Hope for the Passionless People?

If you come into my office and tell me that you’re looking for help finding a career you’re more “passionate” about, the question you get back might surprise you:

“Great!  So how exactly are you planning to suffer?”

I know people always hate when coaches/counselors use annoying riddles like this to get points across, but in this case, sorry, I just can’t help it.  As my mentor pointed to me, years ago, there’s an unavoidable link in life between risk and reward.  And apparently some 13th Century Latin scholars realized this, too, since when they invented the word passio that eventually led to our current word, passion, the definition initially meant “suffering”.  The phrase “passion of the Christ” reflects this original meaning, for example.  It was only later that we came to associate the word in an entirely upbeat context, using it as a synonym for “personal interests” or perhaps to characterize somebody who is just really, really jazzed about doing something.

Interesting, don’t you think?

At any rate, my point is that if you truly want to be passionate about your career, don’t expect a walk in the park, necessarily.  Odds are you’ll probably have to “suffer” for what you believe in to some degree, small or large, whether this takes the form of giving up some quality time with your family to do a great job at work or perhaps spending months or years of your life studying, improving, and doing whatever it takes to sharpen your professional skill sets.

If somebody tells me they’re passionate about “sustainability” or some other field, for example, both myself (as well as most employers) probably won’t take the person very seriously unless they demonstrate that they’re already devoting a lot of hours to volunteering in the field, as well as investing the time it takes to read books, blogs, and other topical sources of information about the subject.  Lip service alone doesn’t cut it.  When many job hunters use the word passion, in fact, it kind of comes across as “I’ll start learning about it when you start paying me!”

So if you’re passionate about something in life, you probably already know it, and any quick peek at your calendar — and how you invest your time each day — will confirm it.

What about those people, however, who report having NO passions at all?

While it may surprise some people to hear this, I routinely encounter professionals who report that they can’t think of anything at all — personally or professionally — that they’re interested in, committed to doing, or fascinated about.  Even when I ask them every probing question I’ve got in my coaching arsenal, they only display a mild reaction, at best, to certain subjects.  So either they’re in abject denial, their passions are simply beyond my skills to pull out of them, or thirdly, we have to accept the idea that some professionals today just don’t have much passion around anything.  This, of course, really bums some of these people out, since conventional wisdom (as well as every book ever published on career change) seems to assume that everybody in life can point to something that is of compelling and fascinating interest to them.

So first of all, I’m looking for any commentary from all of you out there as to whether you think is truly the case.  Have you met people that really don’t have much passion for anything?  Or do you feel you’re currently in such a state, yourself?  If so, do you feel this is a lifelong trait of yours, or simply a temporary thing related to your current circumstances?

Curious to hear your thoughts.

While we’re at it, though, here’s a list of some of the routine questions many experts suggest can help unearth some core passions:

1.  What would you do with your life if money was no object?
2.  If you had the capital to start any sort of business, what would it be, and why?
3.  What were your favorite subjects in school?
4.  When you visit a bookstore, which section are you naturally drawn to?
5.  What hobbies would you like your kids (if you have them) to get involved in?
6.  What do you get so absorbed in doing that you lose track of time, on occasion?
7.  What would you spend your days gladly doing, even if nobody paid you?
8.  If you had to give a speech on any subject, what would it be about?
9.  What puts a smile on your face?
10.  What’s the favorite part of your current or most recent job?
11.  What career would you choose if you could start your professional life all over again?
12.  In what aspects of your life do you feel you show the most creativity?
13.  Who do you envy — or would you trade places with, professionally?
14.  What do you envision doing during your retirement years?
15.  When you look back at the end of your life, what will you regret not doing?

Again, I’m not sure these questions are foolproof, since I’ve met many a person who had to take a total pass on many of them, when asked.  But they’re definitely a good place to start.  And if you still end up drawing a blank on many of these items, I’ve got one word for you: experimentation.

If you’re not fortunate enough to already have figured out what really spins your jets, out in the world today, it might be time to get out of the house and expose yourself (in the good way) to a wide range of subjects to see what sticks.  Try reviewing some community course catalogs, volunteering at various places, striking up some new conversations with people, or even just going to one type of event or meeting you wouldn’t normally go to, each week.  You never know.  You might stumble across something that really…just…feels right!

14 Responses to “Hope for the Passionless People?”

  1. Ashley: Thanks for chiming in and while I can only speak in the context of your career, versus addressing how the lack of passion or motivation might affect other areas of your life, I’d highly recommend you read the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport — or Google the topic to find a video of that same name he’s produced. I think it does outstanding job of explaining how to think about your career when you don’t have a burning passion to follow. Best of luck to you!

