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Let me be clear up front. Passion is not a strategy. I am fed up reading various web pages, listening to talks and hearing people say, they are “Passionate” about being whatever they are, or doing whatever they are doing.Let me be clear here:Passion is not a strategy! Passion is not a business model! Passion is not even a necessity for running a successful business.  Below, I explain why passion is not a strategy and what should replace it.

Passion is not a strategy, nor a business model, nor necessary for success in business.

Now, I admit I have probably offended a whole load of people, but to be frank they need to be aware of what they are actually saying, and the dangers they are putting themselves in.  Let me explain why.

What is the meaning of the word passion?

First let us explore the word, its origins and meaning. Here are some definitions from various sources

  • Wikipedia says, “Passion (from the Latin verb patere meaning to suffer):
    • is a term applied to a very strong feeling about a person or thing.  It is defined as Passion (emotion).
    • a feeling of unusual excitement, enthusiasm or compelling emotion
    • particularly used in the context of romance or desire though it generally implies a deeper or more encompassing emotion
  • The Merriam-Webster (US) dictionary says:
    • a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something
    • a strong feeling (such as anger) that causes you to act in a dangerous way
    • a strong sexual or romantic feeling for someone.
  • My Collins English dictionary defines it as:
    • The story of Christ’s suffering and last agony (The Passion)
    • an intense emotion, as of grief, rage, love;
    • eager desire
  • It also defined “Passionate” as:
    • Easily moved to anger
    • Moved by strong emotions, intense emotions.
    • Vehement.

Now I don’t know about you, but there are aspects of these definitions that refer equally to hate, rage and anger as they do about love, lust and compelling emotions.  When people say they are “passionate about what they do” or I am passionate about [Insert any topic]”, I assume they are expressing a positive emotion and not an intense hatred.  Otherwise, using ‘hate’ would be an unusual way to sell a set of services.

Let us assume this is not a passionate hatred, but a passionate love for their subjects.

There are aspects of the definitions that are about suffering.  Are they saying they are willing to suffer for their subject?  I doubt it.

So, what is immediately clear is that there is a bias and implied direction to the way this phrase “Passion” is used in these promotional wordings and websites.  A direction that implies emotion, (presumably positive), excitement, enthusiasm and an eager desire and intensity to what they describe.

They are using an ambiguous word in a specific way.  Does this help?  I don’t think so.  Let us look at the context in which they are using the word.

Passion is not a strategy

There are some people who seem to suggest that ‘Passion’ is a strategy you should adopt.  Others suggest you must have it in your business.  They need to be very careful when making such recommendations.

Let me paraphrase a piece on strategy by Richard Rumelt.  Richard Rumelt, is known as “The strategist’s strategist” by McKinsey.  I consider his book, ‘Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’ to be one of the best books on strategy for a very long time.   He sums the failure of passion as a strategy in a very simple example.

“If Passion were a strategy we would have won at the Somme.  We didn’t.”, Richard Rumelt, the Strategist’s Strategist.

If being passionate about something were a strategy, why did all those soldiers get killed at the Somme?  It was not the passion, nor lack of it that was the problem and got them killed:  it was a failure of strategy and tactics. If passion were a strategy, the battle of the Somme would have been won and so many people would not have died.  Clearly passion is not a strategy – or rather not a successful one to be adopted.

Thinking that being passionate about something will make you win is to live in a delusion: a potentially very dangerous delusion.

Passion is an emotion: Both positive – towards, and negative – against.

Let us be clear here.  Looking through these definitions, Passion is an emotion.  Just like hate, love, anger, affection, rage: they are all emotions.

Passion suggests an intensity to those emotions: in some cases an irrational or dangerous intensity.

Is there a role for emotion in strategy? – of course.  Perhaps not anger, love or hate. No one would suggest hate, anger or rage was a strategy (even though some suggest passion as a strategy). The definitions above say that Passion suggests an intensity to those emotions: in some cases an irrational or dangerous intensity.  Here I argue that we should be dis-passionate about our strategy or become obsessed by it when we should learn from it.

So why passion?  Why do so many people claim to be passionate about what they do?  It puzzles me.

Is there a need to be enthusiastic about what you are doing?  Yes, of course.  But that is an ingredient of how you may choose to apply your strategy – it is not your strategy.  Passion is an intense emotion – it is not a strategy.

Passion is no substitute for knowledge or experience

I know people who are passionate about things (or they say they are anyway) but they know little about those subjects.

I have met people who are “Passionate” about their subjects, but quite inexperienced or narrow in their knowledge.  Passion is not a substitute for experience and knowledge.

