Want to be excellent? Don’t leave out passion

Socially, it’s importance is minimized, but it’s essential to purpose, grittiness and fulfillment

“The psychologist Abraham Maslow once wrote that ‘the most beautiful fate, the most wonderful good fortune that can happen to any human being, is to be paid for doing that which he passionately loves to do.’” 

~ Tal Ben-Shahar

Many of us want more than to just earn a paycheck; we want to: be good at, be valued, contribute, and to enjoy our work. When we find this place, we’ve found our purposeful career niche. Sometimes we question whether this is possible, or think we’re being idealistic to want this. It is indeed possible to find your purposeful career niche. Unfortunately, socially there can be judgement around pursuing it. However, this is changing with Gen Z. Interestingly, Gen Z are more likely than previous generations to search for careers with meaning (Kingston, 2014; Millar & Dougherty, 2015).

Passions (also referred to as interests) are a critical part of the equation to finding a career where you will be happy and successful. A purposeful career niche, is like a math formula. In leaving passions out of the equation, we will not reach our desired destination, and we’ll wonder why we’re still not happy, excelling, being valued, or motivated in our work.

In this post, I’ll show you some research on careers and the difference between a job and a calling (aka a purposeful career), then we’ll look at the components that come into place to make a job a purposeful career. We’ll also look at the different processes of finding your purposeful career niche (hint, an internal focus comes first).  Then, I’ll leave you with some questions to prompt your personal inquiry into passions.

Why care about purpose?

In their research on the distinction between job – career – calling, Wrzesniewski et al. (1997) find that people who see their work as a calling (focus on enjoyment of fulfilling, socially useful work) report significantly greater life and work satisfaction.  

Fortunately, this satisfaction is not tied to types of employment. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman puts it this way: “any job can become a calling, and any calling can become a job. A physician who views the work as a Job and is simply interested in making a good income does not have a Calling, while a garbage collector who sees the work as making the world a cleaner, healthier place could have a Calling.”

What is a purpose?

If you’re interested in purpose, reading Joseph Campbell is a must. In Pathways to Bliss, he describes the hero’s journey and tells us that it is about bringing back what we’ve learned (our unique gift) as a contribution to our community. Here’s how William Damon describes the purposeful in The Path to Purpose:

“The purposeful are those who have found something meaningful to dedicate themselves to, who have sustained this interest over a period of time, and who express a clear sense of what they are trying to accomplish in the world and why. They have found a cause or ultimate goal that inspires their efforts from day to day and helps them fashion a coherent future agenda. They know what they want to accomplish and why, and they have taken concerted steps to achieve their ambitions.”  

So, to describe it with a broad brush,  the purposeful pursue something that has meaning (meaningful contribution), that sustains their interest over time (passion), where their unique gifts (strengths) are being utilized in service of the goal.

The components of a purposeful career niche

The work of many authors (Joseph Campbell, William Damon, Tom Rath, Frederick Buechner, David Brooks) shows that when you want to find your purpose, one should look at: Unique gifts (strengths/abilities) + what the world needs (meaningful contribution) + our enjoyment of using our strengths in service of the world (passions/interests).

Jim Collins’ “hedgehog concept” tells us that great companies (and great individuals) focus on the nexus of what they love (aka passion), what they can be great at (aka strengths) and what the world needs and  will pay for—the “economic engine” (valued contribution).

Purposeful Career Niche = Strengths + Meaningful Valued Contribution + Passions

Why is passion an essential component?

“Passion is so key in leading and creating excellence that I will hire passion over education or talent every time. I prefer to have both, but given a choice I will take passion. La Rochefoucauld once said, “The most untutored person with passion is more persuasive than the most eloquent without.”” ~ Dave Ramsey

Biswas-Diener et al. (2011), Kashdan & McKnight (2009) and McKnight & Kashdan (2009)  highlight how interests and values interact with strengths to affect how strengths are manifested. Interests and values inform authentic motivation, becoming a driving force that creates action in pursuit of goals. People whose motivation is authentic have more confidence, greater performance, persistence, creativity (Deci & Ryan, 1991; Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne, & Ilardi, 1997), self-esteem  (Deci & Ryan, 1995), and well-being (Ryan, Deci, & Grolnick, 1995).

