Perspectives, Part 1: Passion or Obsession?

There are things in my life I’m passionate about. My wife. My family. My faith. I’m also passionate about certain causes, either because they address issues that have affected me personally or because, through my involvement, I have gained a perspective that has made it personal.

We say it all the time: “I’m passionate about this cause.” And we should be. If we are truly dedicated to our mission we should be passionate about it. But when does passion stop becoming a positive thing and turn to obsession?

There are any number of scientific and philosophical studies regarding passion and obsession, and a lot of definitions as well. One puts it simply this way:

Passion = “I want to do it.”

Obsession = “I need to do it.”

Here is my (totally unscientific) observation about the two conditions:

Passions focus outward. They are based on a person’s desire to affect others. With passion, relationships are important, and the needs of others come first.

Obsessions focus inward. They are based on a person’s need to satisfy self. With obsession, process is more important than relationship, and one’s own needs come first.

So how does all of that relate to social causes and non-profit organizations? If you are passionate about the work you do you focus on the mission, and impacting the conditions for which your organization exists is paramount. Relationships – with clients, donors, volunteers, colleagues – are more important than numbers, reports, and personal recognition.

One individual I worked with – we’ll call her Jane – was dedicated to the organization, but not necessarily the people. She was so obsessed with results that she walked all over the people around her – and sometimes even the people she was there to serve – in order to go after every dollar, fill every column on a spreadsheet, and make herself look good to directors and board members. On the surface, Jane looked and sounded passionate; but in reality, her obsessive behavior made it difficult to work with her. Ultimately, the very results she was so eager to achieve suffered because relationships that were vital to the success of the organization were damaged.

Passion is an important part of the work we do and the life we live, but the line between passion and obsession can sometimes become fuzzy. We need to look closely and honestly at ourselves and understand what motivates us in order to make sure that our passion, in spite of our best intentions, does not drift into obsession.

Next week: Perspectives, Part 2: Important vs Urgent

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