The wrong kind of passion…

How obsessive passion leads to burnout among entrepreneurs

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We know a lot about the risks of burnout among employees, such as job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, inefficient decision making, and turnover, as well as health-related issues such as depression, heart disease, and even death. Research also reveals some of the common causes of burnout – lack of autonomy, engagement, motivation, and passion. But what we know much less about is what burnout looks like for entrepreneurs. This lack of knowledge is problematic as entrepreneurs seem to be more susceptible to burnout. They tend to be extremely passionate about work, more socially isolated, have limited safety nets, and operate in high uncertainty. Entrepreneurs generally have the autonomy to design their own jobs, so what are the factors that lead to burnout with entrepreneurs?

Surprisingly, it is passion that leads entrepreneurs to burnout. Specifically, those who are obsessively passionate are more likely to burnout than those who are harmoniously passionate.

The dark side of passion – being an entrepreneur for the wrong motives

So what is the big difference between obsessively and harmoniously passionate entrepreneurs? Their motivation for being an entrepreneur. Obsessive entrepreneurs view their job as important because of certain pressures or outcomes associated with it, such as concerns about social acceptance, status, money. They have a hard time paying attention at work; they are often distracted by thinking about the roles and responsibilities they are neglecting (such as family and staying healthy) because of their obsessive passion. They feel emotionally dependent on their work, have difficulty imagining their lives without their work, and feel their mood depended on them being able to work.. For those entrepreneurs, their burnout causes a constant state of anxiety and stress.

Contrary, the harmoniously passionate entrepreneurs view entrepreneurship as important because of the joy and excitement it brings them. They have high levels of concentration, attention, and absorption during their work. While these entrepreneurs often feel totally taken by their work, they also allow themselves breaks from it and have more flexibility. Moreover, they feel that their entrepreneurial career allows them to live a variety of memorable experiences and to reflect on the qualities they like about themselves. Overall, these harmoniously passionate entrepreneurs are able to balance their job with other activities in their lives without experiencing conflict, guilt, or negative effects when not engaging in work. Consequently, these entrepreneurs are less likely to burnout.

How can you keep obsessive passion out of the door?

1. Be honest with yourself

Why do you want to be an entrepreneur? Because its considered “cool” and “hip” nowadays? Or because you want to become very rich? In those cases here’s your wake-up call…Entrepreneurship is hard work! And the changes you’ll get rich from your start-up are very very small (90% of all start-ups fail within 3 years of founding – even less will become a millionaire). Instead, try to figure out whether your truly fascinated about the product or service that your building.

2. Surround yourself with harmoniously passionate people

Its problematic if you are motivated for the wrong reasons, the same goes for your mentors, advisors and investors. Try to avoid people who support you for motives that don’t align with your vision for the company – that will save you a lot of trouble later on. Instead, be honest and outspoken about your mission and vision and surround yourself with people that connect with that vision.

  1. The original version of this paper was published at Harvard Business Review on April 4th.
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