Last updated: Passion vs purpose: What’s better for business?

Passion vs purpose: What’s better for business?


Listen to article

Download audio as MP3

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s almost impossible to avoid hearing what everyone around you is passionate about. It’s a tech and startup haven, where people can’t seem to stop talking about the passion that drives them in their work.

Don’t get me wrong, not long ago I was part of that cohort. I was passionate about what I was doing, and I was more than happy to talk about it. But now I’m thinking about passion vs purpose and how it’s time to shift our focus.

Deconstructing passion vs purpose

Passion seems to drive decision-making for many people, which is why I was struck by a passage from Ryan Holiday’s “Ego is The Enemy“:

“We’re often assured that passion, in the sense of unbridled enthusiasm, our willingness to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal, is our most important asset. What I think usually gets lost there is that passion typically masks a weakness, in the sense that its breathlessness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for purpose and perseverance.”

Passion as a weakness? That hit a nerve. Passion is what shows that I care about what I’m doing. It’s what drives me, right? He continues:

“And to be clear, I am not talking about ‘caring’. But what we need is purpose… Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Passion is ‘about’. (I am so passionate about’ ___.) Purpose is ‘to’ and ‘for’. (I must do ___. I was put here to accomplish ___. I am willing to endure ___ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose de-emphasises the ‘I’. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself.”

In an age where companies are looking for passionate employees, and burnout is at an all-time high, it may be a welcome relief for passion to take a backseat vs purpose in the hiring process.

Passion is a flash in the pan. It’s energizing and magnetic, and seems to encapsulate the dedication and commitment hiring managers seek. But passion isn’t sustainable.

Passion is a fire: it blazes, and burns out

What are you passionate about? It’s a question I’ve encountered both as an interviewee, and an interviewer. And having sat in the interviewer’s chair, I can confirm that yes, there is a “right” answer hiring managers look for.

For instance, we wanted candidates to have interests outside of work, but we really wanted them to demonstrate their passion for the work we did. We wanted to know they were ready to board this bullet train, and that we wouldn’t have to spend too much time getting them up-to-speed. We wanted them to show they cared about our mission – through their words, actions, even activism, but on their time.

Passion is an unspoken promise that says, “I care about this personally, so I will go above and beyond.” And it’s so alluring when you’re hiring. But passion is wild and unwieldy. It’s fiery and energetic. It’s out of control.

In fact, passion is, by definition, “a strong and barely controllable emotion.” Yikes. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what the energy I want driving business decisions.

I want calm and measured. I want evidence-based data. And I bet your company’s bottom line does, too.

And, like any fire, passion can burn out. Fast. I’ve seen so many people lose their passion at work – myself included. Harvard researcher and professor Jon Jachimowicz’s research simplifies the passion conundrum by prompting critical questions: Where do you find meaning? How can you leave an impact? What gives you purpose?

By focusing on what you care about, passion becomes secondary.

Instead of passion, hire for purpose

“Purpose,” Holiday says, “is like passion with boundaries.”

Honestly, this got me. Whereas passion is erratic, pure energy; purpose is consistent. It’s grounding. It’s the reason behind the work – the why. In contrast, passion is self-focused (“I am passionate about…”), purpose is larger than the self (“I am here to do…”).

Purpose is, by definition, “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.”

And reason, rather than pure emotion, is a much steadier framework for business performance.

So when your next interview candidate sits across from you (or more likely, on your computer screen) and says they’re passionate, dig deeper. Why are they passionate? More importantly, how are they harnessing that passion? Can they connect their passion to a bigger, more sustainable purpose?

Everyone wants enthusiastic employees who are excited to solve problems and make a difference. Ask your candidates about purpose. Find their why.

When a candidate can identify their purpose, they – and you – are in a much better position to succeed in the long term.

HR, better.
Employees, happier.
Businesses, healthier.
It’s time to modernize the employee experience.

Share this article


Search by Topic beginning with