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“It is with our passions, as it is with fire and water, they are good servants but bad masters.” –Aesop

**This section is specifically about passion as a hindrance to purpose. While we do touch on it here, if you’re curious to learn more about passion as an enabler of purpose, you can check out the passion satellite page that includes information on passion as a hindrance AND passion as an enabler of purpose!**

Two Tales of Passion as a Hindrance

Herald is a passionate author. He always dreamed of being a professional author as a child and worked diligently to finish and self-publish several novels. He got his big break when he was hired for a ghost-writing agency and was able to quickly produce exactly what the agency wanted at a higher frequency than any of their other writers. He became financially successful for the first time in his life. With his lifestyle becoming more expensive, his family dependent on his success, and the agency expecting him to produce work at an accelerated pace, the pressure began to build. Herald would work from 4am to 6pm with brief breaks for breakfast and lunch- citing his love for writing as the main motivator. While he did truly love writing, he found that he couldn’t not write. Taking days off made him incredibly anxious. Whenever there was free time he felt compelled to work. Herald was irritable around his family at times and didn’t spend a lot of time with them or other friends. Despite the elements of the job that felt uncomfortable or unhealthy, he couldn’t begin to imagine not doing it– being a writer was his identity. Being a successful author was core to who he was.

Claire loves to make art. She believes that as long as she is pursuing her passion of making art she will be happy. She also thinks that her passion and dedication will eventually lead her to success. She saves up a bunch of money to take several months to invest in her art business. When she finds that the majority of her time is spent marketing and networking, she becomes dismayed. She isn’t enjoying the work and isn’t making any progress/ selling her work as quickly as she needs to to support herself. Even when she is working on her art (which she is doing way more often than she did as a hobbyist) the spark feels gone because she is having to do so much of it and it doesn’t feel like it has a purpose outside of trying to make her income. Claire is disappointed and believes that being an artist is probably not for her since it isn’t enough to make her happy. She decides to go back to the other industries she has worked in and just do art as a hobby.

Revisit these stories below to learn how passion has specifically hindered purpose for these individuals.

What Is Passion?

Passion is, to put it very simply, an intense enthusiasm for doing something. 

Psychologist and professor Robert J. Vallerand defines it more specifically as

“a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy. Thus, for an activity to represent a passion for people, it has to be significant in their lives, something that they like, and something at which they spend time on a regular basis.” (Vallerand et. al 2003)

Passion is different from purpose. While a purpose is something that is inherently meaningful to you, has an impact on the world beyond yourself, and is goal-oriented, a passion does not have to be any of these things. That’s not to say that it can’t be, though- you certainly can have a passionate purpose! Or a meaningful passion, a passionate goal, or an impactful passion for that matter. It can be an input and/or and outcome of purpose. However it must be noted that passion does not necessarily lead to happiness or joy (it’s not even a prerequisite for purpose!).

How we relate to passion is where the rubber meets the road (or not) in regard to hindering or empowering purpose.

Passion can empower purpose in a handful of ways:

  1. When we see passion as something that can be cultivated (known as a ‘develop mindset’), it opens up possibilities of things to cultivate purpose in and makes us more resilient in the face of challenges.
  2. When we have “Harmonious Passion” (passion that we engage in because it brings us intrinsic joy) we increase our ability to experience Optimal Purpose.

On the other hand, passion can inhibit purpose in these three ways:

  1. When we have “Obsessive Passion” (passion we engage with because we feel compelled to do it and are uncomfortable not doing) we become motivated by external reward versus intrinsic meaning and struggle to prioritize the cultivation of Optimal Purpose.
  2. When we prioritize passion in the name of our own enjoyment versus the potential for positive impact on others we inhibit our potential for engaging with the impact element of purpose. Author Cal Newport calls this a Passion Mindset vs a Craftsman Mindset.
  3. When we have a “Fit Mindset” and a “Fixed Mindset” about passion and purpose (meaning we believe we have set interests and abilities) we limit the number of possibilities of things we can do and may give up more easily when things get challenging.

Let’s dive into each a bit deeper! Below you’ll find Obsessive Passion as its own heading, and the following two points will both be covered in the heading, “‘Follow Your Passion’ Can Be Bad Advice.” Each subtopic will offer an exploration of what it is, why it blocks purpose, and processes for overcoming or working with each challenge.

