The Dark Side of Passion in Entrepreneurship

Passion. It’s the key ingredient in entrepreneurship. You can’t push a company from zero to one without it. What is it?

What is passion?

Entrepreneurs know it as the drive that keeps you from going on vacation for three years straight. It’s the motivation to keep at it when everyone says no. It’s the panic that bolts you awake at 5 a.m. with more energy than anyone should have at that hour. It’s an unreal force.

Like everything, there is a dark side and a light side to this force of nature that we call passion. It’s a light motivating energy and a dark nefarious drive. Passion is the Wicked Witch of the West and Glenda the Good Witch rolled into one.

Entrepreneurs can drive themselves so hard that they become physically ill. Stress lowers your immune system’s ability to do its job. Unfortunately, passion moonlights as stress. That go, go, go drive might feel like your productive juices are flowing, but it can get stuck in the “on” position. Normally, people will get tired and naturally take a break, but when passion turns dark, it compels you to keep going no matter what. Passion that starts to feel and act like compulsion has turned to the dark side.

How do you know when your passion has turned dark? People will tell you, but you might not listen. Your friends and family will worry about you or complain that you aren’t available for them anymore. People will say, “You work too hard.” You’ll deny it at first (because your dark passion tells you to deny it). You’ll defend your passion. You’ll say it’s important to work this hard because you are running a startup!

Entrepreneurs can run startups and remain healthy. You can still have dinner with your family and push your company forward. You can still go to the gym three times a week and build a successful venture. Founders don’t have to kill themselves for their companies.

Time management is, ironically, less about time and more about stress. You do have time, you are just too stressed to see that you have time. The moment you go into that stressed out, chicken-with-your-head-cut-off, frenzied panic to get things done, you are in a bad place. You are in reaction when you get like that and you can’t work well in reaction. You can’t listen very well and you can’t see new perspectives when you are in reaction. This mental state is a side effect of not listening to your body. Your body is trying to tell you something.

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Your brain and your body have an agreement. When things get crazy, your body starts producing stress hormones which tell your brain (specifically the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC) that there’s something really important going on. At a specific threshold of intensity, your ACC will fire an alarm that screams, “Do something!” That’s when you really pick up the pace.

Under life or death situations, “Do something!” is a survival skill. Under startup conditions, “Do something!” is the rally cry of passion that has gone to the dark side. Fortunately, the ACC can be calibrated so that it’s much harder to pull the “Do something!” alarm.

You can work much harder and more effectively without stress than with stress. Think about it like this: if you took the SATs with a fire alarm going off, would your scores be higher or lower?

To calibrate your ACC and raise the intensity threshold at which the “Do something!” alarm sounds, you have to start noticing the messages your body is giving you. The more you notice subtle shifts in the way your body feels, the more connected you are to the calibration mechanism of the ACC. If it takes a skipped heartbeat to get your attention, you have been missing the less overt clues.

Your body reacts to all kinds of events. During conversations, you will feel emotions and sensations in your body. You most likely ignore them. Try noticing them instead. The trick is to just take note of these feelings. Don’t do anything about them. When you notice a feeling and do nothing, that simple (non) act does the work of calibrating your ACC. You are telling your brain, “Yes, I hear you. I understand that there’s a feeling here. No, there’s no action needed at this time.”

The next time you notice yourself freaking out over a deadline, investor pitch, or board meeting, stop and feel what’s going on in your body. Feel the burning of your adrenal glands (just over your kidneys in your lower back). Feel the tightness in your chest. Listen to your heart beating a little too hard. Notice all of that going on and do absolutely nothing about it.

Your passion should return to the light side within a few weeks of noticing and doing nothing. ACC calibration is something that you have to keep up. It’s like hygiene. One shower is helpful. Daily showers are much better. Notice your body and you’ll be able to get more done with less stress.

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