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The Problem with Passion (In Your Career)

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

A CEO called me about a problem she was having with a direct report. She said this person's work was good--not great--but the real issue was that she didn't have passion for the work. I needed clarification: "Why is it imperative she has passion for the work?"

"I just can't do anything with an employee who lacks passion," the CEO replied.

Passion is an emotion that, at some point, we decided was a prerequisite to building a satisfying career and producing quality work. And apparently it's a measurement against which we are holding people in their jobs. I'm here to cry foul. I'm not saying we shouldn't lead lives filled with passion--for our relationships, our adventures, and ourselves. But it cannot be the way women build their careers or how their value in their work is measured. Here's why:

1) Passion has a gender bias

Passion seems to be a word we use far more (if not exclusively) when we talk to women (rather than men) about their careers. Just look at the way we talk about the female dominated fields like nursing, teaching, and nonprofits. We justify the lower wages paid to women in those fields because we have somehow convinced ourselves their passion for the work is also part of their compensation. Not only must people be drawn to those types of roles, but the personal feel-goodery should be part of their earnings for any skill and value one might bring to the patients, students, and clients served. Now, I'm sure men do long for, seek, or place importance on having passion in their careers. But that isn't the baseline we are measuring them against. With women, we tend to push them to pursue their passions, and then they discover that...

2) Passion leads to blurred boundaries and burnout

If passion is the only thing you've been pushed to chase, and it's the platform you stood on to get the job, and you've been rewarded for your tireless passion for the're going to struggle to set boundaries, and you are definitely going to burn out. The reason is, we think passion is some type of internal, and eternal, flame. And as such, an eternal flame can't be taken down to embers at five o'clock and then be ready to scorch the earth again at 8:00 the next morning. Equating passion to a flame makes us believe that to confine or tamp down either would be to extinguish it. And therefore you may find yourself working long hours, giving too much of yourself, or pushing too hard because otherwise, you might be questioning if you're really as passionate as you promised everyone--and told yourself--you were. Though passion may be falsely considered a white hot flame, in actuality...

3) Passion ebbs and flow

Some of the hardest working, smartest women I know find themselves in a professional slump from time to time. And that slump is almost always about their "lack of passion" for their job. I've lost count of the number of students I have mentored, or clients I have coached, who have expressed concern that they've lost their passion. Or that they need to change jobs to find their passion. Or that they are super stressed they don't know what their passion is. The thing is, we talk about passion like it's a constant. Something you find and keep forever. But that's not how it works. It's something that crests and crashes like waves on a beach, bringing ashore different treasures from the deep. Our passions change and evolve over time. And sometimes the excitement for something wanes a little when our mind shifts to solve other pressing issues (like when my passion for daily showers ebbed after the birth of my first baby). Other times we need distance to refocus our efforts, or evaluate our progress. And sometimes, we just need to take a break from being so caught up in something as an act of self care. But regardless of whether your passion is currently burning hot or is in a cooling period, just remember...

4) Passion can't be measured, replicated, or trained

When we urge women to find their passion, they are directed to the very thing for which they can't actually be professionalized. There's no conference on how to be passionate. There aren't breakout sessions about measuring the ROI of your passion. And there damn sure aren't certifications in finding, maintaining, and perfecting your passion. That's because we can't measure it. Or compare it. Or replicate it. Or train it. Nor should we! Passion is a deeply personal emotion that has meaning and beauty. Not to mention a very privileged experience. But it is not a skill set, a competency, or a capability. So stop trying to professionalize it! Instead, appreciate passion for what it is, and acknowledge that...

5) Passion makes a better follower than a leader.

When you let passion lead your career, you don't make the strongest of choices. For so long I let passion run my career as a college professor and program administrator. That lead to some really bad boundary setting and, eventually, excruciating burnout. My identity was my work, and my work was my passion, and there became little room for much else. And I wasn't as effective an educator because of that. Once I put the focus on the skills I needed to develop around teaching, the outcomes I wanted to produce from my research, and the capabilities I wanted to ensure my students developed, I began to see the difference between myself and my work. I was able to untangle myself from my own passion. In doing so, my work was something I started to get immense pleasure from, but it no longer defined me. And when I became fully engaged in the quality of the work, I was rewarded for it in meaningful ways (namely, raises, promotions, and much stronger student evaluations). I no longer allow passion to lead, but it is welcome to follow. I'm better for being lead by my skills, ethics, competence, and emotional intelligence. But I let passion happily tag along like an energetic dog on a leash, to remind me on the long days that this is work worth doing.


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