Obsessive Passion

The Disney Pixar movie Soul explores the concepts of both purpose and passion. In the movie there is a place called “The Zone” that people’s souls go to when they are passionately engaged with something. Sometimes, however, people can get “lost in the zone.” The clip above illustrates a lost soul in The Zone- they are caught in an obsessive negative cycle and out of touch with the outside world. It’s a decent portrayal of facets of Obsessive Passion.

According to researcher Robert J. Vallerand and his colleagues, there are two types of passion. Harmonious Passion is passion that you engage in for the sake of loving the activity itself and it doesn’t interfere with other parts of your life (you can learn more about it here). The other type of passion is Obsessive Passion, which is more of a compulsion.

Obsessive Passion can be roughly summed up by two factors:

  • Engaging in the activity for secondary gains (not purely for the joy of the activity itself)
  • Strong fear of failure

It is something you feel compelled and pressured to do and have trouble pulling away from because ( in many cases) the activity is tied to your sense of identity and thus much of your self esteem is contingent on your success in that activity (Lafreniere et. al 2011). Obsessive Passion is often accompanied by a sense of loss of control and feelings of guilt, shame, and burnout. (Vallerand et. al 2003) (Lafreniere et. al 2009)

When discussing the differences between Obsessive Passion and Harmonious Passion, psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman shared:

“Obsessive passion is rarely beneficial. It’s not just that those with high levels of obsessive passion are committed, focused, and dedicated. Those who are obsessively passionate about their work are inflexibly, excessively and compulsively committed, finding it difficult to disengage. As such, they are setting up bad habits from the start, and risking burnout in the longer run. Note that harmonious passion is correlated with flow — the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task. Research shows that it’s flow that is conducive to creativity, not obsessive passion. The positive emotions and intrinsic joy that is associated with harmonious passion is what propels one to greatness, not the negative emotions, compulsions, and unstable ego that is associated with obsessive passion.” – Scott Barry Kaufman for Psychology Today


Herald the passionate author from the introduction example who was doing something he loved but felt so much pressure from all areas of his life he felt he couldn’t stop.

Tara is an Olympic athlete. She sacrifices her time, comfort, health, and various relationships in order to prioritize her sport. Even when not practicing or competing, thoughts of her sport take up much of her mind. She isn’t sure who she would be without her sport and is terrified of getting injured.

Quinn loves to play massive multiplayer online games. She is very invested in the teams she plays with and feels like a valued member who must contribute. While she mostly enjoys gaming she also often feels exhausted and guilty about not doing well enough for her team. She practices all the time to improve her skills and often continues gaming instead of going to sleep. When her family tells her she needs to stop and come to dinner or go to bed, she gets really angry.

How are these examples obsessive?
Each of the above stories are examples of obsessive passion because each person’s identity and self esteem is deeply invested in being what they are/doing what they do. The task itself may occasionally be enjoyable, but the main motivation for engaging in the activity becomes what the activity results in (success, accolades, self-worth, acceptance, etc.). There becomes a compulsion to do it at the expense of other things they care about.

Another way of looking at Obsessive Passion is like a toxic romance- much of it doesn’t feel good and it negatively impacts other parts of your life – but you can’t stay away from it. In this way Obsessive Passion functions a lot like an addiction.

A book called The Passion Paradox by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness explains that the neurology of passion is related to dopamine networks in the brain which motivate behavior. Dopamine creates intense desire and therefore motivation to do something– most often for external rewards (scientists know less about intrinsically motivated passions).

Obsessive Passion is at odds with purpose because Obsessive Passion is primarily externally driven while purpose is an intrinsically motivated experience. Another way to look at it is that Obsessive Passion is more motivated by “fear” than “love”, while purpose is more motivated by “love” than “fear” (if you haven’t already, learn about how fear can show up as an extrinsic motivator, go here).

But to clarify- Obsessive Passion isn’t exactly a full-stop hindrance to purpose. It is possible that Herald the author is engaging in their writing and support of their family in a purposeful way. However, the experience of Obsessive Passion misses the bar for what is possible in the realms of joy and fulfillment.