I have come across people who lust after and love a person, they have never met.  They are passionate about them in an almost obsessive way.  Does that mean they understand, know or even have met that person?  No!

Passion is no substitute for knowledge and experience.  Sure, having a passion (substitute the word ‘interest’ if you like) means that people will spend more time learning about and immersing themselves in the subject.   But I would rather meet an expert on a subject than someone with passion for it, and no experience or expertise.  They would become very tedious, and seen through, very quickly.

When someone says they are “passionate about a subject” I take that to mean they don’t know much yet, but are over enthusiastic – in fact their enthusiasm may well mask their ignorance.

Passion can cloud judgement

A key definition of strategy for me is that it is a persistent pattern of behaviour over time.  The great value of this way of thinking about strategy is two-fold.

A “passion” for things can cloud your judgement of when to let go and try something new or different.  It can cloud your judgement.

First, you don’t need to ask a person what the organisation’s strategy is: you simply ask, “What has been the persistent pattern of behaviour of the organisation over the past few years?”  Trust me, you will often get an answer that is far from the organisation’s stated or espoused strategy.  You get the strategy in action.  You get the behaviours that are encouraged, condoned and enacted.  You get the current strategy.

Secondly, recognising that strategy is about persistent behaviour allows you to also ask whether the strategy is still relevant, or whether that strategy has become a habit?  Has the strategy got stuck?  Is the behaviour still serving a useful purpose?  Has it become a bit like smoking – you would like to stop, but for some reason you can’t.  When your strategy is a habit, that strategy is a stuck learnt behaviour.

A stuck, out of date strategy is a habit you need to un-learn and drop: you need to learn a new persistent behaviour.

A stuck, out of date, strategy is a habit you need to un-learn and drop.  Passion can get in the way of this.

I have also come across people whose judgement is clouded by their passion for things.  If “Passion” is your strategy, or even you are “Passionate about your strategy” then you can get into a position where you are no longer objective about that strategy.  That strategy becomes a passionate habit, rather than a useful means to an end.  You can easily get stuck in that pattern or habit without the objectivity to change it.

In that sense “passion as a strategy” is very dangerous.  It can cause you to act in a dangerous way.  It restricts learning and adaptation.

Passion about a topic is not enough.  You actually have to know something!

I often hear people are “passionate” about social media, training, speaking, or whatever their activity or business is.  Given the definitions I am unconvinced “Passion” helps.  What are the alternatives?

Be curious: It is useful and important to be really interested in your topic, to read around your topic and research issues.  It is helpful to be curious about it, so you learn more.

Be enthusiastic:  It is helpful to be enthusiastic about it. You will come across as interesting and energetic.

Care about your subject or clients:  It is important to care about things.  Personally I care about what happens to my clients, and how they use my services or solutions.  I care it makes a difference. That is not the same as passion.

Care about your subject, be curious, be enthusiastic: these are much more meaningful phrases.

Compared to these far more meaningful phrases, I think that “being passionate about…” is often just a phrase that is used to make them sound more than enthusiastic, interested or actually experienced.  It does nothing for me in terms of their credibility, knowledge or authority.  In fact it puts me off these people.

Passion vs meaning

I have written elsewhere about purpose and meaning in our work and in our lives.  In summary, when we talk about purpose, it is a towards statement about the future.  It is about something you want to achieve in the future.

In contrast, meaning is what people get today, in their day-to-day interaction.  It is in the present tense.  Having meaning at work is why people come to work.  Losing meaning is why people get dis-engaged and leave – the work is no longer meaningful – even if there is a grand purpose.  I am sure you can think of plenty of such examples.

Having a passion for something is not the same as doing something meaningful in your work.

When work has meaning, it matters.  People are doing something they care about.

Now that is what I think people mean when they say “I am passionate about…  “.  It is a shorthand for

I am enthusiastic, interested in, talk a lot about and get meaning from doing this stuff.

But let is us be clear here, these are not synonyms for passion.  Passion is something different.  Passion is an emotion.

So a plea from the heart.  Something I am passionate about!

  • Please, please, please do not claim you are passionate about your topic or subject.
  • Please, please. please do not claim that passion is a strategy – and you need passion to be successful.
  • Please, please, please be clear whether this passion of yours is one of love and intense enthusiasm, or anger hate and rage.  It would certainly help to clear things up.

Frankly, claiming you are passionate about something actually is just a cliché added to websites in the absence of thought: It puts some people off.  Instead please, demonstrate your authority, knowledge and experience in tangible ways.

Passion is not a strategy: worse still, if you think it is a strategy, it is dangerous.

Passion is not a strategy: worse still, if you think it is a strategy, it is dangerous.

If you want a proper strategy, then give me a call.