Are You Passionate?

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Find your passion, and then follow your passion!

Do this, and the world is your oyster!

This piece of advice was echoed by no less than the late Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. In his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Stanford University, Jobs said:

“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Similar advice is everywhere. Googling the phrase “find your passion” produces about 125 million hits; “follow your passion” is not far behind with 110 million hits.

If recent estimates of work enjoyment (where only 1/3 of workers feel engaged) are accurate, or if the looks of complete disinterest on some of my students’ faces are any indicator, it’s no wonder that people are longing to identify and pursue something they love–something that engages them, something that makes them jump out of bed on Monday mornings, something that makes them feel alive!

In fact, a few years ago, when I was unhappy at my work, I took the same path: I spent a lot of time trying to determine whether I was still passionate about my work and, if not, what I could do either to recapture the passion or to find something else I was passionate about.

Was it true that finding and pursuing my passions would make everything all better? Or is this advice just a pipe dream that lives in the minds of people who are completely out of touch with reality?

Before we can answer those questions, though, we have to step back and tackle one other question:

What exactly is passion?

Let’s take a look.


As I perused the Internet and read books on the topic of passion, I immediately noticed that there was little consensus on what passion entails.

Some suggested that passion is “a strong and uncontrollable emotion.”

Another noted that passion is “a feeling of enthusiasm.”

A third source said that passion is “being who you are and doing what comes naturally.” (Sleep comes naturally to me. Hmm… I guess I was passionate for about 6 hours last night.)

None of these definitions (especially that last one) did much for me. So, I did what I’ve been doing since graduate school: I went to the literature to see what research had to say about the topic.

I eventually happened upon the seminal research of Dr. Robert Vallerand, a psychologist at the University of Quebec-Montreal (now at McGill University). His research painted a much more complex picture of passion than what I had been led to believe while reading random “Find Your Passion!” pages on the Internet. (Imagine that!)

(Note: Over the past 2-3 years, this topic has also been the focus of my research. I’ll likely be discussing some of this research, and how it pertains to college students, in future posts.)

Vallerand and colleagues (2003) noted that discussions of passion go back hundreds of years but that the systematic study of this topic is relatively new. In fact, Vallerand and colleagues were the first to provide a integrated theory on the topic of passion–and that was only about 10 years ago.

In their paper, Vallerand and colleagues proposed that passion is a type of motivation that drives your behavior and that it’s defined by four different components.

First, being passionate means that you spend time on an activity. I spend a lot of time each week playing guitar. I also spend a lot of time working as a college professor. Similarly, my students (usually) spend many hours each week on their academic activities.

Importantly, this component implies that you can’t be passionate about something if you’re not spending time on it. If you claim to be passionate about cooking but only cook once a month, I’ve got news for you:

You ain’t passionate about cooking! People who are passionate about something find the time to do it.

Second, being passionate about something means that you value it, or find it important. I find teaching to be important for many reasons: I learn a lot while doing it, and I (think) it benefits my students. Likewise, my students usually find their academic activities to be important because the skills they acquire during college will hopefully help them pursue a particular career.

Third, for you to be passionate about something, you need to love it (or at least like it a whole lot). This one is pretty much a no-brainer. I love playing guitar, and I love talking to students about their passions. Some of my students even love their majors.

(Interestingly, though, I think this is where some of my students miss the boat for being passionate. Many of them spend time on and value their academic activities. But, for reasons I’ve discussed previously, they often choose majors and careers they dislike, which tends to have numerous negative effects.)

Finally, when you are passionate about something, you start to define yourself in terms of your passion:

“I don’t just play guitar; I am a guitar player.”

“I don’t just watch Atlanta Braves baseball games; I am a Braves fan.”

“I don’t just bake cookies; I am a baker.

“I don’t listen to Justin Bieber; I am a Belieber.”

So, there you have it. Time, value, love, and identity: the four components of passion.

What Are You Passionate About?

Take a minute and examine the things you do in your life (of which there are many). What are you passionate about? What do you spend time on, value, and absolutely love? What activities have become a part of your self-image, a part of the way you (and possibly others) view yourself?

Are you passionate about your work?

Are you passionate about your major? (And if you aren’t, why are you pursuing it?)

Are you passionate about other things you do in your free time? (Harry Potter? Basketball? CrossFit? Playing with your kids? Reading incredibly informative and well-written blog posts by a college professor who got his PhD at Auburn University and whose beard is noticeably graying?)

I would venture to guess that many of you are already doing things in your life that meet the criteria for being passionate. Maybe, then, it’s less about finding your passions and more about finding more ways to pursue your passions.

Is that true for you?

So . . . Does Passion Really Matter?

Let’s go back for a minute and tackle the issue that I teased at the beginning of this post: Does passion matter?

Let’s imagine for a minute that you have a job (or other activity) that you spend time on, that you enjoy considerably, that you find important, and that has become part of how you view yourself.

It seems like a pretty good combination, right? I mean, I’m guessing that many of you would like to spend more of your days doing things you love and value.

This seems to suggest that finding and pursuing your passions could be important for being happy and achieving success in life.

It seems totally plausible, right?

In fact, there is some research showing that people who are passionate about their work do experience higher levels of psychological well-being than people who are not. Similarly, in my lab, we’ve found that students who are passionate about their majors have higher cumulative GPAs than students who are not passionate. The benefits of being passionate about an activity thus seem to be both subjective and objective in nature.

So, I guess the formula is actually pretty simple: Find and pursue your passions, and everything will be A-OK.

And . . . Not So Fast!

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy.

Vallerand and colleagues (2003) also proposed that passion comes in two different forms: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

And as you might guess, one is good; the other–well, not so much.

Have you figured out which is which?

I’ll tell you more about each of these types of passion in an upcoming post. Until then, you’ll just have to wait with bated breath.

Before you go, though, take a minute and tell me what you’re passionate about. I’d love if you’d leave a comment below.


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2 thoughts on “Are You Passionate?”

  1. Wonderful! I think we think everything in our lives should fall into the category of passionate. But life is not like that. When I was working, I probably was not passionate all of the time, but I truly liked young people and felt that way a lot. I was passionate about my family and loved them more than I could express at times. Dad and I now are passionate about our lives after retirement. We love where we are at this time of our lives. We miss our families, but love everything Florida has to offer. We have made some wonderful friends and have been able to partake in many opportunities. We feel blessed to be able to come to FL, but also go back home and see other friends and family that we left behind for 6 months. It is good to hear that “passionate” can mean different things to different people. And we can go through periods of discontent even while doing something that we are normally passionate about. It happens to all of us. Love you. See you soon.

  2. I was and am passionate about the study of psychology and mental health counseling- in no small part thanks to you and your fabulous professorial skills. I love my job as an Academic Advisor, though I am not passionate about all the parts of my job. However, I am passionate about helping students reach their goals.

    I am so excited about this blog and I can’t wait to share it with my students in the fall. I teach adult students (over the age of 24) who are completing their first undergraduate degrees and they are all working hard to find their passion. I appreciate this complex look at passion and how it truly is different than “finding something you’d do for free.” I love to read and am probably more passionate about literature than anything else, but it is my refuge and would be tainted if I had to turn that love into an income. However, I do make sure I have plenty of time to indulge in it.

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