The power of passion

posted in: Careers | 1

One of my students yesterday told me he was going to listen to a speech called “How to live a passionate life”. Another told me she had a passion for human development. A common message from the many careers and life guidance posts on LinkedIn is that you should follow your passion to have a successful and fulfilling career and life.

If we take these as face value, then something odd is going on. Passion is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “strong and barely controllable emotion”. For balance I naturally consult the Cambridge dictionary to find: “a very powerful feeling, for example of sexual attraction, love, hate, anger, or other emotion”. But it includes a second definition which is closer to modern usage: “an extreme interest in or wish for doing something, such as a hobby, activity, etc”.

A crime of passion is a defence, recognised in law. There was national outrage in Britain in 1955 when Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, was sentenced to death for the murder of her unfaithful lover (the last man to be hanged was in 1964; the death penalty was abolished in 1965 in Great Britain and 1973 in Northern Ireland). She shot him outside the Magdala pub at the foot of Parliament Hill in Hampstead, where you can still see the bullet holes. Guilty of murder by her own admission, her guilt was, at least in the eyes of many people, mitigated by the fact that it was a crime of passion. Miss Ellis was not likely to be a danger to the public at large, unless they were to cheat on her. A lesser sentence might have been passed but the Home Secretary was under political pressure to seem tough on crime. Passion, in this sense, is an emotion that might cause an otherwise reasonable person to do something extreme, even murder.

It is common enough in everyday (British) English to hear someone say they have a passion for collecting stamps or bird-watching or the films of Audrey Hepburn. But to express a passion for your job is a much more recent use of the word. In gradually diluting the original meaning of the word it is just one more example of linguistic change, often from the USA, which is inevitable in a global language like English.

Personally, if a man told me he had a passion for improving logistic efficiency in the supermarket supply chain, I would suggest he saw a psychiatrist. But he probably means only that he really likes his job and gets a great deal of satisfaction from doing it well. This is sane and socially useful, since that is a very good way to spend one’s time, given that everybody benefits from better supermarket efficiency (except small independent shops I suppose).

Passion is a curious word in that it describes something real but using it to express that thing doesn’t make it any more effective. A woman who loves her husband passionately shows it by her actions. Saying “I love you passionately”, even if true, doesn’t somehow add anything, and might even seem slightly fake. Which is why people don’t (I think) say this much in real life. There is probably a literary term for this feature of the word passion but I don’t know what it is.

The problem comes in the careers advice to follow your passion. I see two difficulties.

First, very few young people, and not even that many older people, have a passion for anything that would help with career choice. One Canadian study found that 84% of students surveyed did have a passion, but only 4% of those passions had anything remotely to do with work or education (unless you expect to become a professional ice hockey player). You might perhaps have a passion for lying on a beach drinking mojitos but there are disappointingly very few companies that will pay you to do this. You might be good at, say, writing computer code, along with many thousands of other people. This would get you a job but it’s not much of a differentiator. And it’s unlikely that you have a passion for it. So this advice isn’t very helpful, and may even demoralise the many people who can’t identify anything about which they care deeply, other than perhaps another person or a pet.

Second, there is little evidence that following your passion is the route to happiness. This author argues persuasively instead that the happy people are those who have discovered a job or role that offers the right kind of absorbing challenge, not too difficult to be unachievable but not so easy as to offer no interest. This could be in any area of life, depending on one’s skills and interests but most people will stumble on it rather than be able to define it in advance. It is happily quite common to find people who love what they do but they have grown to love it rather than defined it as their goal from the start.

Retired people tending their gardens are often very happy for the same reason. Gardening offers a great deal of quiet, continual satisfaction to millions of people. For others happiness might lie in helping other people in charities, or in building model aircraft or watercolour painting. Absorbing hobbies also provide for those who lack deep satisfaction at work an alternative source of enjoyment.

The anxiety of young people seeking a non-existent passion would be reduced if they were told instead to follow a combination of what they enjoy doing and what the seem to be good at. Both of these are work in progress, since you can’t be sure what they are until you’ve tried a few things. They can take you in many different directions and if you’re attuned to your real interests and ignore the pull of money (difficult to do in jobs where success is measured mainly financially) then you’ll find yourself happily doing something that you may then, if you choose, describe as your passion.


This video (hat tip, Ben Hardy) expresses some of what I was trying to say.

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