Why Passion Isn’t Enough in the Journey Towards Self-Fulfillment

Khalil Gibran once wrote,

“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and sails of your seafaring soul. If either be lost, you can but toss and drift, or be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason alone is a force confining, and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.

One of the most common responses that you’ll hear when it comes to the question of what it takes to be successful or a great leader is to be passionate. And it’s easy to believe that. When we are asked to think of leaders, typically, the first people that come to mind are the charismatic ones and the ones who love what they do so much that they’re not only willing to but eager to work 80 hour weeks and still feel compelled to go on.

From real life leaders such as Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and CEO of T-Mobile John Legere, to fictional heroes like Captain America and Naruto, these archetypes can serve to falsely suggest that all it takes to be successful and happy is the brute force of passion and hard work. However, the world and its challenges aren’t all that simple. It’s easy to be passionate about something once you find it, and a lot of times, it’s framed that the difficulty of finding moments of success is due to not discovering your passion yet. I think that this is far from the case. I don’t think that you have to love what you do to be good at it. If you happen to be passionate about it, that’s absolutely awesome. But passion alone isn’t enough. Moreover, passion can do more harm than good. Here’s why:

Passion is Unreliable
The thing about passion is that its derivation typically spawns from a successive series of positive emotions and experiences regarding a cause or thing. As we all know, emotions can sometimes get the better of us and we can’t always control them, regardless of whether they’re positive or negative. And since passion about something, in its early stages, is usually cultivated from a foundation of positive emotions, its overall structure is very fragile. All it can take is one negative experience to send the individual into a mode of questioning the very passion they thought they so strongly had. Our brain spends more time processing negative events and the emotions that come from it, which is why we tend to ruminate and reflect over the negative more so than the positive. On a decision-making level, the various positive and negative feelings we experience towards our passion also impacts the efficiency and quality of the decisions we make. Without a partner(s) to help anchor passion, its unpredictability will cause one to toss and drift, as Gibran describes.

Passion is egocentric
Whenever we talk about passion, we usually speak about it in terms of how it relates to us. “I am passionate about _______” or “______________ really energizes me.” I argue that passion at its core, is more selfish than selfless. While we can view volunteering time and effort towards a cause such as VSA as a valid selfless act, and an act spawned from a place of obligation and duty, we also need to look at where that sense of duty comes from. To me, I think it comes from our own interests and personal investment towards the cause and the feeling that comes from helping others and developing ourselves as individuals and leaders.

Now on its own, selfish passion isn’t necessarily harmful. Where it starts to become a problem is when people either choose to or feel obligated to constantly prove the existence of their passion. While it’s great to clearly see the passion that someone has towards something, I’ve seen it more often than not in others, and sometimes in myself, the burnout that occurs because people feel that they need to self-validate their own passion or to have others validate them. These individuals took the phrase, “If you’re going to talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk” to dangerous and unhealthy levels. Being stuck in this phase creates an illusion that we’re actually contributing a lot to the progress of the organization, when in reality, it’s cutting you off from being in tune and synergizing with your teams.

For example, I might be a member/board member who is “very passionate” about VSA and attends a majority of the internal/external events and is always trying to hype and get others motivated and excited. After a while, I might feel that my team members aren’t pulling their own weight and question whether they’re as passionate about the organization as I am. This then leads to a dissolution of trust within the team and therefore is adverse to the success of the group and the organization.

In order for us to put ourselves in the best position possible to be the best that we can be, we need to develop practices and competencies that allow us to become self-sustainable in the lifelong journey of personal and professional development. We need to mold ourselves not after candles, whose bright flames easily flicker and burn out with the slightest of winds but as suns and stars, whose cores are unwavering and strong that allow them to hold their shape and shine for millions and billions of years. Here are a few ideas that I think will help us get there:

Having Purpose

As Ryan Holiday puts it from his book, Ego is the Enemy,

“Passion is about. Purpose is like passion with boundaries. Purpose de-emphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.”

By creating a mindset that always asks ourselves what we can offer and give to this organization vs. what this organization can give to us, we change how we measure our own progress and happiness. Adopting this giving mindset centers us around the purpose of the organization and prompts deliberate action. This is contrary to the receiving mindset, where we will always have expectations on what we’ll get out of our time and efforts sacrificed and only focus on ourselves. You can think of passion as form over function and purpose as function over form.

Practicing Self-Reflection

Growth is not only realized when we look back in time and evaluate our progress, but growth is also given the chance to foster when we check ourselves on a regular basis. Sadly, I honestly think that this doesn’t happen enough, whether it be on an individual level or especially as a group. We get so busy and caught up with planning the next general meeting, coordinating members to make it to 3 different events on the same weekend, and so on. When we do get a fleeting break from all of it, we typically use it for tending to our other obligations and self-care: netflixing, spending time with friends and family, sleeping. Practicing self-reflection is an essential piece to evaluating your own progress and continually steering and self-correcting to ensure that we’re headed on the right path. It is even more essential to reflect as a group as well. How are we doing in meeting our goals as an organization? Are we holding true to our values? What could we be doing better and how do we hold ourselves accountable to making sure we accomplish that? However, we must still be careful, as there are dangers as well of reflecting too frequently.

Having Grit

Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk on the power of grit talks about how the existence of passion AND perseverance in the face of challenges and adversity is what determined who the high-performing students in a classroom were, which military academy cadets would stay through the whole program, and which salespeople would keep their jobs and be the highest earners amongst their colleagues. It’s about living life like a marathon, not a sprint.

Developing Skills

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport debunks the passion mindset/hypothesis which states:

The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches that passion.

He argues that the idea of following your passion is backwards, and that the truth is more along the lines of your passion as something to be cultivated, not discovered, from developing skills in an area over a substantial period of time. Through his research, Cal concludes that instead of wasting time looking for something to be passionate about, we should focus on acquiring and developing skillsets and that the passion will naturally come as a result of mastery.

How do you keep yourselves and your teams motivated in the long run outside of passion? What are your thoughts regarding this piece? Do you have any alternate readings and perspectives? Let’s discuss! If you missed my last article on ideas to improve our staff meetings, you can check it out here.

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