I've become passionate about passion. The more I explore it, the more convinced I am that it’s the key to unlocking sustained extreme performance improvement, both at a personal and institutional level.
In the world of the Big Shift, where pressure will continue to mount, passion will become a key differentiator between those who thrive and those who crumble. If we have passion, the challenges of the Big Shift become exciting and turn into opportunities to tap into more of our potential. If we don’t have passion, we risk becoming increasingly stressed and overwhelmed.
Passion, performance and potential – these three weave together into a seamless web. Whether we come at it from the perspective of achieving more of our untapped potential or from the perspective of driving performance to ever higher levels, passion is the necessary foundation. Without it, our potential will remain exactly that – latent within us, something that we can only imagine but will never experience or be able to share with others.
Similarly, without passion, we can squeeze ourselves and others to get the next increment of performance or perhaps even try to motivate it with cash rewards, but these approaches are rarely sustainable and only draw out a small fraction of the performance that is available.
As I’ve spent time exploring passion, I’m constantly confronted with a key issue – passion has an almost infinite variety of meanings. I’ll be talking with someone about passion, they’ll be nodding their head and only later will we discover that we have very different meanings of passion. We’re using the same word, but we’re not talking about the same thing.
Perhaps it’s a compulsion of mine, but when confronted with that kind of ambiguity, my impulse is to try to develop a taxonomy to try to develop some clarity around the language we use. Perhaps if we can agree on the different forms of passion, we can not only enhance mutual understanding but perhaps even develop some insight regarding the relative power of these different forms of passion.
What are the key attributes of passion?
Let me start by suggesting some boundaries around the domain of passion. At the most fundamental level, passion is often used very loosely to describe excitement or emotional intensity. If someone is very emotional, they are often described as passionate. I propose that we focus on a more narrow form of passion.
I’d like to suggest that passion is all about commitment to personal improvement. In contrast with obsessions, which are all about losing oneself in an external object, passion is all about connecting with, and developing, one’s own capabilities.
Two key dispositions, or orientations towards action, define the domain of passion:
Questing disposition – A constant desire to challenge and test oneself to see if we can achieve higher levels of performance and draw out more of our potential
Connecting disposition – An orientation towards connecting with others who share our passion or who can be helpful to us in addressing the challenges that we’re pursuing
Passion is not the same as engagement
In this context, it might be useful to contrast passion with another term that’s often used synonymously with passion – engagement. In the business world, we’re all seeking employee engagement. Let me suggest that engagement is not enough; we need passion.
What do I mean? Well, it may be about semantics, but semantics are important. When I hear most people talk about employee engagement, they tend to focus on excitement about the work and about the people they are working with. Engaged employees look forward to getting to work, pay a lot of attention to details, make an effort to get to know the people they are working with, and will often talk about their work with friends and family. Often, reference is made to getting into the flow, in the sense that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi so compellingly described – becoming fully absorbed in work and losing oneself in the task at hand.
This is all well and good, but is it enough? What’s generally missing from these descriptions is a commitment to achieving more of our potential and driving ourselves to new levels of performance improvement. Engaged employees are very content with the work they are doing, but don’t necessarily have that commitment and restless desire to get to the next level of performance. Passionate workers are deeply engaged in their current work but their focus is on getting to the next level – if they can’t find challenges that will take them to that next level, they’ll quickly become bored and restless and ultimately seek some other environment where they can more effectively challenge themselves.
In this context, engagement is necessary but not sufficient. In a world of rapidly mounting pressure, we need that questing and connecting disposition that will take us to new levels of performance. We need passionate workers and colleagues – it is a much higher bar and one that most companies fail to target, much less achieve. The Shift Index that I helped to develop suggests that, at best, only 20% of the US workforce is passionate about their work and levels of passion vary inversely with the size of the enterprise – the larger the firm, the lower the levels of passion.
OK, but is passion enough? Here is where it is important to pull apart different types of passion. I’ll briefly explore four different types of passion that I’ve come across in my discussions.
Passion of the fan
We all know people with this kind of passion. We develop a deep interest in a person, team, idea or discipline and we set out on a quest to learn everything we can about the object of our passion. We seek out information wherever we can and we’re insatiable in our interest. As soon as we learn something, we get really, really excited but then we have five more questions that we want to pursue.
Fans generally seek each other out to share the questions they have and the information they have gathered. Conversations go on late into the night and there never seems to be enough time to cover all the ground. If it is a person or a team, we go out of our way to see them in action, even if it means traveling to distant cities.
Fans can have deep, long-term passions but sometimes it’s more fleeting – we get really excited about something, but then, as time passes, we get tired of it and move on to something else. Yet, while it exists, it’s deeply felt and drives us to go above and beyond to learn more about the subject of our passion.
