The Problem With Passion: Not Everyone Who Works for You Loves their Job, and that’s OK

*This article has been adapted from Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity with additional reporting by Brandi Neal. Learn more about the problem with passion on the Radical Candor podcast. 

It’s a basic axiom that people do better work when they find that work meaningful. I don’t disagree with this basic premise. However, bosses who take this to mean that it is their job to provide purpose tend to overstep. 

Everyone from Stanford Scientists to Oprah agrees that your job is not always going to, nor should it always, fulfill you, and it’s unrealistic for companies and managers to demand passion for a position as a job requirement.

How Can My Career Be a Conduit to Passion?

Passion Radical Candor

Insisting that people have passion for their job can place unnecessary pressure on both boss and employee. I struggled with this at Google, where we were hiring people right out of college to do dull customer-support work. I tried convincing them that we were “funding creativity a nickel at a time.” 

One young woman who’d studied philosophy in college called BS immediately. “Look, the job is a little boring,” she said. “Let’s just admit that. It’s OK. Plutarch laid bricks. Spinoza ground lenses. Tedium is part of life.” I loved her approach to finding meaning, but it was unique to her. A slogan like “Spinoza ground lenses” would not have been inspiring for the broader team.

In a burst of Radical Candor, Financial Times writer Lucy Kellaway explained why she chose to work for the companies she did: “I went for JPMorgan and later for the FT because they were the only companies offering me a job. It seemed a great reason to pick them then. It is still a great reason today.”

There’s nothing wrong with working hard to earn a paycheck that supports the life you want to lead. That has plenty of meaning. A wise man once told me, “Only about 5% of people have a real vocation in life, and they confuse the hell out of the rest of us.” 

In a recent piece in Harvard Business Review from Professors Howe, Jachimowicz, and Menges, they note that while passion is is an important factor to consider when choosing a job, it’s not the only factor. 

Instead of asking “How can I find a job that I’m passionate about?” try asking “How can my career be a conduit to passion?” Reframing the question this way frees you up to honestly weigh the pros and cons of pursuing your passion through work.

Consider the Japanese concept of IKIGAI – a state of wellbeing that arises from devotion to activities one enjoys that also bring a sense of fulfillment. 

  • At the intersection of what you love and what you are good at is your passion.
  • At the intersection of what you love and what the world needs is your mission.
  • At the intersection of what the world needs and what you can get paid for is your vocation.
  • At the intersection of what you are good at and what you can get paid for is your profession.

Find Out What Matters to Each Person On Your Team

Radical Candor Passion

A story about Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London, explains what I mean.

Wren was walking the length of the partially rebuilt cathedral when he asked three bricklayers what they were doing. The first bricklayer responded, “I’m working.” The second said, “I’m building a wall.” The third paused, looked up, and then said, “I’m building a cathedral to the Almighty.”

Many people use this story to celebrate the person who has a sense of vision and can imagine his individual efforts as part of a grand collective enterprise. In current-day Silicon Valley, inspirational slogans run more along the lines of “putting a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs put it. 

But motivations are highly personal. Although I admire Jobs, it seems to me that the universe, or at least our world, is plenty dinged up already. So, I don’t find his call to put a “ding in the universe” inspirational, though others do. 

Sure, it’s a boss’s job to put the team’s work in context, and if you share why the work gives you meaning, that can help others find their own inspiration. But remember, it’s not all about you.

For me, the most instructive part of Wren’s story is that he didn’t come up with a sense of purpose himself and pound it into everyone’s head. 

Each bricklayer cared about something different, even though all three were working on the same thing. Wren’s role was to listen, to recognize the significance of what he heard, and to create working conditions that allowed everybody to find meaning in their own way.

In an interview for TIME, Sarah Jaffee, a labor journalist and author of the book ­­Work Won’t Love You Back, talks about jobs from the early 20th century before passion got all tied up with work. 

She says, “In those jobs, you didn’t have to pretend to like it. If you’re smiling while mining coal, I want to know what drugs you’re on because that stuff is not fun. That expectation was just not there.”

Trying to describe a job in lofty, save-the-world terms is often going to make you look like the ridiculous Hooli CEO Gavin Belson from the show Silicon Valley

This brings us back to the main point — your job is not to provide purpose but instead to get to know each of your direct reports well enough to understand how each one derives meaning from their work.

Radical Candor Passion

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Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. In addition to Radical Candor, she is the author of three novels and the new book Just Work: How To Root Out Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying to Create a Kick-Ass Culture of Inclusion and co-founder of Just Work the company. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. She's also managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley.