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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Sep 9, 2018

This week we’re looking at passion and purpose - and why telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is lousy advice.



Welcome to episode nine of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges.

This week we’re looking at passion and purpose - and why telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is lousy advice.

“Follow your passion” is often shared as a mantra for happiness and success in life. That if we can only uncover that unique passion, we will suddenly and effortlessly unlock boundless opportunities in the world. It’s an attractive antidote to the modern dysfunctional workplace - the 9 to 5 (if you’re lucky) grind of a desk job adding to the already overflowing coffers of a soul-less corporation. You can almost picture the person at their desk as the quote comes across their Instagram feed, staring out their window and whispering to themselves - “There has to be more to life than this”. And they’re probably right, but is “following your passion” the best approach.


Perhaps, like me, you can trace many of your passions back to early childhood. My love of science - fuelled (literally) through an often explosive 1970’s chemistry set (that would never be allowed to hit the shelves today), building electronics sets, growing countless crystal gardens, and bashing out computer programs on a trusty Tandy TRS-80. My love of business - labelling everything I owned as “AB Inc” (as if my 8 year old self was some kind of multinational conglomerate), combining life savers and tic tac lollies together to create a value-added product for profit, and running a pretty successful lawn mowing business to fund my early years at university. And my interest in people, reading whatever I could about what made people tic and working on school holiday programs with kids. When you combine those three passions, organisational psychology - applying the science of people in business - looks like a pretty obvious career choice. Lucky I followed my passion.

But that simplified story overlooks the necessary hardships, challenges and setbacks that ultimately helped me to be successful and fulfilled. There were the countless times when I wanted to give up - to pack it in when it all became too hard. Following my passion led me to management consulting - an amazing learning experience and proving ground where I was constantly stretched. It was here that I learnt to manage staff, to grow a business, to put together a plan and bring it to life through people, to collaborate on global teams to make a difference to leaders all over the world. But ultimately, while working for management consulting firms was aligned with my passion, there was something missing. I ended up stressed, overweight and pretty unhappy. Why was that?

A research team*, including the wonderful Carol Dweck, recently looked at “finding your passion” versus “developing your passion”. If you haven’t read Carol’s book “Mindset - Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential”, stop what you’re doing and go and purchase it now. The book outlines the value of having a growth mindset - where we see our abilities, skills and intelligence as things we can develop and improve over time. This is contrasted with a fixed mindset, where people succeed due to talent and giftedness - so if something is hard, you just give up because it clearly wasn’t meant to be. There’s a fair amount of mis-information about growth mindset - it’s not to say our potential is unlimited. Rather, Carol’s work suggests that we often don’t test our potential, preferring to play it safe and stick with what we know. 

The researchers contrasted those with a fixed mindset view around passion, with those who had a growth mindset view of passion. Those with a fixed mindset view saw passions and interests as pre-formed and as something you discover in yourself. In contrast, a growth mindset view suggests that we build our passions and interests over time through experimentation and engaging in new activities. The research found that those with a fixed view tended to have less interest in areas outside their current experience - they didn’t want to explore new things. The fixed mindset group also underestimated difficulties associated with following their passions, and they failed to stick at new interests when they became difficult. In their own words, the researchers concluded that encouraging people to find their passion “may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry”.

And I believe that’s where purpose comes in. Again, we shouldn’t see our purpose in life as something that is fixed - it’s more like a strategic plan for our life that we regularly review and update. For me that meant starting my own business seven years ago which is now focused on enabling thousands of leaders to achieve results through people. That wasn’t the purpose seven years ago, or even two years ago - I’ve reviewed, added to and subtracted from that purpose a number of times on the journey. I’ve discovered new things I’m passionate about along the way, learnt lots of new skills, made plenty of mistakes, and achieved far more than I could have hoped for.

So let’s agree to ditch the “follow your passion” approach. Here’s a potential replacement - Work hard to discover and improve at things you can be passionate about, within the context of a guiding purpose that you regularly review. Admittedly, that’s much harder to frame as an inspirational quote. It also sounds harder to do. “Working hard” doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But it’s in the hard work that we learn, and it’s in the hard work that we find success, provided that hard work is aligned with our purpose. Maybe “keep discovering new things you’re passionate about” is better.

I encourage you to think about your purpose this week. Why are you doing what you’re doing? When’s the last time you challenged yourself to try something outside your current interests? Are there passions you’ve had in the past that you’ve neglected? Are there new passions emerging that require time and effort to develop?

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*Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It? Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, Gregory M. Walton