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The Difference Between Purpose and Passion

Saturday Spark #18

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

Graduation season is in high gear in Boston. As a result, thousands of graduates are being told by very well-meaning speakers to find their passion in life, to not compromise, and that when you do something you are passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work.

So, when the article “‘Find Your Passion’ is Awful Advice hit my radar recently, I was intrigued. It cited research by Carole Dweck that suggests passions are not found, they are best developed over time. Mark Cuban has been giving entrepreneurs similar advice. That instead of pursuing what you are passionate about, you should look to where you spend your time, what you are good at and double down there.

What Dweck and Cuban’s perspective have in common is a core belief in a growth mindset — that interests and skills are not fixed and hard work leads to talent and growth. When you have then mastered something and are good at it, you are more likely to be passionate about it. But what neither mentions is purpose.

Passion and purpose are distinct. Passion is about emotions, the motivation and what makes us feel good, i.e. “do what you love”. Purpose is the reason, or the why behind what we do, primarily for others, i.e, “do what contributes”. Where passion can be all over the place, wild and exciting, purpose is much more focused.  Passions can also come and go, whereas purpose tends to be longer term. Finally, passions are inwardly focused whereas purpose is outwardly focused on the greater impact you have on others and on your surroundings.

This week, an aspiring entrepreneur asked me if he should do something he’s passionate about or something he’s good at. In my own experience, it doesn’t have to be an either/or question. The magic happens when you figure out a way to align your purpose, your passions AND your talents. My purpose is to inspire people to create positive change. My passion for the past 10 years has been health and sustainability, but I was, and continue to be, just as passionate about quality journalism and the role the fourth estate plays in society. I dreamed in high school of being a columnist for The New York Times. I interned for local affiliates of NPR and ABC news. But I never became a journalist.

My real talent turned out to be creating new products and building new businesses. Which is why being one of the earliest team members of New York Times Digital was such a great alignment of purpose, passion and skills. But also why, as the digital business matured and I became passionate about environmental health, that I found myself thinking about leaving to start WeSpire. I will always be grateful to my mentor at The New York Times who, instead of being upset or trying to talk me out of leaving, just said, “It makes perfect sense to me, how can I help?”

It turns out that my own experience is backed up by the research. In a recent post, Bea Boccalandro cites research done with 5,000 employees over 5 years that uncovered that those employees with both purpose and passion place in the 80th percentile in performance, on average, per supervisor ratings. If you take passion away but still have purpose, average performance drops to the 64th percentile. If you take purpose away and are left with only passion, however, performance plummets to the 20th percentile.  

Passions seem relatively easy to identify, but how does one find their purpose? Similar to Dweck’s research on passion, John Coleman, author of Passion & Purpose, says that you don’t find purpose, you build it. It is an evolutionary process of reflecting on your gifts, your values and what you want to contribute. The four reflecting questions I’ve found the most helpful are:

  1. How will the world be better off, thanks to you having been on this earth?
  2. What are your unique gifts and superpowers?
  3. Who have you been when you’ve been at your best?
  4. Who must you fearlessly become?

So if you have been seeking to find your purpose or your passion, the good news is that you can stop looking. They are part of you and in your life already. You just need to step back, reflect, align your life as needed, and keep building.

Quote of the Week:  “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” – Harriet Tubman

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark: How to Cultivate Courage

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