Ultimately Obsessive Passion hinders Optimal Purpose– which is distinct from general purpose as a meaningful life aim that is goal-oriented and impacts the world beyond yourself that you ALSO are passionate about, skilled in, facilitates growth and learning, is sustainable, and is experienced joyfully– all at once! Because Obsessive Passion is not sustainable or experienced joyfully, it can curtail Optimal Purpose.

“Most successful people are just an anxiety disorder harnessed for productivity.”  –Andrew Wilkinson (Business Mogul)

The Prodigy – Two Days In The Life of a Bolshoi Ballerina 

“In the short documentary The Prodigy, the US filmmaker Michael Sugrue offers a peek behind the curtains of the Bolshoi Theatre, exploring the young dancer’s intense commitment to her craft. …Even in her downtime, ballet is ever-present for Smirnova. ‘I’m about to go to sleep and my mind is full of the variations I danced today,’ she says. …Of course, this work ethic also has its costs. Smirnova’s drive is unrelenting and the lifestyle is often isolating. She describes herself as ‘happy as a child’ when she corrects a mistake and, after her performance, greets the cheers of the crowd backstage with a look of pure joy. But elsewhere, she calls her relationship with ballet an ‘addiction’ and even ‘torture’. So, is it worth it?” – Psyche

The way to flip the script on Obsessive Passion and unlock the features of Optimal Purpose is to cultivate Harmonious Passion for a purpose you want to develop (or already have).

That was a mouthful. Let’s break that down. Passion is something you can develop (just like purpose is something you can consciously choose and cultivate!). Therefore, one can prioritize something purposeful first and then develop passion in that thing second.

While you can learn about cultivating passion on the passion page (click the button above!), below you can find some exercises for addressing the specific hindrance of Obsessive Passion and transform it to Harmonious Passion (which actually enables purpose!).

Harmonious Passion: Being enthusiastic about an activity and choosing it of one’s own free will purely for the sake of enjoying the activity. It fits harmoniously into the person’s life, generates joy, and energizes the person.  (Learn more here).

To go from an Obsessive Passion that is in conflict with other areas of someone’s life to the more adaptive, joy-generating Harmonious Passion, one must first recognize whether or not they have Obsessive Passion. Try the following activity to determine if you do!

Do You Have Obsessive Passion?

The following questions are adapted from the Obsessive and Harmonious Passion survey designed by Robert J. Vallerand and his colleagues in 2003, as well as some contributions from psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in this article on Obsessive Passion. Go through the following statements and take a note of which ones are true for you and which are not regarding the passion you have in mind.

  1. I cannot live without this activity
  2. I have difficulty imagining my life without this activity
  3. I have a tough time controlling my need to do this activity
  4. My mood depends on me being able to do this activity
  5. I can feel drained by this activity. I don’t always enjoy this activity.
  6. I tend to define myself primarily by this activity.
  7. I have a generally negative self concept.
  8. I feel obligated to do this activity.
  9. I struggle to stop doing this activity when I want to.
  10. I get stressed or upset when I can’t do this activity
  11. I feel a lot of pressure when I engage in this activity

Look over your answers. If you found yourself agreeing with several of these statements, you may have Obsessive Passion. So what do you do with that? Check out the next activity for some guidance.

Challenging Obsessive Passion Plan

The following approaches are adapted from suggestions by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman on working with Obsessive Passion. It is recommended that you answer the questions with as much specificity as possible, as the more specific and detailed a plan is, the easier it is to follow through on (learn about SMART goals here!). Grab a sheet of paper or a blank word document to record your plan.

