Passion or Purpose?

There’s a lot of talk these days about finding a passion and sticking with it throughout your life. But identifying your passion is neither easy nor perhaps even wise, especially early on. Why should we expect someone with little experience to know what he or she wants to pursue the rest of his or her life?  Some do, most don’t.  That’s a decision that requires maturity and wisdom, possibly even the wisdom of decades.

What’s more, many people don’t recognize their passion until they have achieved it.  They go through life following many interests and opportunities, only later recognizing the central thread that holds it all together.  In his well-known Stanford commencement address in 2005, Steve Jobs put it this way: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”The Nashville Bluegrass Band is even more to the point: “When I get where I’m goin’, that’s when I’ll know where I’m bound.”

In addition, the find-your-passion advice can morph into an extremely rationalized process of personal goal setting, especially as passions are translated into specific goals and objectives. Where do I want to be in ten years? What are the steps that will get me there? What are the metrics that I can use to measure my progress?  Be careful not to over-rationalize the process called “life” – which is sterile indeed without emotion, intuition, and beauty.

Finally, the word “passion” carries a somewhat whimsical, fleeting character. It’s here today, gone tomorrow, and often formed without any basis in ethics or values. It’s built around an individual’s own personal (self) interest and may or may not build or contribute to the larger community. It’s just not as powerful or enduring as direction or commitment or purpose.

For this reason, I would suggest that, instead of passion, you focus on a personal sense of purpose. By that I mean: a direction based in your values, one to which you commit yourself fully and show the patience, persistence, drive, and determination to stay with – until a better path comes along.  Fill in the blank: “I exist to . . . .”

7O6A3503As a leader, you will also be called upon to articulate an organizational sense of purpose, which, in my mind, should be defined in the same way as above: a direction based in your values, one to which you commit yourself fully . . . until a better path comes along.  Fill in the blank: “Our organization exists to: . . . .”

Should your personal sense of purpose be the same as your organizational direction – and vice versa?  Some say yes, because both require a value choice and your values should be consistent. Some say no, because you need a life outside work.  I would merely say that the two must not be incompatible. And if they are I’d say it’s time to find a different line of work. Personal purpose and values take precedence over organizational purpose and values.

That’s not to say that leaders should not be passionate.  Indeed, passion in pursuit of one’s purpose is a virtue (as long as that passion is not blinded by ego).   For the leader, perhaps the most fitting purpose is to lead, to integrate, to focus, and to give life to the many separate and often conflicting purposes and passions that dwell in any organization or group. And that is something a good leader can and will be both purposeful and passionate about.