The Unedited Truth About The Dark Side Of Being Passionate


By definition, passion is a strong and barely controllable emotion. Synonyms of passion include rage, fever, and tantrum. Alternative definitions even tap into sexual and religious connotations.But when we talk about finding your passion, we only mention the rosy, feel-good side. We think of Steve Jobs. After all, he’s responsible for the most oft-quoted words on the topic:

“People with passion can change the world.”

It’s a nice thought, and one Jobs certainly lived by. He was passionate about computers and creating products people loved. His fifty-seven years of life, short as they were, will impact how people live for generations.

But real passion has two sides, and the other side is dark. Yes, Apple’s CEO once packaged passion into a nice, inspirational thought. But Jobs is also a perfect example of someone who expressed both sides of the passion coin. In short, he was kind of an a-hole.

For example, he once stormed into the boardroom of a partner company yelling that the employees there were a bunch of “f***cking dickless a**holes.” In 2002, he held up a line at the Whole Foods in Palo Alto arguing with the cashier over a quarter (and won the argument).

Why then, when we tell people to live with passion, do we only mention the rosy side? Why aren’t we honest? The guy who gave us the iPhone also gave people a reason to hate him. Why isn’t Jobs’s shitty behavior also passion?

The Scientist Who Called ‘Dibs’

Read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and you’ll find myriad examples of highly ambitious, passionate people. You’ll also learn the great lengths scientists have gone to in order to be recognized or to have their name put on something.

Consider Edward Drinker Cope, an accomplished American paleontologist who published 1,400 scientific papers and named 1,000 species during his career. Ruthless in his scientific pursuits, Cope went bankrupt multiple times funding his own projects.

Oddly, he also dedicated the last ten years of his career to having his bones be the type specimen—or ‘official set’—for the human race (yes, that’s real).

Normally the type specimen is the first set of bones discovered. But since no such set of Homo sapiens bones existed, Cope basically called ‘dibs’ on it, then spent years foregoing science to argue his case. And weirdly enough, no one could come up with a reason to oppose his wishes. After he died, they actually began preparing his bones for the honor. This was when they discovered Cope had lived with syphilis, which affects bone structure.

For obvious reasons, they decided not to make his set of bones the type specimen for our species.

Passion Isn’t Pure

What drove Cope to devote his life and money to science? Surely passion, at least to some degree. But this is the same trap we fall into with Steve Jobs. We’re programmed to think finding your passion is pure―that famous people had pristine intentions all along.

But for Jobs, Cope, and everyone else, obviously ego plays a role. Jobs was passionate, but also wanted to be remembered. What drove Cope to write one thousand papers led him to his wacky, decade-long, bones request. In either case, it wasn’t just passion for studying bones

(Side note: there’s an obvious passion and syphilis joke here somewhere.)

It’s a messy truth about humans and our history. We don’t like acknowledging that what makes people successful is often what makes them crazy. That what gets us noticed might also get us arrested. That our idols are just people, too, and that sometimes, they’re a-holes.

For every Jobs, there’s a Woz—some guy you’ve never heard of that’s just as passionate and skilled with computers, science, or whatever. We know Steve Jobs and Edward Drinker Cope because they wanted us to know them. Sure, they were passionate. But they were other things as well.

The point is, human passion is rarely pure. And in the rare instances it is, you won’t hear about it.

Passion Is Blinding

“Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

We’ve heard this so often it’s hard not to roll our eyes. It’s one of a few messages we give young people:

“The key to success in life is passion.”

“Love what you do, and you’ll go above and beyond the call of duty.”

You should love what you do—most of the time. But your passion shouldn’t blind you, because blind passion leads to biased thinking. Like:

I’m passionate about science, so I’ll go my whole life discounting things like faith have merit.

Or I’m passionate about sports, so I can’t date a girl who thinks football is stupid.

Or I’m a die-hard Democrat, so anyone with opposing beliefs is an idiot.

And this blindness is hard to see.

After all, science solves problems, there are plenty of fish in the sea, and tons of people, regardless of their political views, actually are idiots. For better or worse, we stumbled into our biases because they’re kind of true and kind of work.

So how is being passion blind a problem?

It’s not—until it is. When we’re blind and biased, we limit our  opportunities. Perhaps you’d solve that problem if science wasn’t your only strategy. Perhaps you’d meet the right girl if you stopped being so picky. Perhaps you’d get a promotion (or like your job more) if you stopped writing people off for their views.

Consider: over a lifetime, how many opportunities might you pass up? We can’t quantify it, but it must be a ton. Yeah, you might get noticed for your passion. But if you’re blinded by it, you’re more likely to be judged, ignored, or skipped over.

Meth Heads Are Passionate, Too

It’s irresponsible to tout passion so vaguely. When we discuss only the rosy side of passion, people like you and I start hanging our hats on it. We think it’s what’s going to save us or get us going again. If I was just more passionate about ‘X,’ I could be something.

What’s equally irresponsible is using passion to justify shitty behavior. Passion is not a means to an end. Being passionate about a cause—no matter how noble—is not an excuse to be gluttonous, to lie, or to demand special attention. Meth heads are passionate about meth. No one cares. Why does your passion warrant special privileges?

You argue that what you’re passionate about—your ‘thing’—helps others. That makes it different from smoking meth. But that’s wrong, and calling it ‘your thing’ is proof. What you actually care about is your own sense of importance, not the cause you’re supposedly so passionate about. This is another way passion blinds us. We stop thinking about others and get caught up in our own self-importance. And it hurts whatever we’re passionate about long-term.

The only way to inspire change on a grand scale is to get people to like you and buy into what you’re doing. At that point, you’re free to tell them what you’re passionate about or even ask them to join your cause.

People skills, then passion.

Passion… and What Else?

Passion has two sides, and we need both for it to work for us. Remember, passion is a barely controllable emotion. Only acknowledging the rosy side of passion leads to biased thinking, self-indulgence, and lost opportunities.

Passion, in both forms, is useful. Like a spark that lights a fire, it’s there to help us maximize our potential. But to keep the fire going, you need other raw materials: things like discipline, so you don’t overindulge; empathy, so you consider other perspectives; and humility, so you stay realistic.

These things, combined with finding your passion, are what kept the fire burning long enough to get the iPhone out of Steve Jobs’s brain and into our hands.