  1. Schedule Plan
    1. Forcing ourselves to interrupt our mental patterns around an activity can help ease the strength of the neurological pathway associated with the activity. By scheduling breaks during times you would ordinarily push through your activity you can begin this process.
      1. List 5 things you could schedule over the next two weeks to interrupt your normal patterns. Be specific- include who you would do that with, exactly what place you would go, exactly what time you would go, and what you would do while you’re there, and how long you will do the task.
      2. Here are some ideas: Lunch with a friend or family member, going for a jog, walk, or hike, going out for coffee with a friend, practicing a new skill, reading a book unrelated to the activity, having a stretch break, signing up for a class that interrupts the activity.
  2. Boundaries Plan
    1. How can you keep boundaries around the activity and other areas of your life? What ways can you make it impossible to engage with the activity when you are not around it? Can you leave or move the things associated with the activity out of your home? Can you ask a family member or friend to hold you accountable? Can you you keep separate accounts or items for this item and other parts of your life? List 5 specific boundaries you could draw to make it difficult for you to access this activity outside of designated times.
  3. Self Talk Plan
    1. Scott Barry Kaufman suggests faking the mindset of the harmoniously passionate person until you can override your normal negative self-talk. A 2011 passion study from the University of Quebec suggests this may increase self esteem (and thus harmonious passion).
    2. Start with thoughts of “must” and “need” and “have to” around the activity by replacing them with the words, “want”, “desire”, and “get to”. Literally write down the alternative versions of these thoughts.
    3. Write down some other negative self talk related to the activity and convert each statement into one that is positive and highlights that you want to do the activity of your own free will.
  4. New Hobby Plan
    1. Scott Barry Kaufman offers in the article these plans are adapted from that “investing too much in one project is an indication of a negative core self.” When we can invest in multiple things in order to contribute to a positive sense of self, the obsessive activity can take on less significance in determining our self-worth, damaging our ego, or leading to burnout.
    2. Make a list of 5 other things you enjoy doing (but haven’t done in a while) or would like to learn. Next to each one, write down exactly when, where, and with whom you will do this activity in the next two weeks.

“Follow Your Passion” Can Be Bad Advice

Do you believe in “Love At First Sight,” like Kylie Minogue (and so many other artists) sings about? Love at first sight is a ubiquitous meme in Western cultures– but does its prevalence indicate its validity as a sign of “the real deal”? There are so many assumptions about the nature of love and relationships that have gone awry in the fantasy of love at first sight; and many of these misconceptions mimic the challenges with the narrative of “follow your passion”!

Look for Love At First Sight Follow Your Passion
Based on first impressions; relies on attraction and chemistry to be instantly present Based on first impressions; relies on your pool of current interests and skills
Assumes this experience can happen to everyone Assumes you already have a passion
Ignores the possibility of cultivating love over time with someone who checks more important boxes Ignores the possibility of cultivating passion over time in an activity that meets multiple needs/values
Could lead us to ignore red flags Could lead us to ignore red flags
More likely based on how we feel in the moment rather than looking at the big picture through time More likely based on how we feel in the moment rather than looking at the big picture through time
It starts fast; it may end fast Makes you less resilient when things don’t work out; more likely to give up when things get hard
Suggests that love happens TO us and that we do not have agency in determining love Suggests that passion happens TO us and we do not have agency in determining passion

*Note that the above examples are fairly extreme for the sake of illustrating the point. However, reality is often more complex and nuanced- the differences between the two approaches are likely more intertwined than “this or that.”

How one engages with the activities they commit to can easily be compared to how one approaches and understands intimate relationships. Just like we expect to stumble upon “The One” and fall madly in love immediately, we seem to expect the same magical moment when it comes to passions. We hope to try an activity and instantly know it’s “Our Thing.”

These expectations of passion can lead us astray on our path to purpose (just like using love at first sight could lead us astray on our path to lasting and healthy love). Ultimately, expecting that passion is something that is found and then to use it as a guide towards life-satisfaction hinders our purpose journey by:

  1. Making the primary focus our own ‘happiness’
  2. Limiting our options

You- A Case Study for Following Your Passion

Let’s imagine you’re wandering around the Earth trying to put the advice “Follow Your Passion” to use because it seems to be the most pervasive guide to living a life you love.

You find that you enjoy cooking, so you try to pursue that. But when you take your first position in a restaurant you find you hate the politics of the work environment and the hours don’t suit your internal clock. So you quit. Then you think, “Well, I’ve always loved singing.” So you become a choir instructor and discover teaching isn’t your strong suit or interest and you quit.  And then you think, “Well I was pretty good at math in school, maybe I’ll become an accountant.” You return to school and get a new degree, only to discover that you find the office grind suffocating upon landing your first position.

The kicker here? The reason none of these things worked out isn’t because you didn’t have enough passion for them; it’s because you were relying on passion as a metric of whether or not they were worth doing. 

Additionally, at each stage in this adventure you could have given yourself the opportunity to develop passion for the other elements of each job, but your Fit Mindset had you believing that if it didn’t feel easy or enlivening right away it was the wrong place for you.

If you had used purpose as your primary metric, passion as a secondary support, and operated from a develop (and growth) mindset, any of the three options could have transformed into fulfilling, joyful, passionate experiences.

