Following Your Passion Isn’t Enough

There is a popular mantra today that says, “Follow your passion.” It seems to suggest that by simply following my passion I will somehow achieve great success.

If that were true, I would have been a pro quarterback, despite not having the arm strength, or a great poet, despite being trapped in endless imitations of John Donne, or a great chef, if not for my lack of taste buds, or…… You get my point, I think.photo-1428515613728-6b4607e44363

We have all had passions in our lives.

Simply following your passion has as much value as the once popular belief that simply by thinking positive thoughts, nothing but good will come your way. There is no doubt that positive thoughts do something neurologically that is beneficial, but they are not in and of themselves a magic elixir.

Let me perhaps offer a more complete way of thinking. Certainly, passion is a key element. You really need to love what you do if you are going to be willing to put in the hours and hours that it will be needed to be really good at it.

When I was doing my PhD a few years ago, my dissertation committee chair reminded me of this.

The dissertation is your crowning achievement and it requires hundreds if not thousands of hours of research, writing, editing, and finally defending publicly before you are done and can attach those magic three letters to your name.

My chair, Jon Wergin, reminded me that I needed to love the topic if I was going to get through the tough times – and he was so right. So, passion is important. I think Parker Palmer sheds some useful light on this in his wonderful little book, Let Your Life Speak, when he suggests that you need to mentally turn around and look back over your life. When were you most alive? When did you have that feeling that you could do this (whatever it is) forever? Take note of those times. This will give you strong indications of where your passions lie.

The challenge is that passion without capabilities is a flame that will splutter out pretty quickly. Hence, I am neither quarterback or poet or chef. You need to do a careful inventory of your values, skills and abilities.

There are several approaches that can serve you here.

I believe strongly in clear personal values. When you put the time into understanding what it is you truly believe is important you will often see the shaping of purpose – and purpose brought to life is passion.

There are several objective ways of identifying your strengths but I tend to gravitate to two:

  1. StrengthFinder©, based on the extensive research of Marcus Buckingham and others, is a very useful tool to help get clarity.
  2. The Reflected Best Self exercise, based on the work of Laura Morgan Roberts and others in the field of Positive Organizational Studies, is a process that invites others to shed light on when and how you had the most significant impact on them (Send me a note if you more information on either of these approaches).

Together, these tools are incredibly enlightening and as you explore them, you will find a synergy building between passion and capabilities.

Capabilities develop and morph over time: sometimes they are natural gifts, often they need to be developed. I was not an instinctive researcher and certainly was never comfortable working with quantitative data, but it was skill I learned to achieve the greater achievement I was striving for.

So, we have a passion and we have, or are developing, the skills and capabilities to pursue it, but what if it takes us nowhere?

There has to be opportunity or, to put it more harshly, a market for what it is you want to do and the skills you want to use. Very few people actually have the entrepreneurial drive or ability to carve a whole new path for themselves.

Lacking that, you need to keep the market on your radar. If you have this passion and have or can develop these capabilities, will anyone care? This may require some creativity on your part and it is certainly not the starting point in the sense of, “How do I get a job?” but there does need to be a place for you to land.

Employers desperately want people with a sense of passion and purpose, with clear values, discipline, and an array of capabilities.

It may require some objective career coaching to help you see where your unique combination will fit best, but don’t assume it will just fall into your lap.

In the end, passion is important but it’s not the only ingredient. Mixed carefully with the right skills and capabilities, and served up in the right place at the right time, you could have a great combination. Wow, I almost sound like a chef: now, if I only I had taste buds!


Peter_bio2Peter Dickens

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry at tyndale.ca/leadership. Follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).



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