When Passion Meets Purpose

One thing that grad school has beaten out of me is the notion that passion is enough.

I subscribed to that thought for the whole of my working life thus far thinking that as long as you do something you love, you will find success and happiness. I still believe that, but the difference now is that I realize it’s only one half of an equation. On the other side is purpose, or that one thing that moves you to do what you do. Passion is what leaves you smiling at night before going to sleep; purpose is the force that wakes you up in the morning.

How do we differentiate the two? Consider the following semantic experiment:

It seems okay to say that your passion is playing the guitar, right? But how does it sound when you say that your passion is helping other people? It makes sense, sure, but it’s difficult to hear that statement off someone without thinking, “He’s such a martyr.”

On the other hand, it’s completely fine to say that your purpose is to help other people. But how does it sound when you say that your purpose is to play the guitar? In that case, one can come off as a little self-indulgent. “Is there nothing more to you?”

Though both passion and purpose are defined from within, the latter is more our personal response to the world in all its complexity. And as a response to the outside world, it ultimately has an impact on others, whether it be on our families, our communities, workplaces, or even our country. A well-thought-out purpose is an active response to a need; as such it is more than mere compliance or blind loyalty. Purpose is a duty that we have defined for ourselves.

Passion is an outward expression of our inner selves. In a way, it can exist in a vacuum. You can play the guitar your whole life without making an impact on other people. You can paint, write, take photos, teach. That one thing that can never be taken away from you — the activity that defines you, or the activity that without which you feel you have unrealized potential — that’s your passion.

The insight I’ve had over the past year is three-fold.

One, your passion and purpose can be different things. These days, there are increasingly more and more people who feel metaphysical anguish trying to find that one thing that defines their life. Don’t panic. Just because you want to play basketball at every waking moment doesn’t mean you have to make a career out of it. Becoming a homemaker can be fulfilling but it may not be also entirely who you are.

Thus secondly, people can find themselves dedicating their lives to either one. In either sphere they can find happiness and contentment, but also the opposite — sadness and resentment. After all, not everyone gets to live out their passions. In the busyness of this world, having time to do something you genuinely love is considered a luxury not may can afford. On the other hand, there are also those who move about life with not needing a sense of orienting their lives to something greater than themselves. My only word of caution is that an overabundance of dedication to one’s passion can lead to ambitiousness and self-absorption. Losing one’s self to extreme passions or purposes will be ultimately frustrating.

Hence we find ourselves working towards the middle. People now use the phrase work-life-balance to express this tendency to meet themselves halfway. But what do we find in the absolute middle? What do we find in that place where passion is completely one with purpose? Is there even such a place?

Chris Martin of Coldplay was once asked what his objective was as a musician. He boldly said that he wanted to write “the greatest song ever” — the next year they released “Fix You”. In live concerts, Martin is known for building extraordinary rapport with his audience, and that his love for songwriting and performing is clearly anchored on his appreciation for his fans for whom he writes his songs. The inventiveness and innovation of Coldplay continues to this day, true masters of their craft with careers geared towards a love of music and a respect for their audience.

I use Coldplay as an example to shake things up when I say that a vocation need not conjure up an image of a man in priestly robes, though the word is rooted in a religious tradition (voca meaning ‘voice’ so literally the work we are called to do). The modern vocation need not be entirely not for profit either. When one’s passion and purpose meet, it opens us up to the possibility of genuine expression and service whether it be through writing a multi-million dollar album or teaching in a public school.

Moreover, it is in this vocational sweetspot — doing what we want to do and have to do — that we make mastery of ourselves possible. And as Masters, we become a source for others and allow them to define their own passions and purposes as well.


As 2013 enters its final stretch, I realize that this has been the longest time that I’ve been away from something I’ve always been passionate about. The distinction between passion and purpose has become so clear in the past ten months that I haven’t taught a single class since 2004. Hence I often feel anxious to get back to work already, but I realize now that it’s largely because those days were, in a way, simpler and more enjoyable compared to these days.

What this year has done for me though is to blow the world wide open. My purpose is completely unhinged, the possibilities now seemingly endless. If purpose is our response to the world, I have yet to answer. I can always choose to respond as I have in the past. But for now as I wait for my passion and purpose to meet, I will relish the thought that the past year has not left me unchanged.


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