  • In the restaurant you could have been driven by the desire to one day open your own restaurant that abides by your personal values and contributes to the community in a way that meets those values. The desire to learn and support others could have added meaning to your daily experience, made you more resilient, and helped you enjoy the small moments throughout the process.
  • In the choir you could have connected to the meaning of sharing what you love about singing with the students and been dedicated to fostering their inspiration. Overtime perhaps you would have become a better teacher and eventually passionate about both singing and teaching.
  • In the accounting job you could have made sure to work for an organization that served a population you cared for to increase your motivation and meaning. To address the challenge of the office environment, you could have looked for other opportunities that were unconventional in their schedule or work environment (working from home? Consulting? Managing in addition to doing the accounting?) to meet your other needs.

Check out Should You Quit Your Job? To learn more about the roles of purpose and passion at work.

“Follow Your Passion” Tends To Put ‘Happiness’ Before Meaning & Purpose

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?” –David Brooks for the New York Times

Author David Brooks spells out the unfortunate impact of prioritizing passion as a strategy for being happy or fulfilled on purpose cultivation pretty plainly: pursuing what brings us enjoyment before exploring how we might contribute to others (an essential ingredient of purpose) can put purpose in a bind.

As we’ve explored in the myth, ‘My Purpose Will Make Me Happy,’ the tricky bit is that we may not (initially) enjoy the work involved in our purpose(s). Working towards purpose involves challenges, growth, and discomfort (part of why it’s so meaningful) which may be at odds with conventional, idealized visions of living a passionate life.

What’s your vision of living a life of passion? Is it driven somewhat by the following pervasive quote of debated origin?

 “Find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

Generally, the type of ‘happiness’ that we hope to experience through living passionately meets the first two Elements of Well-Being: Ephemeral Pleasure and Flow. Essentially, we yearn to experience pleasure and effortless engagement- and there is nothing wrong with that desire! Pleasure and engagement are essential ingredients in the recipe for Optimal Well-Being. However, when we prioritize those two Elements at the expense of Meaning (the fourth Element), we severely limit our potential experience of joy, flourishing, and life satisfaction overall.

To be clear, passion and purpose are not mutually exclusive. One can absolutely develop passion in an area that is personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and contributes to the world beyond the self (and vice versa). The point to drive home here is that you will have more options (and thus better odds of cultivating joy, flourishing, life-satisfaction, AND ‘happiness’) if you begin with what you CARE about versus beginning with what you LIKE. 

When you put all your eggs in the ‘happiness’ basket, you’re probably going to choose from things you already enjoy. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. However, you may find yourself down the road scratching your head and wondering, “Is there something more?

Author Cal Newport throws passion to the side when making his argument for finding work you love in his book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” Since purpose is inherently related to work and has better outcomes for job satisfaction and performance than passion alone, purpose ends up playing a pivotal role in his argument (Hansen, 2019)

Newport introduces the concept of two different mindsets for approaching the goal of work satisfaction (which could be expanded to life satisfaction) that further highlight the limitations of using passion as your compass:

“To summarize, I’ve presented two different ways people think about their working life. The first is the craftsman mindset, which focuses on what you can offer the world. The second is the passion mindset, which instead focuses on what the world can offer you. The craftsman mindset offers clarity, while the passion mindset offers a swamp of ambiguous and unanswerable questions… there’s something liberating about the craftsman mindset: It asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is ‘just right,’ and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.” – Cal Newport

(And, even if it’s not easy, it can still be pleasurable and joyful anyway.)

Passion Mindset: Craftsman Mindset:
Focusing on what the world can offer YOU Focusing on what you can offer the WORLD
Getting value Creating Value
Seeking pleasure and flow first Seeking impact first

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport – Animated Book Summary
In this 7 minute summary of Newport’s book, the narrator walks us through the meat of Newport’s argument for finding work you love:

  • Adopt a craftsman mindset and cast passion aside as your primary metric for your work
  • Develop incredible skill through deliberate practice
  • Specialize in something niche and highly needed; accumulate rare and valuable skills

It’s worth noting that believing ourselves (or anyone else for that matter) to fall solely into only one of these mindsets would likely be an oversimplification of reality. You probably have a mix of both going on as you weigh your choices. Don’t limit yourself to one or the other, it’s not a condemnation to be a complex being with many layers.

