Having planted my feet squarely in the work of transformational leadership over a decade ago and having now participated in well over 10,000 conversations about what one might do with their life, the topics of passion and purpose come up a lot. And I mean, a LOT. Regardless of your field, there is frequent chatter about the two. No matter what social media timeline you’re skimming on any given day, you are bound to come across at least one post espousing the importance of finding purpose in your life and/or engaging with work that you’re passionate about.
While these are both noble and important messages they can leave us a bit hamstrung in deciphering which capital “P” we place in our sights. Do we follow our passion? Or do we pursue our purpose? Or can, and should, we do both?
What is Passion? What is Purpose?
Defining terms is always a good idea when debating strategy but when terms are thrown around as much as these two are, I think its essential to nail down meaning. Lets start with passion.
According to Merriam-Webster’s full definition, passion is defined as:
“intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction”
And purpose is defined as this:
“something set up as an object or end to be attained”
In the simplest of terms, purpose is the dot on the map we are trying to navigate to and those destinations can be both far-reaching and long-term or immediate and tangible. We may begin our meetings with a slide on “Purpose” to map out what we’d like to achieve in an hour. Or we may spend a week on silent retreat plotting out the meaning of our lives. No matter what the experience, it’s a thoughtful, cerebral exercise. It is, well, purposeful.
Passion, on the other hand, is driven by the heart. It’s rooted in emotions and doesn’t constrain itself to logic. We feel pulled to act on something and we do. Before we know it, we’ve leapt …often forgetting to look …but the urge to jump is so strong that the fears which normally hold us back become nothing more than faded warning signs that have lost their grip along with their luster. If purpose is the heading on our compass, then passion is the fuel. It’s what drives us, what compels us into action.
Follow Your Heart
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explores the dichotomy of two different ways the brain forms thoughts, which he breaks down as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is described as fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, and subconscious. While System 2 is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.
His research not only won him a Nobel Prize in Economics but revealed our propensity for relying on System 1 during our decision-making processes. In short, we act for emotional reasons first, then rational. As he puts it:
“We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision.”
In other words, we make most decisions based on emotions and then work to back up our decision with rationale. Have you ever said no to a promotion or taken a job that paid less because it meant you could do what you love? Have you ever travelled across the country to work in a totally new company and environment because the project excited you? (raises hand) Have you ever quit your job to start your own company with nothing in your pocket but a wing and a prayer? (raises hand again) These are all examples of System 1 thinking at play. When it comes to head and heart, the heart leads the way.
Pursue Passion, Realize Purpose
As much as I like the idea of living a life that is led through purpose, I do believe it’s a bit of a fantasy as defining purpose and committing to that trajectory is primarily a head-based exercise. This isn’t to say one cannot be purposeful or possess purpose in their life — in fact, I believe defining purpose in goal-oriented endeavors is essential to achieving those goals — but to cast it out in front as our North Star is an ill-fated path lined with good intentions that often ends in frustration, disappointment, and confusion.
Purpose, in my experience, reveals itself in the rear view mirror. It cannot be pursued but it will be realized as the end result of all our pursuits of passion. It follows behind — shifting and morphing along the way — as it is the manifestation of our life’s work. Passion, the emotion that drive us, is what leads and draws us forward and that is the only “P” I believe we can and should pursue.
When we allow the heart to lead, we are not only able to experience joy and fulfillment in the present moment, but in the long-term we inevitably end up just where we should be. Not because we plotted out on our chart but because we allowed our chart to plot itself out.
I would challenge each of you to loosen your grip on expectation, reasoning, and logic and ask yourself where your heart would have you travel. And then go there, wholeheartedly.
Which “P” do you pursue? What works for you?