We often talk about passion, but we tend to use it very loosely. We usually refer to passion in passing – it is rarely the primary focus of discussion or analysis.
I am just as guilty of this. A couple of months ago, I posted a manifesto for passionate creatives and never explicitly defined what I meant by passion. In talking with people about this manifesto, I discovered that passion has an infinite variety of meanings. It set me on a quest to find a systematic treatment of passion, especially in a business context, but I have yet to find anything that is very satisfying. Even outside the business context, surprisingly little explores in any deep way what passion is and the role it plays in our lives. (If I am missing anything out there, by all means reach out and let me know.)
So, this is an early attempt to offer my own perspective on passion and why it occupies a more and more central role in my research and work with clients. I am posting this in the hope that I can spur a discussion that will help all of us to sharpen our understanding of passion and its growing importance.
One view of passion
So, what is meant by passion? For many, it simply means strong emotions of any kind. In this context, it is often suspect because we perceive it to mean that clear and rational thinking becomes overwhelmed by intense emotions. In fact, for many it is viewed as a sign of shiftlessness – passions coming and going with the blink of an eye. For others, passion simply means happiness – pursuing activities that make us happy in the moment. In other contexts, it is used to mean loss of control – we surrender to passion.
I want to use the term more narrowly, to refer to strong emotions that motivate us to move beyond our comfort zone and to achieve the potential that resides within us. Passion comes from within each of us; it cannot be imposed or mandated from outside. At the same time, it compels us to move outside, to engage with the world around us.
Passion, in the sense I am using it, orients us; it provides us with focus and direction. From this perspective, passion is long-lived. It may be ignited quickly but, once ignited, it endures and even grows as we discover how much potential there really is. Passionate people are rarely distracted for long; their passion keeps them on track and calls them inexorably back to the quest ahead. Passion is about perseverance.
Passion is also about pursuit. It is not passive. People with passion are driven to pursue and create. They may read books and observe others, but they are not content being bystanders. They feel an overwhelming urge to engage, to experience for themselves and to test their own capabilities. Passion compels us to act.
In this context, there are two kinds of passion – the passion of the true believer and the passion of the explorer. Here in Silicon Valley we have many examples of the passion of the true believer – great entrepreneurs are truly passionate about a very specific path and many of them are notoriously not open to alternative views or approaches. Their passion is enduring and it does focus, but it can also blind – leading the entrepreneur to reject critical input that does not match their preconceived views.
I am focused on the other kind of passion – the passion of explorers. These are people who see a domain, but not the path. The fact that the paths are not clearly defined is what excites them and motivates them to move into the domain. It also makes them alert to a variety of inputs that can help them to better understand the domain and discover more promising paths through the unexplored terrain. They are constantly balancing the need to move forward with the need to be present in the moment and reflect on the experiences and inputs they are encountering.
Passion is certainly not the same as happiness, unless we move beyond the transitory happiness of the moment and seek out a much deeper happiness that ultimately comes from achieving our potential. Passion comes from the Latin word “pati”, meaning suffering or enduring. We forego a lot when we pursue our passions; significant sacrifice is often required. We are often deeply frustrated – we have an intense desire to move faster and deeper but we encounter obstacles on all sides (including within ourselves) that seem to inhibit our movement. The unhappiness does not discourage us – it is a natural consequence of desiring something so deeply that we are motivated to confront any obstacle, no matter how challenging, and persist until we find away over, around or under it. Passion is about discipline – self-imposed discipline that drives passionate people to persist and not get discouraged in the face of enormous obstacles.
Passion is about performance. People pursuing their passion have a clear sense of performance metrics. These are not externally defined and imposed metrics, but individually adopted metrics that help passionate people to keep track of their own performance on a continuing basis and identify performance gaps. While many passionate people are amateurs in the sense of not yet integrating their passion with their profession, passion is professional in the sense that people pursuing their passion are deeply committed to the domain that has engaged them, they have a deep sense of integrity about their quest and they have demanding expectations about themselves in terms of performance. Passion is ultimately driven by intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic rewards. External rewards like recognition and cash compensation are certainly welcome, but they do not drive passionate people.
Passion is about progression – passionate people constantly seek new challenges and opportunities to drive their performance to new levels. For passionate people, achieving their full potential has little meaning. They see that their potential is constantly being expanded by new possibilities. Explorers are very adept at discovering new ways to test themselves and discovering new possibilities along the journey. In fact, passion brings with it a willingness to fail repeatedly in the quest for performance improvement, compellingly illustrated by any extreme sports participant. Passionate people see that progression demands failure – if we are not failing, we are not taking enough risk and learning fast enough.
Passion is about connecting. We all know stories about lone inventors who are deeply passionate about their quest and spend much of their lives locked away in their basement workshops tinkering and experimenting with new approaches to driving performance. These stories are the exception rather than the rule. More generally, passion leads us to seek out and connect with others sharing our passion. We intuitively understand that the best way for us to advance is to connect with and learn from others. Passionate people often seek to connect with others in related domains in a quest for insight that they can bring back into their own domains – witness the big wave surfers who also wind surf or skate board in an effort to understand techniques and technology that can improve their performance on big waves.