In a similar vein, author Elizabeth Gilbert hosts a Ted Talk about creativity and shares the idea that channeling a ‘higher power’ can inspire us in our pursuits. She offers that when a task is no longer about us, the ego can get out of the way. Making a meaningful impact can be seen as a higher order ambition akin to the higher power Gilbert refers to in her talk; focusing on what we can offer the world empowers and motivates us in our work.

“Follow Your Passion” Limits Your Options

In order to explain how using the advice to follow your passion limits your options, we need to revisit fit and develop mindsets.

For a refresher, “Fit” versus “Develop” Mindsets affect your likelihood of developing new interests.

  • A Fit Mindset is the idea that you are inherently passionate for a few specific activities and that passion will be revealed to you soon after you start engaging with them– you’ll ‘just get it.’ You are only a fit for a limited number of specific activities.
  • A Develop Mindset is the belief that interests and passions can be developed. It expands your options significantly, allowing you to adapt and maximize fulfillment and joy in a greater variety of activities and circumstances.

When we’re moving through the world with a fit mindset, we are essentially expecting to stumble into passion. We think that we are inherently passionate for a few specific activities and all we have to do is try them to discover our passion. If something doesn’t instantly click, then it’s probably not for us. Right?

Well. It could be… if you change your mindset!

With a develop mindset, we set ourselves up to develop passions out of interests. Under these circumstances, you do not have to be madly in love with something from the get-go. A mild interest will do to get started.

This is wonderful news. Rather than having a handful of options to draw from, you now have many, many more possibilities. Anything that you could become interested in is now on the table.

Fit Mindset Regarding Passion

Carl loved chemistry in high school so he pursued pharmacology in college but didn’t enjoy his initial classes. He decided to try tutoring math students but found he wasn’t particularly good at managing the kids’ behavior. He knew he was great at cooking so tried to dive into that deeply but eventually found it overwhelming. He got a job doing tech support but couldn’t handle being at the computer all day. He even tried blogging about his interests but when he didn’t get much traffic after a month of blogging he decided it wasn’t going to work out.

Develop Mindset Regarding Passion

Jack isn’t particularly fascinated or passionate about anything but he has a handful of things he is intrigued by. He likes dancing, he’s interested in dogs, skateboarding has always seemed pretty cool, and it was pretty neat to be able to design and install the cabinetry in his kitchen. He decides to invest in his interest in dogs by dog sitting and learning how to train the ones that he cares for. He doesn’t make much progress at first and makes a lot of mistakes; but over time he starts to see results and really begins to understand how training works. His investment in the animals’ success grows and he starts to become passionate. He’s considering eventually creating a dog training course for others or building an agility course of his own.

“Follow your passion” tends to assume that a specific passion is already within you. Assuming this is actually a dangerous belief. Not only does it limit your options, but fit mindsets make you less resilient to challenges. When something difficult happens with your new found passion, it bucks against the fit mindset idea that things should come easily when you’re truly passionate. When they don’t, it can inspire doubt and increase your likelihood of giving up. Believing passion is inherent could therefore make you less resilient.

“When people tried to follow their passion, they were less likely to consider other areas of interest where passion could develop– and less likely to anticipate difficulties. And when they did run into obstacles pursuing a passion, they were more likely to lose interest and give up.” (O’Keefe, et. al 2018)

You can also think of it like the dating mindsets of destiny versus growth, but instead of a partner you’re considering your passion. A destiny mindset functions like a fit mindset, while a growth mindset functions like a develop mindset.

Psychologist Adam Grant relates the nature of passion and purpose to relationships as well:

“I think the reason why the romantic metaphor makes sense is that it’s like marriage. I think you have to date a lot. For most of us, you know, we had to sample widely. That’s generally what’s found when you look at people who develop interests over their life, but yeah, I think there is eventually a commitment that is like a marriage—and it’s as satisfying as a marriage, and it grows like a marriage.” –Adam Grant 

Develop mindsets in passion cultivation (like the growth mindset in dating) lead to more resilience and expand our options.

Learn how to develop a develop mindset here.

