Stanford Social Innovation Review – Social Change and the Shadow Side of Passion I September 7, 2014

February 9, 2014


It is now widely acknowledged that doing work that follows one’s passion leads to a sense of purpose, and increased satisfaction with career and life. This brings up two questions: First, how do we get to that place of alignment of passion and purpose, and second, how do we retain that passion day-in, day-out. These questions are especially important to those of us doing social innovation work, because it is often incredibly demanding (both personally and professionally) and financially under-valued.

But we’re making progress answering these questions. A wonderful study published in the winter 2014 issue of SSIR discussed the transformative potential of doing social innovation work from the inside out. Likewise, but in a different corner of the world, we collaborated with life coach Louisa Barnum to introduce something that resonated deeply with our students at the Amani Institute: the Wound-Gift Concept, which is the notion that a major opportunity lies within our biggest personal challenge.

Today, we are beset with calls to follow our passion. The Hedgehog Concept—a proverbial sweet spot where your passion, talents, and the market come together—is one example, but we obviously need to know what our passion is before we can create this convergence. That’s not easy for most people. To do it, we must look beyond “being passionate about something” and unravel passion, looking at it as an inner burning that generates both pleasure, and discomfort or pain. This is because passion often has a doppelganger, a shadow, a deep personal wound that we usually see as an obstacle—something to push away or overcome. One of the most widely shared New York Times articles in recent weeks has been Sam Polk’s confession of how the money addiction that drove him in his Wall Street career stemmed from inner wounds that he acquired during childhood. Brene Brown also partly explores this idea in her famous TED talk on vulnerability.

This interplay of meaning and shadow goes a lot deeper than the finding-your-passion stream of our modern narrative. At times, we cannot explore the potential of our passion because that inner burning is too hot. Perhaps you care deeply about poverty or climate change, but are paralyzed by the size of the problem. Maybe your passion lies in dancing or painting, but you don’t see how that could be financially viable or make a difference to society.

Thus, we learn to cover the glowing coals with the sand of daily life and carry on. Yet, when something or someone touches this wound, we are deeply moved; sometimes we even react with cynicism or rejection. Has this happened to you? These are signs to go and take a closer look. If you explore your reaction further, it could reveal your pathway to change the world.

For example, Jerry White, a leader in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines transformed a very literal, life-threatening wound into a gift for the world; instead of submitting to the trauma of stepping on a landmine at the age of 20, he joined his personal struggle with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which eventually won the Nobel Peace Price in 1997.

Martin (name changed), an aspiring leader in Ghana, has a seemingly lesser challenge: his height. Again and again, people discount his ability due to his physical stature. The issue seems so petty that he is quick to dismiss it himself but continues to struggle with it internally. What he didn’t know is that most CEOs are tall—regardless of gender or ethnicity. In working through his own responses to this vulnerable andoddly global challenge, he is becoming a leader and role model for all those facing similar biases in our societies.

Thus, the medicine you create for yourself while healing your wound can become a gift to the world. But how do you go about it? It starts with allowing and exploring vulnerability. Whether through therapy, life coaching, or mindful self-inquiry, this requires doing inner work. There is no way around it. Thinking or reading about it won’t get you there. And transforming your wound doesn’t mean letting your emotions rule you and your interactions with others. It means getting to know the wound and all that comes with it, and carefully crafting a way—your way—of dealing with it. Practicing mindfulness can help acquaint you with this shadow. Seeking the support of an empathetic mentor or friend as you step into vulnerability can be tremendously helpful too. Doing inner work here is not a single step but a process— and all the self-help books in the world won’t help if you don‘t actually take one step and then another one. Repeatedly. Slowly understanding how you acquired your wound and realizing its potential to become a gift helps make sense of your biography; it provides a sense of alignment and direction.

For Geraldine (co-author of this post), the wound is the accumulation of outside pressure to do great things and not “waste” her talent. This led to feeling paralyzed by the scope of the world’s problems. Her gift is that she knows the struggle to overcome these expectations and can support other people in navigating it. Doing this makes her feel most alive. And people—even complete strangers in a café or during a train ride—are drawn to her for it.

For Roshan (also co-author), the wound comes from feeling like a global citizen but, by virtue of his Indian passport, having fewer rights in the world than Americans or Europeans. It’s also feeling the injustice of those with even fewer rights than he has—citizens of Afghanistan or Sudan, for example. It takes a superhuman effort not to let the dumb luck of your birthplace dictate your destiny. Transcending the arbitrary walls and boundaries we put up, not so much in the world as in our own minds, is the journey of his life.

Both in our work and outside of it, we’ve seen that the gifts we’ve developed by repeatedly facing our wounds attract people who need exactly that medicine, even if their wound is quite different. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to change your profession once you find the “gift” that heals your wound—but finding it can help realign your life and work in a direction that’s more meaningful to you. Which is also what the world is asking of you.

Share this article: