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Two Passionate Paths to Performance

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"What I learn from the Yo-Yo is that if I make enough efforts with huge passion, there is no impossible." -- BLACK

With 600,000+ views, BLACK's journey to master the Yo-Yo clearly resonated with lots of people. For good reason! The arc of his journey, from low self-esteem and lack of purpose to finding his passion, becoming alive, practicing hard for years, and eventually triumphing with a dazzling performance, is both inspiring and within reach. BLACK's journey highlights the extremely important role of passion in fueling the deliberate practice necessary to gain the valuable expertise necessary to reach higher and higher heights of personal creative expression.

Even by scientific definitions, BLACK is clearly passionate about the Yo-Yo. According to Robert Vallerand and colleagues, passion is "a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy." Under their framework, everyone has a preference for some activity, but the reason an activity is preferable and enjoyable is because it satisfies the basic human needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Over time, these activities eventually become a central part of a person's identity. BLACK doesn't just love playing with a Yo-Yo, he is a Yo-Yo performer.

It certainly appears BLACK has internalized the Yo-Yo into his identity in a healthy way that is conducive to happiness and meaning in life. But not all paths to elite performance are paved with the same shade of passion. Vallerand and colleagues distinguish between harmonious and obsessive passion. The difference is how the passion has been internalized into one's identity. When engaging in their activity, harmonious passionate people feel joy and a strong sense of freedom. Their source of passion is in harmony with their authentic self, and they are flexibly able to engage with the variety of activities that make their life meaningful.

Not so with obsessive passion. Obsessively passionate people frequently feel anxious when engaging in their activity, feeling as though they have lost control of their passion. They feel constant pressure to practice either because of contingencies such as social acceptance or self-esteem, or because of an uncontrollable urge. They have great difficulty engaging in practice until the compulsion runs its course. Importantly, their activity has not been well integrated into their overall sense of self. Their ego is dependent on the activity, and their rigid persistence to practice despite diminishing returns frequently limits growth in their activity, and conflicts with other activities that provide them with meaning in life.

A series of studies conducted by Vallerand and colleagues suggests that your shade of passion colors your entire journey -- from start to finish. In one study, the researchers looked at the role of passion among 130 undergraduate students enrolled in a selective psychology course. They administered a thorough measure of subjective well-being, including a measure of the student's subjective perception of their vitality and aliveness. They measured short-term "deliberate practice" by having students report how much they used adequate strategies to get ready for exams (e.g., "When I study, I revise the material by going over it in my head many times."), and they measured long-term deliberate practice by asking students how much they engaged in psychology-related activities outside of the classroom to prepare for their future in psychology.

The researchers also assessed the student's "achievement goals." People differ in the goals they bring to a task. Those with mastery goals want to learn and improve, those with performance-approach goals are primarily concerned with looking competent, and those with performance-avoidance goals go out of their way to avoid challenging situations that may make them look incompetent. As Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins demonstrate in their excellent new book Focus: Use Different Ways for Success and Influence, your mental focus--whether you see your goals as an opportunity for growth ("promotion focus") or as an opportunity to avoid danger and risk ("prevention focus")-- greatly affects your actual chances of achieving your personal goals.

So what did Vallerand and colleagues find? First, they found an important influence of achievement goals. Mastery goals predicted deliberate practice, and deliberate practice and performance-approach goals in turn predicted performance. Performance-avoidance goals did not influence performance. But they also found that passion was an important part of the story. The researchers found a direct path from harmonious passion to deliberate practice: the students who were more harmoniously passionate about their work were more likely to engage in deliberate practice. Harmoniously passionate psychology students were also more likely to engage in their studies for mastery, and this mindset in turn predicted higher levels of deliberate practice. Obsessive passion was more of a mixed bag, predicting all three achievement goals-- mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance. Finally, harmonious passion was positively related to subjective well-being, whereas obsessive passion was negatively related to subjective well-being. Similar results were found among students enrolled in a specialized course for the dramatic arts, and have been found in subsequent research among high school basketball players, synchronized swimming and water-polo players, and classical musicians.

It appears then, that there are two passionate paths to performance. The first road -- the harmoniously passionate road -- is the most direct and psychologically healthy.* It's paved with a focus on the goal of mastery and growth, not looking good or outcompeting others. This path is fueled by feelings of positive emotion, enjoyment, and vitality. The second road -- the obsessively passionate road -- is more winding. While it is paved with goals that can be adaptive for performance, it is also paved with other goals that can be detrimental to performance such as the avoidance of challenges that could lead to further growth. What's more, this path is driven by low levels of subjective well-being.

Which path do you choose? I choose BLACK's.

*In highly competitive environments, the psychological effects of harmonious and obsessive passion on well-being may be reversed. One study recruited young hockey players (aged 13-20) during training camps held by the three most competitive nonprofessional hockey leagues in Quebec and gave them questionnaires assessing their shade of passion and level of psychological adjustment. Neither the person's passion nor the competitiveness of the environment considered alone could explain the levels of psychological adjustment found in the players once the season begun. The two groups of hockey players who showed a good fit between their shade of passion and the competitiveness of their environment (obsessively passionate players playing in highly competitive leagues and harmoniously passionate players in less competitive leagues) experienced greater levels of psychological adjustment a third of the way into the season than those who showed a poor person-environment fit. It appears that the high levels of sustained competitive activity necessary to reach high levels of performance coincided with the harmoniously passionate person's goals for personal development and engagement in other meaningful life activities. In this cutthroat environment, it was the obsessively passionate individuals who felt less of a conflict.

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