And just to knock down the “follow your passion” advice a few more pegs as a metric specific to choosing a job, not everyone is passionate about something they can make a living in any way. As we mentioned in the myth, “You can be anything you want,” it’s impossible for everyone to get a job in a field they’re passionate about because there simply aren’t enough jobs in those fields.  90% of students are passionate about sports, arts, and music, but only 5% of the workforce is in those fields. Such conditions make passion jobs competitive (Vallerand, et all 2003). On top of that, studies indicate that very passionate people are more likely to get taken advantage of at work (Kim, et al 2020). Based on the belief that passionate people will do anything for their passion, they may end up getting rewarded with more work instead of benefits like increased pay and time off (Berry & Jachimowicz 2021) (Tam 2022).

There are several purpose myths related to the troubles with “Follow Your Passion” advice. Check them out to go more in depth!

What To Do About It: Passion Can Follow Purpose

Research by Patricia Chen and colleagues has shown that passion is something that can be developed; thus, you technically have a wide selection of endeavors to fall head over heels for. While some limitations do exist depending on each person and their life circumstances, you could possibly develop passion for bobsledding, urban gardening, raising egrets, or astronomy. With the right approach, there are a wild amount of options.

But if it’s that simple and there are so many options, why does it seem to be so hard to figure out what we most want to do? Why is it that we can’t just follow an interest that eventually becomes a passion and then live happily ever after? Why does it seem that passion doesn’t tend to stay?

The answer is that instead of trying to create passion (ideally for things that are meaningful to us), we’re hoping to stumble onto passion. On top of that, we’re anticipating that passion itself is enough to sustain our investment in something. 

So instead of trying to stumble onto passion, create it instead– and ideally do it with purpose in mind:

  1. Operate with a develop mindset. Understand that through time, effort, and commitment you can turn an interest into a passion. Be open-minded about your interests.
  2. Pursue interests that can make the world a better place. Purpose and meaning will create a sustained motivation that passion alone cannot. Having a purposeful passion will make it more possible for you to cultivate fulfillment, joy, and happiness rather than ‘happiness’ alone.
  3. Commit to it and apply continual effort over time. When we continue to build our skills we feel more competent and capable, which can increase our investment.

Deci and Ryan, motivation researchers that specialize in Self Determination Theory, offer that to make passion last we need three things: competency, autonomy, and relatedness (2000). They define these terms in their own way in their paper, so let’s break it down a bit:

  • Competency – A sense of control and potential for progress.
  • Autonomy – in their paper, specifically self-directed choices that are aligned with your values, identity, and strengths
  • Relatedness – it connects us to others and makes us part of something larger.

These three components are similar to author Dan Pink’s elements in his book, “Drive” : autonomy (being self-directed), mastery (the urge to get better at something), and purpose (defined by Pink as being a part of something larger).

Essentially, all of them are making a similar argument: Choosing something on your own terms, being dedicated to developing skill, and having a sense of purpose will help develop and sustain passion.

RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us
In this 11-minute RSA animation covering the premise of Dan Pink’s book, Drive, he breaks down how the elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose contribute to motivation, performance, and satisfaction at work.

The organization 80,000 Hours (part of Effective Altruism) is dedicated to helping people find high-impact careers. The following video from Benjamin Todd (one of their CEOs) argues that basing our lives around passion doesn’t actually lead to fulfillment and happiness. He encourages people to choose careers that are purposeful over passionate.

To find work you love, don’t follow your passion | Benjamin Todd (TED)

  • 80,000 Hours is dedicated to helping people make career decisions based on doing what is valuable.
  • Traditional advice of “Follow your passion” tells you to identify your interests, find careers that match those interests, and pursue them no matter what.
  • Todd offers the strong opinion that if you follow your passion you’re probably going to fail because there aren’t enough jobs for the things people are typically passionate about.
  • He suggests that your interests are a bad thing to base career decisions on because they change over time.
  • Instead of following passion, Todd encourages focusing on getting good at something that helps others and makes the world a better place.
  • Doing what’s valuable can lead to passion.
  • So go explore and learn about options, build skills, and solve pressing problems.

80,000 Hours has pretty high standards for what it means to make an impact. While a few of his assertions are pretty strong and possibly fatalistic, Todd makes a salient point near the end of the presentation when he mentions that focusing on doing something valuable (i.e., purposeful) can lead to passion. Lining up with the other research referenced on this page, the assertion that passion can be built on purpose is compelling. You could even end up with Optimal Purpose.