Passion pulls. Passionate people are deeply creative in seeking out and pulling in resources that will help them to pursue their passion. But passion also pulls in another dimension as well. People who pursue their passions inevitably create beacons that attract others who share their passion. Few of these beacons are consciously created; they are by-products of pursuing one’s passion. Passionate people share their passions and creations widely, leaving trackers for others to find them.
Passion is not predictable. Because it comes from within and drives people to embrace unexpected opportunities and explore uncharted territories, it does not deal well with prescribed routines and scripts. It is pursued in the moment and engages with unexpected encounters in ways that may lead to unforeseen twists and turns. Passion is also about urgency – passionate people have limited patience. They are driven to move forward, regardless of the obstacles put in their way.
Passion is about risk-taking. Passion diminishes perceptions of risk and amplifies perceptions of reward. In a curious way, risk becomes reward for passionate people. They see that risk is the only way to discover new things and explore new territories. For this reason, passionate people thrive in times of high uncertainty and disruption. It is also why passionate people tend to come together on various edges of our society and business environment – peripheries that are rich in unmet needs and unexploited opportunities. Passionate people embrace the edge in order to get an edge on their performance.
Passion is about authenticity. Passionate people have little patience with pretense. They present themselves as they really are because they intuitively understand that is the only way to explore and discover. Passionate people discover and develop a uniquely personal voice that provides a deep sense of meaning and personal identity, shaped by what they contribute to the world and how others build on and learn from their contributions . Their identity is not about consumption; it is about shared creation.
Why it matters at a personal level
Passion is becoming increasingly important for our professional success. If we have not found a way to make our passion our profession or to discover passion in our profession, we will very quickly succumb to the growing economic and competitive pressures that are shaping our global business landscape. The pressures will inexorably mount. Without passion, we will increasingly experience stress, our energy will be steadily drained and we will ultimately burn out under the mounting pressure. At best, we will be marginalized as we find ways to achieve “balance” and safety valves for the mounting pressure at work.
On the other hand, if passion and profession can be integrated, stress turns into stimulus. All of those unexpected challenges suddenly become ways to develop our capabilities more rapidly – we begin to seek out these challenges, hungry for the opportunity to test ourselves and get to the next level of performance more rapidly, like the big wave surfer constantly searching for a bigger, more challenging wave.
Corporate ambivalence on passion
Most executives have considerable ambivalence about passion. Their speeches often call for passion. Passion can be great if it is harnessed to serve the purposes of a business – it motivates people to work longer and harder than those who lack passion.
On the other hand, passion resists harnessing –it is about extremes and unpredictability, something that most companies have a very hard time dealing with. Passionate people are loyal to their passion but they are often deeply dissatisfied with the institutions that employ them. They can see all the possibilities and are greatly frustrated at all the institutional obstacles that prevent them from achieving these possibilities.
Unless one’s passion aligns completely with one’s role and the institution’s mission - a very rare situation - considerable friction is often the result as passionate workers struggle to achieve the potential that their passion demands. A strong argument can be made that our 20th century institutions – especially schools and firms – were explicitly designed to suppress passion because it undermined predictability and created friction where scalable efficiency was the imperative. As a result, the day to day practices and processes of the firm seek to contain and mute the very passion that executives so eloquently celebrate.
As a result, it is not surprising that passionate people often flee the confines of larger firms. Indeed, our 2009 Shift Index discovered that the presence of passion diminishes among the workforce as the size of the firm increases. Scalable efficiency is very effective in containing and diluting passion. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that the most passionate people are those who are self-employed.
This flight of passion from our institutions is deeply troubling because we are in the midst of a Big Shift where passion is becoming increasingly important for institutional success. As I have written elsewhere, the rationale for our institutions is changing from scalable efficiency to scalable peer to peer learning as a natural consequence of the Big Shift. In this context, passionate individuals are essential to driving the quest for scalable peer to peer learning.
As discussed above, passionate people are risk-taking explorers driven by a desire to learn and drive performance to the next level. They naturally seek out others who share their passion and collaborate to address challenges and obstacles to performance improvement. They have a sense of urgency and a long-term commitment to their passion. How will institutions harness scalable peer to peer learning without passionate people? In fact, in the Big Shift, a strong case can be made that the institutions that create a welcome home for passionate individuals will be the ones that thrive in this challenging new world.
Some open questions
As I have thought about passion at the level of individuals, a number of questions remain to be explored and I would welcome input and ideas.
- Clearly, many people do not display passion in the specific form that I have described above – they are consumed with the day to day challenges of life and have not discovered a passion that can focus and drive them. Does this mean that not everyone is capable of this kind of passion or even wants to have it?