artists and thinkers who, while certainly passionate, appear to have been reclusive, neurotic and unhappy.
Lionel Trilling does an admirable job of addressing this issue in his essay, “Art and Neurosis.” Crudely put, Trilling argues that all of us have “issues,” and it is only because great men and women are visible to the public that theirs are on display, creating the illusion that they have more than most of us (this, of course, rests on the second myth that there is such a thing as “normal people” without problems).
But far from being inundated with neurosis or “issues,” what sets these great men and women apart is their ability to transform shortcomings into strengths, or compensate for them by excelling in other areas.
Trilling cites a short essay by Charles Lamb, called “The Sanity of True Genius.” Lamb points out that what we call genius or excellence, “manifests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties,” while unhealthy psychological behavior (in Lamb’s words, “madness”) is characterized by the “disproportionate straining or excess of any one of them.”
Lamb goes on to point out that those who can’t master their inner demons,
do not create, which implies shaping and consistency. Their imaginations are not active -- for to be active is to call something into act and form -- but passive, as men in sick dreams.
Agreeing with this, Trilling concludes,
Of the artist we must say that whatever elements of neurosis he has in common with his fellow mortals, the one part of him that is healthy, by any conceivable definition of health, is that which gives him the power to conceive, to plan, to work, and to bring his work to a conclusion (“Art and Neurosis, ”The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, p. 103).
Over the years, as I moved into more supportive environments, my obsession with chemistry dissipated. I began to discover a passion for technology and business. That passion in turn led me to reach out to others, at first through writing and then through weaving an ever richer network of personal relationships. It has been a long journey and it is far from over, but it has taught me that obsession confines while passion liberates.
To cultivate passion, to channel its energy into self-determination, inter-personal connections and regenerative curiosity, and finally to find the balance needed to sustain creativity on the edge, is much more than health—it is happiness.