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Passion and purpose are ongoing topics of interest when discussing the workplace. A Google search on “passion at work” results in 925,000,000 links; “purpose at work – 2,450,000,000. Moreover, there seems to be some evidence that many confuse the two – “confusing passion and purpose at work” – 80,300,000. So, what is the difference between passion and purpose – and, how are the two inextricably intertwined?

Merriam Webster defines purpose as “something set up as an object or end to be attained, an intention or resolution.” – as, “the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.” Other definitions point to a (or one’s) “calling,” or “life’s work.” My definition of purpose is the answer to the question: “Why am I on the planet?”

Merriam-Webster defines passion as “… intense, driving or overmastering feeling or conviction,” “an ardent affection; a strong desire or liking, or devotion, to some activity, object, or concept.” defines passion as, “a powerful or compelling emotion or feeling; a strong enthusiasm for anything…” My definition of passion is “energy” – an emotional, physical, mental, psychological and spiritual quality – that drives or supports one to focus one’s time, energy and effort to transform purpose from a mental or intellectual concept, dream, or intention (which is but a small molecule in the brain) to manifest as a real, tangible, observable and measurable set of have-ings, be-ings and do-ings at “9:00 Monday morning.”

Purpose without passion often results in “less-than” type results, non-sustainability, feeling unfulfilled, experiencing an emotional numbness, lethargy, burnout, or resulting in a spark that dies out before it ever begins to burn, procrastination, continued self-doubt, aimlessness…

Passion without purpose is like “being all dressed up with no place to go.” A sometimes misguided, sometimes selfish, continual focus the “what” rather than the “why.” (When I  first transitioned into the coaching profession around 2000, I used to say Tony Robbins was my marketing manager. Why? Because, in those days, his seminars were more about motivation and passion than they were about purpose. Folks would attend his seminars and retreats, get hopped up on the “elixir”and passion they experienced, return home full of excitement and passion and, at 9 o’clock Monday morning open the front door, and ask themselves, “Now what?”)  Passion without purpose.

So, passion is energy. Sometimes this passion is purposeful, sometimes not. This energy can support us, push us to look for ways to continually improve what we do and how we do it, and who we are (passion defines our personality, but it does not give us an identity. Purpose does.)

Sometimes passion can be limiting and self-destructive.

For example, some passionate folks love to dress up and go to sporting events to engage in harassment, uncivil and disrespectful behavior – all in the name of being “passionate” about their team. Others can be dismissive, critical, judgmental of, or abusive to, others, all in the guise of being “passionate” about something that the “other” is not, or lacks. Early on in my career, I had a position managing a 14-person team. One of the team members was a seasoned, experienced individual who really knew their stuff. A real expert, they were insufferable at team meetings. When other members of the team were presenting their work to the team, this person would not hold back in the way they would be judgmental, critical, demeaning and downright disrespectful to their colleagues. After our first couple of meetings, I called this person on their behavior and their defense was, (paraphrasing) “I’m really passionate about this work. I just can’t understand how others can be so incompetent, stupid and the like.” Passion, misdirected.

Co-workers can, and do, often unfairly judge others, bully others, gossip about others and be rude, demeaning and disrespectful about their co-workers’ lack of skills and talents, for example, all because they’re so passionate about what they do (as in, a passionate rebuke such as, “So why do you have to be so stupid! Why can’t you get it!” Passion, misdirected.

Passion is never – ever- an excuse for disrespect.

And just as some folks feel their passion allows them to be disrespectful, others channel it towards self-destruction, e.g., coming home at night and binging on alcohol, food or drugs.

So, passion is energy. The important question is, toward what end is one’s passion directed?

Is your passion positive? Is it supportive of yourself and others? Or, is it negative, self-destructive and harmful? Just because you’re passionate doesn’t automatically make you humble, emotionally intelligent, good at relationships, honest, skilled or talented. Passion is just energy.

Purpose completes the passion equation. Purpose is the magic ingredient that gives passion a raison d’etre. It’s the foundation of passion. Without purpose as an anchor, passion has no inner or outer guidance system. Without a purpose, life will often be disorienting, out-of-sync, hum-drum and unhappy.

In my years working as a coach, I’ve always been curious about folks who run into a mid-life crisis at 30 after spending enormous amounts of time, effort, energy and funds studying something like law, medicine, IT, finance or management or myriad other professions or careers. It amazes me how quickly they have ended up literally hating what they’re doing. Even working at something they felt “passionate” about at the outset.

In some of these cases, folks choose to enter a particular profession or career area because they were directed that way by career coaches, consultants or family members who suggested that their talents or interests lay in that direction, skill or talent.

