Obsessive or Harmonious: putting passion in its place

Passion is a thing. You have to have a passion. In the research industry it tends to be a passion for people, or a clunkier passion for consumer insight driven business decisions. Property magnates might have a passion for property portfolio management, North Sea fisherman a passion for cod acquisition strategy, erotic publishers a passion for passion.

I remember as a recent graduate failing to get on the grad training scheme to become a planner at a big above the line agency. The feedback from my interview was that I wasn’t sufficiently passionate about ads. It was a fair criticism. I really wasn’t passionate about ads: I was interested in them, enjoyed the thinking behind them, was even fascinated about how they were used to flog products to people, but I really wasn’t passionate about them.

I once had a wise mentor who would say, “only use the word passion if you’re talking about sex or about Easter.” While it was a good gag, I don’t think she really meant it. Passion does have currency as a word; it has a commonly understood meaning, we know what people are talking about when they say they are passionate about something. When someone passionately pursues an activity, they do it with enthusiasm and vigour.

I can imagine an artist claiming to be passionate about their work, I can even imagine the North Sea fisherman mentioned above being passionate about their work. Wherever there’s a vocational element, or a sense that someone would have to carry on working irrespective of whether they get paid, then the word passion makes sense to varying degrees. When, on the other hand, you are doing a job because you enjoy it sufficiently to undergo the inconvenience of having to work in return for remuneration, passion might be the wrong way to describe what you do.

There are elements of my job that I am passionate about. I am passionate about traveling the world meeting people and being nosey, finding out about their lives, behaviour and motivations. I would stop short of saying I am passionate about qualitative market research. I love my job, but I don’t often do it for free. Yes, I will always be nosey and curious, I’ll always have an interest in people and what makes them tick, but generally I wouldn’t take on client’s briefs unless I was getting paid.

Oh but that’s the rub, there have been instances where I have worked on projects, and have conducted research either because I have sufficient interest in a subject to spend some time exploring it without being paid, or because we need to do some preliminary work to scope a project before we can define the best methodology a client would pay to do. That’s not to mention the time I spend on entirely self-initiated projects (my mission to find out more about naturist running, for example) or the moments on holiday when I turn around from tourist attractions and start looking at the tourists themselves.

And when research is free, something happens. When the project/payment dynamic is taken out of research, when research is de-transactionalised and the researcher is effectively working because of their interest in a subject, because of their interest and passion for what they do, without the spectre of getting paid interfering and clouding motivation, the research often gets better, it becomes more enjoyable, it feels like a more natural, more rewarding and more useful thing.

The reason is fairly straightforward. When I’m not being paid to do research, I’m free from worrying about  exactly what my client wants, and can focus on the actual thing I’m researching. That sounds silly, of course researchers need briefs to do good work, but by researching on your own terms, you somehow become free to let the subject speak for itself, and to let the people being researched dictate what happens, not what a client wants to know.

It requires a leap of faith to trust in the subject, and to trust that the research will tell you what you need to know if you just go out with a curious mind and explore a subject. When you’re being paid, the temptation is to stick more rigidly to the brief, to explore a client’s hypothesis, and to focus on the subject as defined.  When you’re researching something without being paid, because you want to, or because you feel it is intrinsically important, it’s on you; you become far freer to make that leap of faith.

While this is how it appears to me, the subject is worthy of slightly deeper investigation. Without questioning the use of the word passion to talk about something other than sex or Easter,  social psychologists, particularly Robert Vallerand from the University a Quebec, make a distinction between obsessive passion and harmonious passion. Harmonious passion is doing something with fervour because you love it. The drive to pursue an activity is intrinsic to the person, they are doing something simply, straightforwardly because they love doing that thing. Obsessive passion is more complex: the drive to pursue becomes clouded by other motives. If you’re doing something with vigour and enthusiasm, but you are doing it for more than just the intrinsic value it gives to you, if you’re thinking about getting paid, about what the activity might do to your social standing, about a negative outcome that might come about if you don’t do it, then that is obsessive passion.

The research shows that we go about activities in different ways depending on whether it’s harmonious or obsessive passion that drives us. The elusive state of flow, where a person is utterly absorbed in a task is more associated with harmonious passion, as is the level of self worth derived from a task, as is competence at that task.

What does this mean? Well, passion is a powerful attribute, it’s something you want from your employees, collaborators, from market research agencies, but it’s harmonious passion which really counts for something. When people pursue activities for their intrinsic value, that’s when magic happens. So in summary, if you want better research, better insights, perhaps the answer is to stop paying for it.


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