  2. I actually came to this website because I lack passion. Im in college for Veterinary technology.. I thought i would be passionate but when things get tough, i get extremely discouraged and wonder if anything is worth it. Sometimes I wonder if the core of my existence is built on avoiding as much psychological, emotional and physical pain as possible. I want to do more things with psychology, but I also like vet science..I want to be passionate about something, but I am not. I am good at certain subjects like biology, anatomy and physiology but I lack the passion. In fact it effects all of my life. I have no motivating factors. Its horrible and I am confused. Not even money effects it. for me i guess its deeper than that. More psychological. I dont know why. I can put my finger on things that have contributed to this in life.

  3. Hello Matt,

    Lots of good, very engaging, right-on, and well-articulated thoughts shared.
    Briefly, I have always been one of those who have “enjoyed” many things but have not every really felt “passionate” about any one particular thing, perhaps other than living a well-balanced life.
    One thing I am coming to realize more and more lately though is that, I believe, we are all wired to help others in some way. When we figure out what that way is for each one of us, and begin living into it, that can often lead to realizing our passion.
    One of my favorite quotes for those of us seeking guidance in “how” we can best help others is:
    “Our greatest service to others comes out of our greatest suffering.”

  4. I am one of those passionless people. I lost my job about a year ago when my company was bought and my position was eliminated. Thinking that this might be a great opportunity to do “what I want to do with my life,” during this past year I have searched my heart for what I would like to do, looking for the things that excite me and that I gravitate toward. I came across the questions you list months ago and found I was at a loss to answer many of them. I made a folder when I first was laid off labeled “my passions” and it has three articles in it (yours will be the fourth) and a page of my thoughts.

    In my life I have tried all kinds of hobbies: ice skating, swimming, tennis, golf, biking, gardening, softball, volleyball, hiking, knitting, all kinds of craft projects, among them. All were fun for a while, but nothing hit me to the point where I felt I had to keep doing it or could turn it into a business. I have also done various types of volunteer work and find it rewarding, but not something that I want to be doing every day, all day.

    My career for the past 22 years has been in investor relations — financial communications with Wall Street analysts and investors about why they should invest in the stock of the firm at which I worked. I was constantly busy and travelled a lot — actually too much — but I did enjoy dealing with very smart people who kept me on my toes all the time. I am searching for another job in that field, but it also would be fun to do some else — I’m just not sure what that is.

  5. Matt,

    Good stuff and thanks for the reminder that passion is more of a marathon than a sprint.
    I found out recently that I have always enjoyed making things pretty…even my business documents. I decided to commit to this passion by doing it e v e r y d a y and thus created my project 365…where I create and post a wordart, graphic/image every day for 365 days. I am now on day 30. There are lessons I am learning and sometimes going thru some highs and sighs. Mostly, it’s a great endeavor for me ’cause I am setting time aside to do what I love and learn more about this each day. Maybe it’ll become a new business avenue, maybe not… I love it though, no matter what, and certainly I can apply this to my current work efforts in certain ways.

    Thanks for the post, Matt. -Todd

  6. I think many people have a passion, but discount it, thinking they can’t make money doing it, so why bother? They don’t think about the joy it will bring them and how it will enhance other areas of their life.

    I have the opposite problem. I am what Barbara Sher, author of “Refuse to Choose” calls a scanner – multiple passions! So I have to come up with ways to fit everything in and not feel like I’m running out of time.

  7. Hi Matt,

    I agree with many of the reactions above. Sometimes it is about “numbing out” or of getting used to living with a degree of pain in order to believe you’re safe, financially and psychologically. Both are true for me and have been major struggles. Moreover, the question of “what are you passionate about?” has been overwhelming.

    Jobs are complex things that exist in specific and complex environments. They’re not just a set of tasks. They come with money, status, people, personalities, jargon, conflict. So, without knowing exactly what’s out there, it’s hard to know if you’ll fit in. Consequently, perhaps it’s somewhat wrong-headed to try to define each aspect of one’s ideal job, since just because you can think of it in your head, it doesn’t mean it exists in the way you want it to, in the real world. Lastly, it’s been difficult for me to translate a nebulous passion or even keen interest into an actual job or job title.

    However, one thing that seems to be getting me moving in the right direction is asking myself and reflecting on things like: what do I want to learn about? or when I’m totally bored at work, what do I find myself wanting to do or actually doing? What kinds of things do I enjoy helping people with or doing in my free time? How do I (or would I like) to give back to the people in my community / family / friends?

