The Harmonious Passion of Serena Williams

This week at the US Open, Andy Roddick and Serena Williams moved on. Roddick lost his match and moved on to the rest of his life, marking his retirement from the game with boisterous adulation from the adoring crowd. Williams won her match, in typically dominant fashion, and moved on to the semifinals.

Roddick turned thirty last month, and thirty is pretty old as tennis pros go. It’s been eight years since he won his last (and only) Grand Slam title. Serena, on the other hand, is at the peak of her prowess, winning Wimbledon just three months ago and snagging a gold medal at the Olympics in the meantime. Yet Serena turns 31 in a few weeks. Nearly a year older than Roddick, Serena shows no sign of letting up.

The press and the public loves many things about Roddick, especially his passion. ESPN.com reporter Ravi Ubha writes in Five Things We’ll Miss About Roddick about a match four years ago: “As Roddick was on the verge of ending an 11-match losing streak to Federer and trying to serve out the final game, he looked skyward asking for help to get the job done. He was desperate and not afraid to show it. When he did put Federer away, he was nearly in tears on the baseline.”

The Latin word pati, meaning “to suffer,” is the root of the English word passion. We like it when our athletes suffer for us, and Roddick has certainly suffered mightily against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But Serena doesn’t seem to suffer.

“No one likes getting their nails done more than I do,” Serena Williams posted on her GlobalGrind blog. “As a matter of fact I go every four days to get a manicure and every seven days for a pedicure. So, I had a brilliant idea to get certified to be a nail tech.” Serena has also released a line of designer clothes, handbags and jewelry.

Serena’s lack of suffering doesn’t please the press. As Peter Bodo, senior editor of Tennis Magazine, sees it: “Serena's problem appears to be that she likes the reward (celebrity and money) but not the process...she hates having to go through the motions -- you know, the long practice sessions, the diet, the gym workouts and even that messy business of playing matches.” Apparently winning more prize money than any other woman in the history of tennis, along with 14 Grand Slam titles, isn’t enough for Bodo.

Serena doesn’t lack passion. Instead, her passion is more harmonious than obsessive. Professor Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec, the creator of the “dualistic model of passion,” describes in this video how obsessive passion comes from a “contingent sense of self-worth.” People with obsessive passion feel they have no choice but to engage in the object of their passion as a way to prove their worth, and they’re not likely to engage in distractions like spending 120 hours to get certified to give a manicure.

Harmonious passion comes from a more joyful place. If you do something because you love to do it, yet you don’t feel compelled to do it, your passion is harmonious. In a world filled with obsession, like professional tennis, harmony can look like slacking off. Actually, a series of experiments and studies done by Vallerand and his students show harmonious passion is healthier and correlates with higher long term results than obsessive passion.

Leaders frequently celebrate passion at the workplace as a virtue to be sought out and cultivated. I agree, so long as the leaders look for peaceful, long-lasting harmonious passion. That’s the kind of passion that keeps you at the very top of your game, driving forward, even as younger colleagues are celebrated for their past at retirement parties.