In a recent biography of Elon Musk, Bloomberg technology writer Ashlee Vance documents how the entrepreneur transformed the electric car industry, launched rockets into space, developed solar technology and devised plans to colonize Mars.
Vance emphasizes Musk’s diligence and unwavering zeal, not just his intelligence and eccentricities. Like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Musk is a mercurial perfectionist, prone to moments of rage, spurred by passion.
It’s tempting to read about someone like Musk and conclude that passion is a prerequisite for success.
And months from now, it’s likely that a suite of commencement speakers will stand in front of class after class of new graduates, remarking that “the only way to do great work is to love what you do,” as Jobs told the Stanford class of 2005.
But is passion really an essential condition for leading a successful life? That idea has come under attack in the last few years. Passion is increasingly labeled as mere post hoc storytelling, an empty cliché that makes for a good narrative.
Cal Newport, an assistant professor at Georgetown University and author of the book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” insists the passion mantra is not just unoriginal but also misleading. The goal shouldn’t be to find your passion — as if it has been there, undiscovered, from the beginning — but to create one.
Recently, a team of psychologists led by Patricia Chen, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, published research that gives us new insights into the relationship between passion and work.
The team polled 794 people and found that about 70% believed passion is about matching an intrinsically rewarding skill with a certain line of work — what Chen calls the fit theory. Under this paradigm, it’s easy to explain people like Musk and Jobs: They persevered because their work tapped into a fundamental joy of theirs.
The other 30% of participants in the study indicated that passion for work is developed and cultivated over time — what Chen calls the develop theory.
According to this view, which is similar to what Newport endorses, we should think of our skills and proclivities as malleable instead of fixed. Passion is the result of persistent and deliberate practice.
Across four studies, the psychologists found that those who think passion can be developed were just as likely to be satisfied with their job in the long run as those who searched for a perfect fit. These findings suggest, Chen and her team note, that people can “achieve similar levels of well-being at work by endorsing either the fit or develop theory.”
This piece of research helps psychologists better understand the nature of passion, yet it still pivots off a very narrow definition, in which to be passionate about something is essentially to enjoy particular challenges that would otherwise be grueling.
Moreover, it assumes such passion is the basis for a rewarding professional life.
We’d like to introduce two more concepts to broaden what we mean when we talk about passion.
Psychological research shows that life satisfaction correlates with the ability to assess something from multiple viewpoints. And so by widening the meaning of passion, we also allow ourselves more opportunities to find meaning and satisfaction in the lives we lead.
Although it’s important to value work that is intrinsically fulfilling, let’s stop advertising the myopic idea that life without passion — whether it is something to be found or created — is not worth living.
Working adults aren’t either passionate and fulfilled or lifeless and miserable. That’s an overly simplified worldview, in which the dreary desk workers of the world are constantly pitted against the Elon Musks.
Instead, we should recast our own American concept of passion to include other definitions that embrace a broader sense of what a meaningful life could look like.
“Having too few constructs or insufficiently validated ones can create problems, particularly when life is moving quickly and you are trying to make sense of it. Your constructs can cage you in,” Cambridge University psychologist Brian Little writes in his book “Me, Myself and Us.”
This opinion column ran in the Washington Post’s ‘On Leadership’ section. Jon Jachimowicz is a doctoral student at Columbia Business School, where he studies decision-making, self-control and the workplace. Sam McNerney is a freelance writer with a focus on behavioral science. His writing has appeared in Scientific American and Psychology Today.