    So far, this approach has gotten me to start taking Spanish language lessons; volunteering at a homeless shelter once/week; and to learning about content and learning management systems like SharePoint.

    Just my dos centavos,


  8. I think that everybody is capable of having a passion. I think sometimes people “numb out” through overwork or comformity to others to their genuine interests. One question that helped me find a multitude of passions in work and life that was asked early on in my career in a a career session years was to imagine my perfect life in great detail – where I lived, who I knew, what work I did, what I did in my social life/community — five years and then in twenty years.

    Apparently when you do twenty years people tend to be truer to their passions. This was true for me. I lived in NYC at the time and couldn’t imagine leaving NYC in the short-term. Needless to say in twenty years the life I imagined at the time was moving back to Northern California. The coach facilitator asked: do you really have to wait twenty years? Needless to say I didn’t and lived very happily California for the next decade!

  9. Matt,

    Thanks for the great topic. These are some very interesting perspectives by others. Notwithstanding how high the bar is to call something a passion, there are certainly things I enjoy more than most other things. In the context of doing work you love, my problem has always been that there are lots of things I think I would enjoy but am too risk averse to allow myself to totally commit to them. Ideally, my comfort zone is having a corporate job with a relatively fixed income where I can show companies how to cost-effectively manage their legal and regulatory risk while I pursue my “other passions” on the side.

    The pain aspect hits home for me because most businesses just don’t want to believe that regulation can ever be anything more than overhead. It is always amazing to me that so many businesses can be so creative in marketing and product development and so unimaginative in other ways. I guess it is just as hard for businesses to expand their comfort zones as it is for the rest of us.

  10. Matt,

    GREAT article! …as always.

    Here are my comments.

    1) re: Passion = Suffering

    I can certainly attest to the sacrifices and pain one must endure to pursue one’s passion. I, as well as my family, have been “suffering” as I have been pursuing the entrepreneurial path. Economically, I will have to make huge sums of revenues and profits to recover the direct investment and opportunity cost of starting my own business. As much as one could complain about depressed salaries and difficult working conditions in a “regular” job, that job would be more profitable (at least in the medium term) than running one’s own company.

    However, my wife and I prefer to pursue our passions. Entrepreneurship is in our blood. I grew up in my father’s drug store. And before her current stint at a large software company, my wife was co-founder and CEO of a telecommunications equipment company.

    It is true that many people may not have experiences in start-ups or non-profit organizations where they can develop the familiarity and confidence to pursue their passions. And people who have worked all their lives in large organizations are often ill-equipped to succeed in smaller environments. In today’s WallStreet Journal (Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught? http://on.wsj.com/zwZiOK), SiValley venture capitalist, Victor Hwang, discusses how “messy” entrepreneurship is and how people need exposure to its realities before they are able to overcome the myriad obstacles.

    I’ve heard it over and over in SiValley and I am living it now: “Pursue your “passion” only because it is more important to you than the suffering you will endure. If you don’t want to suffer, keep you day job–no matter how “miserable” it may seem.”

    2) re: People who just don’t have passion

    While this is a classic question, for example, organizational behavior scholars debate “Theory X vs Theory Y,” in my experience and the experience reported by many others, all people have common “passions”. Daniel Pink talks about some of them in “Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.

    What I do see happen is that people become habituated and anesthetized to their status quo. That is, they become comfortably uncomfortable and don’t feel motivated to initiate a change. To compound the situation, they may fall behind, or their performance may decrease, which then makes any change more difficult, because they have to catch up, first.

    I have heard that Abraham Maslow’s theories are considered “old-school” by some. However, there are mountains of evidence, including 100’s of billions of dollars of marketing spending, that show “man is a perpetually wanting animal” who is only “happy” in the pursuit of what he does not have. That is tantamount to the definition of passion you cited in your article.

    So, I believe everyone has passions of some kind and degree–that only need to be uncovered and awakened.

    That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it! 🙂

  11. Matt,

    This is just another example of the GREAT way you make folks think about what is most important! I believe an old time-management truism, what we DO with our time is what we are passionate about. So like it or not, what we DO is what we ARE!

    Thanks Matt!


  12. Matt, this is my favorite topic. I think passion is a very high bar and should only be attached to the things that are most important in life, family, health, security love of country etc. a passionate attachment to a dream where you are living an intentional life, I can buy that. But passion about a product or an industry, I think not..

    The most successful people that I know maintain an unrelenting passion for their quality of life, the job or the business is just the horse they ride to that destination..

    I hope that I am not being overly provocative or insensitive. I believe in the quote “we don’t find ourselves, we create ourselves.” looking forward to the thoughts of others.


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