But what these career folks, parents, relatives, even good friends almost never measure is heart. Heart is the focal point of purpose. Not the mind. Not logic. Not what’s sexy. Not what “The Futurist” says one should do and especially, not “Hey, you’re really good at (blank), so why don’t you pursue (blank)”?

Some never get it. Purpose is not a career, job or even a talent. But, purpose can be manifested in a particular career or job or by making use of a particular talent or area of expertise. The difference is the energy (passion) that an individual brings to that endeavor and whether their actions and work are “purposeful.”

I often use the following example in my change work and when I speak to varied professional associations (e.g., HR, Social Work, IT or QA professionals, CPAs, Occupational Therapists, Emergency Management folks, Educators, Counselors, Realtors, Marketers, Professional Organizer,…)

There are two of you in this room who both do the same work, in the same way, using the same content and professional expertise with the same type of client or customer.

One of you absolutely loves what you do and looks forward to going to work every day. The other can’t stand to get up in the morning. What’s the difference? Passion and purpose. The former is driven by a heartfelt desire to live “on purpose” and feeds off the energy of passion to move through their day, to serve others and sees the deeper meaning, value and worth of what they do in serving and supporting others.

The latter, lacking a sense of purpose (even if they have passion) often lacks the heart, inner-driven desire to support and serve others, to be selfless, or experiences any deep-seated meaning and joy from what they do.

The former views challenges barriers, obstacles and problems as opportunities. They’re not upset with failure or overly sensitive and emotionally reactive to criticism from others. Purpose is what supports them to muster the energy of challenges and push forward, striving to do, be and have the best they can do, be and have. They seldom or never “struggle.” They experience a certain fulfillment and joyfulness in their work.
The difference between strive and struggle

The latter, see problems and challenges as never-ending struggles. Absent purpose, they don’t experience the deeper, energetic drive, curiosity, and challenge to excel, to be better, to do better. They live a Sisyphean life of struggle, dwelling on the negative.

For the former, regardless how challenging a day might be, they continually experience a sense of gratitude, fulfillment, reward and purposefulness from their days’ work. For them, they may be exhausted, but it’s a healthy sense of exhaustion, a fatigue or tiredness that comes with a job well done rather than an exhaustion that comes from “fighting the good fight.” Purposeful folks persevere.

For the latter, having no sense of purpose or purpose-related passion, they often find their work irritating, boring or uninteresting. They often find their clients or customers irritating or bothersome, unable or unwilling to interact with them from a place of servitude, or compassion or understanding, caring and concern. Rather than persevere, they can tend to be more focused on, “How much time before I go home?” type of perspective.

The purposeful are engaged in their work. Have their heart in it; the other muddles through with an “ugh!” at every turn.

Purpose is the anchor, the beacon, the direction, the work, career and life compass that guides us to make choices and decisions that are life-affirming and keep our lives moving forward. Without such a guide, many people hit a dead end at 30 (then 40, then 50), constantly wondering “Is this all there is?” Or worse, “I have all this talent, and I don’t understand why I’m not happy.” One of the reasons so-called “talented” folks leave their jobs. It’s not that they lack skills. It’s often the case of “my heart just isn’t in it anymore.”

When everything is ego-driven, meaning is most often trumped by unhappiness, agitation and constant negative judgments and invidious comparisons of others while always feeling to some degree, lacking, deficient, and disconnected.

And from what do such folks feel disconnected? Their heart, their purpose, their true and real self, their essence.

The heart is what drives purpose, not the mind or the ego. When someone has their heart in their work, meaning abounds; they are – and feel – purposeful in their work. Purpose answers the questions, “why am I on the planet?” And “why am I doing what I’m doing.”

The ego mind, logic, assessments (which don’t assess “heart”), “thinking,” “figuring it out” and and a host of others’ suggestions and direction cannot answer these questions.

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • How do you characterize your relationship to your work?
  • How did you arrive at doing the work you are doing?
  • Do you feel purposeful in your work? Do you feel “coerced” to work or “called” to work?
  • Do you feel passionate about your work? What motivates you to go to work? How so?
  • Do you feel completely engaged at work?
  • Why are you on the planet? What is your purpose in life?
  • What is the legacy you’d like to leave behind?
  • What will others say about you when you’re gone…about you as a professional, a spouse, a partner, a parent, a friend…?
  • What are three things you’re passionate about? How you do express this passion?
  • Are you following your life’s purpose? How do you know?
  • If you really, really dislike your work, what story do you tell yourself to justify your doing it?
  • Did you ever discuss purpose with your family, or others, when you were growing up?
  • How did your parents, our primary caregivers, describe their work when you were growing up? Would you say they felt passionate or purposeful about what they were doing?  How so?

(c) 2020, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, or pvajda(at)

You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.