Passion/ interest is a key component for sustaining effort. If you’re ever had a job, you’re probably not under the illusion that you’ll love every part of your job. We all have parts of our work that we don’t particularly rave about. Angela Duckworth, a researcher on grit, tells us there are four psychological capacities we can cultivate to increase grit: Interest + Practice + Purpose + Hope.  Interest is defined as sustainable passion and it’s achieved by being intrinsically drawn to what we do. Unless you have love/fascination/childlike curiosity for your work you’re not going to put in the effort over the long run.

The process of discovering your purpose

“It goes without saying, this is very difficult. Bringing the boon back can be even more difficult than going down into your own depths in the first place.”

~ Joseph Campbelll

Challengers to the introspective process may say you should put more focus on the external evaluation of world circumstances when looking to define your career. I’ve had clients who think that the first step to defining a successful career is figuring out what the world needs. The approach from this paradigm is that you first figure out what the world needs and then figure out how to meet that need. Unfortunately, this is a twisted approach that leads to confusion and wasted time.

Tom Rath in Are You Fully Charged? includes a focus on what the world needs, but at the same time shows us that it is critical to know what you can give. His point is that you need to focus not on what the world needs,  but on what you can give.  

“You create meaning when your strengths and interests meet the needs of the world. Knowing your talents and passions is critical, but that is only half of this supply-and-demand equation. What may be even more important is understanding what the world needs from you and how you can productively apply your strengths and interests. … One of the rightful critiques of all the ‘follow your passion’ advice is that it presumes that you are the center of the world, and pursuing your own joy is the objective of life. Those who make a profound difference, in contrast, begin by asking what they can give. Starting with this question allows you to direct your talents toward what matters most for others.”

Futurist, Richard Worzel, identifies that too often the focus is on the job market, whereas there should be an internal inquiry and the only way to be successful while competing with candidates from around the world is to pursue the nexus of passion and strengths (White, 2015).

William Damon, in The Path to Purpose writes ““The single greatest barrier to youngsters finding their paths to purpose is the fixation on the short horizons that infuses cultural messages sent to young people today. A popular culture celebrating quick results and showy achievements has displaced the traditional values of reflection and contemplation that once stood as the moral north star of human development and education.”

The process of getting to your purposeful career niche requires both an internal and external assessment. However, focusing first internally, creates a filter from which to assess the external options. The reverse leads to confusion and wasted time.

Inquiry tools

Here are some self-reflection questions to build your internal compass with regards to passions and interests:

  • What brings me true joy and energizes me?
  • What creates a fire in my belly/motivates me?
  • What does it mean to follow my heart?
  • If money and time weren’t an issue, what would I do?

En fin

It’s beneficial and totally possible to move from a job to a purposeful career.  A purposeful career niche is the meeting point of your unique strengths, meaningful valued contribution and passions.  An essential part of the equation are passions. Being passionate about what you do is not only part of enjoying your day to day, but will also sustain your effort to reach your goal. The process of discovering your purposeful career niche begins first with introspection and building an awareness of what you can give, not by first assessing what the world needs and trying to meet this need. If you want to be happier and more fulfilled in your work, then gaining greater awareness and ownership of your passions is key.


Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T.B. & Minhas, G. (2011). A dynamic approach to psychological strength development and intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6: 2, 106 — 118.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237-288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1995). Human autonomy: The basis for true self-esteem. In M. Kemis (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem (pp. 31-49). New York: Plenum.

Kashdan, T.B., & McKnight, P.E. (2009). Origins of purpose in life: Refining our understanding of a life well lived. Psychological Topics, 18, 303–316.

Kingston, A. (2014, Jul 15). Get ready for Generation Z. Maclean’s Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca

McKnight, P.E., & Kashdan, T.B. (2009). Purpose in life as a system that creates and sustains health and well-being: An integrative, testable theory. Review of General Psychology, 13, 242–251.

Millar, E., & Dougherty, I. (2015, October 22). Beyond Rehearsal for the Real World. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Sheldon, K. M., Ryan, R. M., Rawsthorne, L., & Ilardi, B. (1997). Trait self and true self: Cross-role variation in the Big Five traits and its relations with authenticity and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1380-1393.

White, Shelley. (2015, October 22). The Generation Z effect. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C.R., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.