Following Your Passion May Be What Is Holding You Back

Following Your Passion May Be What Is Holding You Back

Posted by Matt Russ on 13th Jan 2020

Nearly every academic commencement ceremony pays homage to "following your passion," AKA dream, and building your life around it.  Passion is defined as a "strong and barely controllable emotion."  We have all experienced these types of emotions, especially when we are in a highly elevated state, but is this emotional state really something we want to pursue and to build our lives goals around?  I have come to realize that in the realm of athletic accomplishment this is not great advice, in fact it may keep you from accomplishing your goals.  You see goals must be first reasonable and attainable with clear objectives leading up to their accomplishment.  Being strongly emotional about something does not make it attainable, in fact you may waste a lot of human capital pursuing an emotion instead of a goal.

I recall giving a talk to a running club at which a sixty something year old woman told me she had taken 20 minutes off of her 10k time of 1:20 minutes and had come in under an hour.  She then exclaimed that she "knew" should could take another 20 minutes off of her time.  I am not trying to be harsh or disparage her accomplishment when I say this was in all likelihood an impossibility.  She had gone from a fast walk to a slow run and had lopped an enormous amount of time off her 10k, but moving forward her gains would becoming progressively more difficult.  At her age taking a few more minutes off of her PR would have been an accomplishment.  It was not that she was delusional either, there was simply a disconnect between what she wanted to obtain, and what was actually obtainable.  The question was really whether or not someone would point it out.

As a coach explaining this disconnect is one of the hardest things to do.  In athletics strong emotion can be a lifeblood at times.  And who I am as a coach to tell someone what they can or cannot accomplish?  Who am I to take someones dream away?  Besides there are numerous true stories of athletes that overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to accomplish great things.  These stories are the ones they write books and make movies about.  These stories are the ones that inspire us and drive our passions.  But we never hear about the far greater masses of people that pursued their passion to a dead end.   

When in-taking a new athlete the first thing I do is compile as much empirical data as possible; a highly detailed start-up questionnaire, testing, form analysis, etc..  Peak VO2, lactate threshold, power to weight ratio, time trials, and analysis of race data all form a fairly clear picture of the athlete, at least from a physical perspective.  Then we sit down and discuss short term objectives, goals for the season, and a five year plan and begin to map these things out.  I recall an athlete that tested low/average on most of these tests, which were validated by her race times.  Her stated objective was to "go pro."  She told me she knew she could make it- she had the drive, vision, determination, and was willing to work extremely hard (passionately).  The problem is that she did not have the athletic ability.  As you can imagine this is an extremely awkward conversation to have.  The best I could do is point out where she was, where the professionals tested, and let her fill in the blanks.  

In endurance sports such as cycling, running, swimming, and triathlon gains come in very small increments if you are doing everything correctly.  And if they come in large increments they are highly suspect; and usually followed by a drug test.  The biggest gains a talented athlete will experience are in the first few seasons, and then they become much smaller and harder to come by.  The farther along an athlete is in their career, they less potential they have for gains unless their training has been extremely mis-managed. Everyone will reach an apogee fitness wise, but smaller gains can still be found in the form of better recovery, race management, equipment, nutrition, even psychology.  Coaches have a 30,000 foot perspective on these things, whereas the athlete has a more singular perspective and much harder time being objective.  And to a certain extent it is our job to make sure this perspective is realistic.  I once worked with a late in career pro that had a stated goal of winning the world championship.  The reality was that she was barely holding on to professional status as it was, and that goal was never going to be realized.  Do we spend the next five years following her passion to a dead end?  Or do we have an honest conversation and maybe she gets a head start moving towards her next chapter in life.  Do I try to save her the years of hard work, pain, perhaps disappointment or help her take her shot and find out the hard way?  Very difficult questions.

The truth is passion can actually keep us from fulfilling our true potential.  It can disconnect us from our talents, and lead us down a dead end road as we use up our finite amount of time for accomplishment.  After all being passionate about something does not mean you are good at it.  Instead of pursuing our passions we should be setting goals, and pursuing our objectives.  Objectives are much, much more tangible.  We can see them and know our talents and abilities will get us there.  Compile enough objectives and it leads us to our goals. When we are following a passion we are seeking validation, vindication, building our egos.  And one of the worst things you can do as a parent is to impose your own passions on your child.  Nothing will halt athletic progress, lead to rebellion, and end an athletic career before it begins than the imposed ambitions of a parent.

I was a lousy coach on race day.  In fact I would rather not be there.  The running joke was that if you were looking for a rah rah coach cheering you on to the finish I was not your man.  But if you wanted to be well prepared at the start line I had a lot to offer; that was my job.  Once the starting gun went off let the chips fall; I could not control what happened whether it be the competition, or a fall, or a mechanical, or a world championship title.  What I could control was the myriad of objectives leading up to that race.  My athletes would understand what their capabilities are and that there is always the opportunity to exceed them.  Post race we would evaluate what went right, what went wrong, and use that information to set or adjust our next objectives.  It is a process of building a staircase to success, not realizing a dream or validating an ego.  I did not work well with athletes that could not focus on the small successes that lead to the bigger ones.  Achieving an objective is validation that things are working, and it is much, much easier to build upon small successes than it is to focus on a dream.  

This process is by no means exclusive to athletics.  Passion in business has the ability to be just as detrimental, a trap I have fallen into myself.  If you are pursuing your passion instead of building your business you are likely making decisions based on what you should become, not what your business needs.  You will use up precious, finite capital promoting the idea of your success instead of making objective revenue generating decisions.  The cycle of businesses being formed and forgotten is much faster in todays economy because it is easier and cheaper to project/promote your business (or business idea) on the web and through social media.  But it is also more competitive and just as expensive to acquire customers.  "If you are passionate about it, and build it, they will come" is rarely a successful business model.  

Passion and creativity are also not exclusive to each other, although often used in the same sentence.  You don't have to be overwhelmed with emotion to create, but you may be inspired to create.  Inspiration is being mentally stimulated to do something, not emotionally.  It is much more tangible and objective based.  Channeling your inspiration into creativity, setting goals and objectives, and having a stair step process of achieving them will serve you better than passion, whether that be on the athletic field or in your career.  Goals and objectives can be modified, changed, and adjusted to suit your needs whereas passion is open ended and nebulous.   You don't have to give up on your dreams, or let anyone take them away from you, but you do need to make sure they are grounded in reality and within the realm of your abilities if you want to win them.  Evaluate where your talents lie, not your passions.  Whatever you want to achieve in life a planned and tactical approach is warranted lest you fall down the rabbit hole of pursuing a passion.