Passion of the player
This is a common form of passion. We get really deeply immersed in a topic or domain (or sometimes a person or a team), and we not only want to learn more and more about it, but we’re driven to create something or contribute something to the subject in a way that goes beyond mere conversation or discussion with other fans. We might want to pursue original research to discover something entirely new, write about the subject, build something – but the urge is to make a difference, not just learn about, or talk about, a subject.
But, here’s the catch. Players have a hard time sustaining their commitment to a particular subject or domain. They get really, really deep into something and make some awesome contributions but then they get distracted by something else that attracts their attention. They drop the first subject and dive into the new subject with equal vigor. This pattern repeats over and over – nothing seems able to hold the player for very long.
A small group of fans actually become players – they get so immersed in their subject area that they shift from simply wanting to learn about the subject to wanting to contribute something. Henry Jenkins talked about participatory cultures in his research, where fans come together “to construct their own culture – fan fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their own needs and interests.”
Another example of fans becoming players can be seen in some products like Lego building blocks where certain people become so passionate about the product that they actively engage with companies on the design of next generation products.
Passion of the true believer
I’ve talked about this passion type before. The true believer is deeply committed to a domain for the long-term. They have a very clear view of the destination and, perhaps even more importantly, of the path that they’ll need to take in order to reach the destination.
It will be a long and challenging journey, but also an exciting one, and the true believer is committed to staying the course. True believers are committed to taking actions that will accelerate movement down the path for themselves and for others. They’re not content to study the path – they want to travel it and, where necessary, build whatever it takes to travel the path more successfully. They are also committed for the long-term – if not a life-time, then a significant portion of one’s life-time.
True believers reach out to others and work hard to draw them into the journey. But there’s a catch. The true believer doesn’t want to confront challenges or questioning about either the destination or the path. These are a given and it is simply a distraction and a waste of time to debate these. If you want to help make the journey along the defined path, the true believer welcomes you with open arms. But if you challenge the true believer, you’ll often find yourself quickly expelled from the true believer’s circle.
Fundamentalist religions tend to cultivate the passion of the true believer. But true believers can be found in many domains – a lot of the entrepreneurs that I run across in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are very much true believers. There are certainly true believers in large enterprises, schools and government as well.
Passion of the explorer
I’ve also discussed this passion type before. The explorer commits to a domain, usually one that is broadly defined, and is excited about the prospect of making a growing impact in the domain over a long period of time, often a life-time. But here’s a key difference relative to the true believer. The explorer has no idea where they will end up and they have little sense of the long-term path they will pursue. That’s part of their excitement, they get to carve out their own path as they go and they get to be surprised about where it leads.
Explorers also reach out to connect with others. They are constantly seeking new challenges that will test them and help them to make an increasing impact in their domain. As a result, they’re always seeking others who either share their passion or who have some expertise that’s relevant to the challenges they are confronting.
The passion matrix
In fact, not able to resist the consultant impulse, I’ve devised a two by two matrix to represent two dimensions that I think help to map these different forms of passion.
The first dimension is the time frame for the passion – is it short-term or long-term? The second dimension differentiates between two different types of improvement goal – learning or impact. The four types of passion fall into different parts of the matrix depending on their position along these two dimensions.
Now, why have I invested all this time and effort to differentiate four different types of passion and position them on a matrix? Well, I think it helps us to make more sense of what we mean by passion. But more importantly, the matrix helps to answer a key question: what kind of passion do we most want to foster and amplify if our goal is to achieve sustained extreme performance improvement?
Through this lens, it becomes clear that you want to focus on passion that is sustained over the long-term, rather than experienced in relatively short sprints. You’d also want to focus on passion that seeks to make an increasing impact in a domain rather than simply learning more about it and talking about it. That leads us up to the upper right quadrant – the sweet spot of any self-respecting matrix.
But how to choose between the passion of the true believer and the passion of the explorer? Well, in relatively stable times, the passion of the true believer can achieve amazing results because the destination is very clear and the path has been traveled many times. But in more rapidly changing times, filled with growing uncertainty, my bet would be on the passion of the explorer, who loves unexpected challenges and is prepared to quickly adapt to extreme changes, learning as they go.
Of course, if you’re recruiting a team to embark on a series of challenges, they don’t all have to have the passion of the explorer. You could also draw in some folks who have the passion of the player, who will at least participate in, and contribute actively to, some of the early sprints, even if they may not stay the full course. They can add diverse experiences and talents to the team. But the anchor of the team had better be people who have demonstrated the passion of the explorer. That is what will deliver sustained extreme performance improvement and perhaps help to keep the players sufficiently challenged that they will not get easily bored.
Relatively few people have the passion of the explorer, but it’s those folks who will thrive in the Big Shift and carve out new paths to more rapid performance improvement. But, what do you do if you don’t have the passion of the explorer? Well, that’s a whole other topic and this posting has already become far too long, so let me resist the temptation to address it now and save it for a later posting.
So, what do you think? Do these passion categories make sense? Are there other categories that I’m missing? What types of passion, if any, do you have? Is it possible to have more than one passion at the same time?