None of this means you couldn’t possibly do it all “backwards” and turn a current passion into a purpose. The following TED Talk from Peggy Oki shares her story about how her love of whales became a purposeful mission in education and activism as she slowly became involved in raising awareness around whale hunting in an effort to protect them. Instead of simply continuing to appreciate these majestic creatures, she began working to have an impact on their wellbeing.

Ultimately, rather than hoping you’ll stumble upon passion, see it as something you can build. Start with interests (or things you could become interested in) that could have an impact on the world beyond yourself.

Try This: Interests and Impacts Generation

*Pre-Activity Caveat: This is just a taste of the types of exercises you can explore in the Clarify page where you’ll find more in-depth information on the concepts of interests and impacts. Try this one out to whet the palette, and check out Clarify to get some more serious understanding and ideas!

Grab a sheet of paper or open a word doc to do some reflection on the following questions. Word to the wise: try not to overthink your answers. Go easy on yourself and allow things to come up without too much analysis. Seeing this as an experiment to generate ideas can help open up creative avenues you may not ordinarily consider with a more “planning lens” on what to do with your life.

  1. Answer the following questions to come up with a list of some current interests or things you enjoy:
    • What are you deeply grateful for that you already have in your life?
    • What is working well for you in your current life and career — what do you find fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, and important?
    • How much of your time during an average week is spent doing things you dislike or that you feel are a waste of your time? What are those things? What are the OPPOSITES of those things?
    • What do you spend a silly amount of money on that brings you lasting joy?
    • Is there anything you enjoy to a point that you would pay to do it? (Or anything you already pay to do because you enjoy it?)
  2. Choose two or three that stick out to you from your answers to the questions.
  3. Answer the following questions about impact:
    • What do you think are the most important problems in the world? In your country? In your community?
    • When you think about the state of the world, what makes you scared or angry?
    • Who do you want to serve and help?
    • What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the next generation?
    • What do you want to be remembered for?
    • As a child and/or as a young adult, what do you wish had been present or more available that would have impacted your growth, development, and joy?
  4. Choose 2 or three impact possibilities from your answers.
  5. Smash your interests and impacts together! Match each interest up with each impact and imagine what work can be done that connects the two. If you think of roles, organizations, activities, or jobs that specifically embody your combinations, write those down.  Consider doing some research on them or reaching out to people who do them currently to learn more.

**Remember** There is a lot MORE where these reflections come from. Understanding our values, strengths, dreams, interests, and potential impacts are key to developing Optimal Purpose. The above can get you started down the path of developing passionate purpose, and again, there is more where these come from!

Check out the Clarify section for oodles of exercises and more information on the importance of each of these components in passion and purpose.

If you’re having a hard time thinking of what you’re interested in (it happens), check out the masterlist of interests in Clarify to see what jumps out at you.

Passion In Summary

Passion can inhibit purpose in these three ways:

  • When we have “Obsessive Passion” (passion we engage with because we feel compelled to do it and are uncomfortable not doing it) we become motivated by external reward versus intrinsic meaning and struggle to prioritize the cultivation of Optimal Purpose.
  • When we prioritize passion in the name of our own enjoyment versus the potential for positive impact on others we inhibit our potential for engaging with the impact element of purpose. “Follow your passion” is advice that teaches us to prioritize our own pleasure over creating a positive impact for others.
  • When we have a “Fit Mindset” and a “Fixed Mindset” about passion and purpose (meaning we believe we have set interests and abilities) we limit the number of possibilities of things we can do and may give up more easily when things get challenging.

You can overcome passion as a hindrance by:

  • Operating with a develop mindset. Understand that through time, effort, and commitment you can turn an interest into a passion. Be open-minded about your interests.
  • Pursuing interests that can make the world a better place. Purpose and meaning will create a sustained motivation that passion alone cannot. Having a purposeful passion will make it more possible for you to cultivate fulfillment, joy, and happiness rather than ‘happiness’ alone.
  • Committing to it and applying continual effort over time. When we continue to build our skills we feel more competent and capable, which can increase our investment.

Hindrances to Purpose Questions Adults Ask Shoulds The Pursuit Success and Money School Structure Fit and Fixed Mindset Fear Happiness and Complacency Passion Honorable Mentions

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources