The idea that following our passions will bring us career and financial success is such a common refrain in our culture that it’s become a cliché – but is it really true? Two researchers at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, Violet T. Ho and Jeffrey M. Pollack, recently found that too much passion, which they call “obsessive,” can actually hurt entrepreneurs and negatively affect their ability to network and earn income.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding among practitioners that passion is always something positive. But if passion is pushed too far, it can also have a dark side to it,” Ho says. She points out that previous research by herself and others has found that obsessive passion can be harmful in traditional employee settings and among competitive athletes as well.
To investigate whether entrepreneurs can have too much passion for their own good, Ho and Pollack tracked about 360 entrepreneurs who participate in networking groups in the southeastern region of the United States. They measured participants’ passion levels with statements such as, “My work is a passion that I still manage to control,” or, “I have an almost obsessive feeling for my work.” They then tracked the financial performance of the entrepreneurs, including their referral income and total income.
Ho and Pollack found that entrepreneurs who were rated as more obsessively passionate were less likely to successfully network among their peers, and as a result, they had lower referral and total income. Entrepreneurs who were rated as more harmoniously passionate, on the other hand, networked more successfully and enjoyed higher levels of referral and total business income.
At a typical business networking group meeting, Pollack explains, a landscape architect might say, “I’m looking for referrals for residential homeowners,” and a real estate lawyer might respond, “I’m looking for referrals for real estate closes and buys.” The key to building revenue is getting referrals from those connections and building up a network. “It all depends on you approaching others and them approaching you,” he explains.
If someone is excited to talk about their work and share it with others, they might find it easy to approach others and be approached. If someone is obsessed with their business to an extreme degree, they might come across as off-putting and not get those leads. “Those people are approached less often, and then they’re less likely to get money,” Pollack adds.
People who are obsessively passionate tend to be more focused on external motivators, such as feeling respected or earning money, instead of enjoyment of the work itself, Ho explains. In contrast, people who enjoy their entrepreneurial activities might be more interested in learning from others and making connections, which can make it easier for them to land those referrals.
Pollack is quick to clarify the limits of these findings. His and Ho’s paper, “Passion Isn’t Always a Good Thing: Examining Entrepreneurs’ Network Centrality and Financial Performance with a Dualistic Model of Passion,” published in the Journal of Management Studies, focused on the impact of passion on networking specifically. It’s possible, Pollack says, that in other areas, such as information technology work or making sales calls or raising venture capital, that a more obsessive level of passion could be a useful trait. “It might depend on the business they’re doing and their day-to-day activities,” he says.
For entrepreneurs who worry they might be hurting their business with excessive passion, Ho and Pollack say it is possible to learn to curtail obsessive tendencies. The first step, they say, is simply becoming aware of it and how it might be hurting your business. “People can realize pretty quickly whether you’re someone they want to spend 45 minutes with in a one-on-one meeting,” Pollack says. You want to be approachable enough that they have no hesitation with doing so, or recommending that others do so.
Ho also urges entrepreneurs to dig into their own motivations and ask themselves why they love their work. The answer can help them determine whether or not they are overly focused on external factors, such as money or power, and whether they can counteract those tendencies by refocusing on internal factors, such as enjoyment. Changing one’s type of passion might be a long-term project, she says, but in the shorter term, entrepreneurs can at least make an effort to be more friendly and approachable.
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That way, they can prevent their obsessions from
hurting their businesses’ bottom lines. It might just improve the rest of
their lives, too, because research has also shown obsessive passion to cause
guilt and conflicts with other parts of a person’s life. The main takeaway?
Embrace your passion, but don’t let it spiral out of control.