The question isn’t surprising given that today’s culture seems to be more aware of the need to be passionate about what you do. Blame it on the blurring of our personal and professional lives. As the world becomes more connected, so do our work, interests, and hobbies. We’re also experiencing mounting performance pressure that makes it increasingly difficult to just go to work to receive a paycheck. Add to that the continuous learning required to stay relevant, and time outside of the office is often needed to stay relevant and informed through building skills, participating in events, and cultivating a network. A “work to live” attitude isn’t enough when so many jobs demand this level of commitment, so it’s no wonder that individuals are looking for passion in their work now rather than merely tolerating a job now in hopes of finding something they love later.
What does being passionate mean? We define it with three attributes: Commitment to Domain—a desire to work in, and make a significant impact on, an area, industry, or function over an extended period of time; Questing Disposition—an orientation toward seeking out additional challenges and seeing these challenges as opportunities to learn and develop new skills; Connecting Disposition—an orientation toward developing deep, trust-based relationships with others with the intent to learn together and collaborate.
Individuals who demonstrate these attributes have what we call the Passion of the Explorer. Their orientation toward learning and performance improvement makes them more resilient and more open to the opportunities inherent in uncertainty.
If passion is so important, how can you find yours? We’ve tended to focus on what companies can do to cultivate passion in the workforce, but as individuals we can, and should, try to cultivate these attributes for ourselves.
To some extent, the questing and connecting dispositions tend to be innate—at least until educational or organizational structures discourage them. Think about a toddler playing with a new puzzle: not yet knowing the stigma of failure, he is not afraid to try different combinations until he finds one that works. In environments where failure is punished, experimentation and questing soon disappear. However individuals can start by adjusting their own attitudes about failure as part of the learning process rather than as negative experiences to be avoided. Similarly, individuals can strengthen their connecting disposition by building networks as a way to learn and overcome challenges rather than as a way to gain status. This implies a willingness to be open and vulnerable rather than focusing on power or influence.
While cultivating our questing and connecting dispositions can be challenging in today’s work environments, self-discipline in adjusting our attitudes can go a long way. For many of us, the bigger challenge is finding commitment to domain. How can I know what I want to dedicate myself to? What if I change my mind? Why does commitment to domain even matter?
Commitment to domain helps provide focus and endurance. Questers and connecters without commitment to domain are still valuable to companies, but they may dabble in too many things to develop expertise or jump ship for the next “shiny object” when the inevitable obstacles arise. Those who are deeply committed to making an impact can channel their questing and connecting activities toward longer-term goals that yield significant results.
For our report Passion at Work: Cultivating passion as the cornerstone of talent development we interviewed over a dozen high-performing individuals and identified two common paths to how they discovered their commitment to domain: early access to mentors or active participation in, and openness to, a diversity of knowledge flows.
Mentors as catalysts for finding your domain
Christopher Strieter, cofounder of Senses Wines, a small-batch producer of West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and sales manager at Uproot Wines, a VC-backed direct-sales wine company focused on customer experience, still harbored dreams of becoming an astronaut when he began studying math, economics, and physics at Harvey Mudd College. Over time, his interests shifted toward a more traditional career in investment banking and a masters in finance program. But Christopher soon noticed that when his older friends talked about work, they talked about it as something they “had to” do versus something they wanted to do. Christopher wanted something more.
Through a serendipitous relationship, he was introduced to a wine maker who gave him an internship in financial planning for the business. He realized that his interests in science and finance could be combined in the wine business. With the wine maker acting as a mentor, Christopher was exposed to multiple facets of the business and also learned the skills and work habits needed to succeed in the industry. He fell in love with it. So, rather than following a well-trod route into banking, Christopher took a series of jobs in the wine industry—from wine making to business development—to immerse himself in the industry. “I don’t work a day in my life,” Christopher said. “I’m always learning.”
In part because of her experience growing up in Tanzania, Fatema Waliji already knew that she wanted to help developing countries when she arrived at Princeton to study politics. Yet an unexpected encounter with an alumnus in her junior year helped bring focus to her plans and see how she could develop real skills and further her learning to achieve a greater long-term impact. The alumnus worked at TripAdvisor and helped Fatema get an internship at the company where she discovered the potential for technology to impact the developing world. When she returned to school for her senior year, she concentrated her studies around technology and entrepreneurship and joined TripAdvisor full time upon graduation. In addition to her full time job, she spends her time volunteering and continuing to develop skills that will support her career goals as a social entrepreneur.
Christopher and Fatema were lucky; serendipitous connections with mentors early in their adulthood helped guide them into a domain. That does not happen to everyone. For the rest of us, what is the path toward finding a domain if the mentor never materializes?
Exposure to multiple communities as a way to find a domain
From our interviews, we were interested to discover that several people had found passion in areas they had not originally considered and in several cases, had specifically not found passion in the cause or ideal they had been committed to initially. Instead, these individuals discovered their domain over time through exposure to a variety of opportunities, activities, and communities. For example, Diana Simmons, senior director of product commercialization and process and systems improvement at Clif Bar & Company, for years thought that her ultimate job would be to run a corporate responsibility business unit. However, along the way her career led her into businesses operations including supply chain and marketing. When she at last joined the corporate responsibility group, she realized that she actually preferred making products and owning the product line responsibility. The company’s overall values satisfied her interest in sustainability, but her commitment and need for challenges was better expressed in the product commercialization unit of the company.
Similarly, Geoffrey West was looking for a collaborative academic environment and imagined he would find it in a major university. However, once he entered the academic world, he realized that his vision was not entirely aligned with the reality, and where he expected to find his passion he instead was disappointed. A fundamental physicist by training, today he explores biology and complex systems, a domain he arrived at over the course of building a collaborative, intellectual community at a national lab and later running the Santa Fe Institute.
Both Diana and Geoffrey accepted new opportunities that didn’t seem to fit the definition of their chosen domain and eventually found their focus. However, many individuals do nothing, waiting for the domain to discover them. Diana and Geoffrey did not wait. They pursued opportunities that looked interesting and exposed themselves to many new activities, groups, and communities. And when the reality of a job or domain conflicted with their long-held visions, they were open to re-evaluating their definitions.
The lesson we take from our interviews is that, for finding your domain and cultivating your passion, mentors are undoubtedly valuable, but even more so is active and conscious exploration. Participate in the flows of knowledge by attending as many events and engaging with multiple communities around the area you think you may find interesting. This may lead to serendipitous encounters or learning about new areas. What is certain is that you cannot find your domain by waiting for the perfect opportunities or assuming passion will come like a bolt of inspirational lightning. Commit to doing something. If reading about digital health or the maker movement piqued your interest, reach out to the author or look for the meet-up events in your area on the topic. Find others who may be interested in this area and start learning together. New opportunities will emerge as a result. Passion can and does come at any age, but it requires action and an openness to find it.