“Follow your passion” is almost unavoidable advice these days. If you have listened to a commencement address, read a business magazine, or even watched an interview with a sports star in the past 5 years you have surely heard “passion” identified as the key to success. Sports broadcasters declare that the winning team “wanted it more” than the losers. Company leaders are encouraged to find the core value that will energize and motivate their entire organization. Graduates are assured that if they just identify and pursue their passion, that success will surely result.

 

Sorry to rain on the passion parade, but I think that’s bull-oney! Here are three reasons:

  1. First of all, most people don’t know what they’re passionate about. Ask a 22 year old what they have been passionate about for the past 5 years. They probably switched college majors 4 times. Ask a late 30’s office worker what she is passionate about and she might not even be able to make something up. Between raising kids, keeping the house running, and being effective at work, getting a good night’s sleep might top the priority list. This doesn’t mean she’s bad, or even a poor performer. It is just how life, with competing demands for our time and energy, works. Passion is just too slippery to build a life around. It flits around like a butterfly, landing here and there. Then sometimes it even disappears for a season.
  2. Passion is impossible to sustain. Like all emotions, passion is our internal response to something external that catches our attention. Our emotions are designed as temporary motivators to affect behavior: affection causes us to bond to a mate or child. Sympathy leads us to offer help. Anger alerts us when we need to respond to an injustice or threat. We aren’t supposed to feel the same thing all the time. People who are always affectionate are simpletons. Always being sympathetic makes you a sucker or a bad parent. People who are always angry are sociopaths. Rather, we need a balance of emotions, to prompt us toward appropriate behavior. By the way, healthy people don’t give emotions too much authority in their lives. Just because we feel anger doesn’t mean that we respond out of that anger. Healthy people filter their emotions through reason, conscience, and their values. What would it mean to live life out the the emotion of passion? Can you imagine having a boss for whom passion was the primary motivator? What if he was passionate about making a new product but not passionate about responding to customers? Or making sales? Or writing paychecks? Would that lead to success?
  3. Discipline beats passion, or any other emotion. Sure, passion might get you through a day or a week, or even a project. But life is not a sprint. Do You want a surgeon who is passionate (this month) about heart surgery? Or would you rather have the surgeon who has spent the last 15 years on a disciplined process of learning, studying, practicing, refining, and doing his job over and over and over? Would I want a mechanic who is really excited about brake jobs, or the one who has done 10 brake jobs a week for the past 20 years?

Doug Lennick describes success like a bicycle: motivation (passion) and discipline are the pedals. Sometimes passion is on top, moving your forward. But it ebbs and flows. When the motivation is at a low, discipline is the other pedal, propelling you forward. Discipline is a process, a series of daily activities that you perform – whether you feel like it or not. The right activities, performed consistently over time, lead to success. Of course you need to course-correct from time to time, based on data, not how you feel. Think of a marriage: there should be passion when you meet and start a relationship. But when your spouse is sick and you need to feed the kids, help with homework, run to the store for immodium and get lunches made for tomorrow, you might not be feeling the same hot flame! A successful marriage means doing these things even though you don’t feel like it.  Successful, experienced spouses know the passion will come back as a result of the discipline. This kind of passion is earned, and more satisfying because of the price you paid. New passion is cheap passion. It doesn’t cost much. Earned passion means a lot more.

I don’t hate passion. I love getting excited about a new idea, person, toy, or band. But we do ourselves as well as graduates a real disservice when we pretend that passion will lead to success.

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