Columnist Birgit van Driel.
“You work to live and not the other way around.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Columnist Birgit van Driel believes that the emphasis on passion in science is problematic, and even dangerous. Being free of it would save a lot of problems.

Lees in het Nederlands

In the Atlas (in Dutch) podcast on 12 May 2022, at around the 40 minute mark, Prof. Leo Kouwenhoven says that if you are passionate about something, it would only be human to be sorry that there are only 24 hours in a day. That, if science is your passion, it would only be human to expect that you would want to work on science 24 hours a day. And even that doing a ‘passion test’ at the beginning of your scientific career would not be an unhealthy thing to do. He says that this so-called ‘passion test’ should include the question ‘would I give my life for this?’. The interviewer asks if that means that you cannot have a life outside your work as a scientist. The listeners do not get a definitive answer to this.

I entirely agree that scientists have to love their research area, that they have to be excited by it, and that they should be able to talk about it engagingly. Even more so, as far as I am concerned, the opposite is also true – I left science because I didn’t enjoy it enough. Being a scientist might be personal identity and a status symbol, it is also just a job.

A fantastic job that has the potential to change the world. A job about which to be enthusiastic and for which you can enthuse other people. A job with lots of freedom to research whatever you find interesting. But in the end, just a job.

‘The idea of a passion test is dangerous’

Call me a millennial if you like, but I believe that you work to live and not the other way around. This is why the word ‘passion’ is not appropriate and the idea of a ‘passion test’ even dangerous.

So what do I believe is so problematic about the link between passion and a (scientific) career? My objection is two-fold.  On the one hand I am convinced that if your work and passion overlap, this can initially be very satisfying and give you a lot of work pleasure. However, on the other hand, I also fear that it is specifically this overlap that can lead to more stress and a higher chance of burnout. Considering the workload problems at universities, this is obviously something we absolutely don’t need. When writing this column, I came across the term ‘purpose-driven burnout’ (in Dutch), a good description of the phenomenon that I am fearful of, though I would argue for the term ‘passion-driven burnout’.

For my second argument, let’s look at the meaning of the word passion. The word comes from the Latin passio, which means something along the lines of a powerful emotion. Passion is the motive behind a ‘crime passionnel’. In the USA this type of crime is even viewed as a temporary expression of madness. This does not seem to me to be a desirable emotional state for a safe work environment. I believe that if you want something too badly, you are more likely to cross boundaries to achieve it. In a sector in which intimidation, discrimination and misconduct (in Dutch) are everyday occurrences, would we benefit from a culture of calm and rationality instead of fire and passion ...

... let us keep passion for between the sheets.

Birgit van Driel started working as a Policy Officer at Strategic Development in 2021. She returned to TU Delft where she started her studies back in 2006. She’s been affiliated to the Faculties of IDE (first year), AS (bachelor’s) and 3mE (PhD). After earning her PhD, she worked as a Strategy Consultant at Kearney and a Program Officer at NWO-AES.