For Grit's Sake, Cultivate Purpose Over Passion

As a college senior interested in psychology, my interest in this area ignited into passion when I discovered that there was a field actually called Sport Psychology. Once I was able to knit together my interest in psychology with my passion for sport, I was off to the races. My then-insatiable curiosity and interest fueled me through a masters degree, doctorate degree, and into a career working for the US Olympic Committee (USOC) and then for the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).



Interestingly, I didn’t feel the need for a purpose through these years, and never even thought to question it. This despite burning out of my USOC role, spending 6 months recovering—not enough time, it turned out—but then eventually having it rekindle through my leadership role with the AIS. Without realising it, I was resuscitating my passion by changing my purpose.


It was only after leaving the AIS, though, that I gave serious thought to not just “what now?” but “why?” “Why do I do what I do and what does that mean going forward?” The purpose game-changer for me was in including the values of sustainability and happiness into the high-performance equation. These were largely missing in my own professional life, I realised. I suffered burn-out, exhaustion, and periods of significant personal self-doubt at the altar of drive. Talk about grit gone wrong! It was in the recognition of what was missing and using it to define my personal and professional purpose that things shifted most profoundly. And that clarity of purpose - using my expertise in performance psychology to help others to more sustainable high performance and happier lives - has sustained me (and my passion) ever since.


Is Passion Overrated?


So it’s an interesting and sometimes complex relationship between passion and purpose. This begs the question, do you need both, or either? Harvard Business School professor Jon Jachimowicz studies the role of passion in work success. His research in this space should provide comfort to those who haven’t experienced the siren song of passion and think we are either deficient or somehow doomed to less satisfaction (and if we believe in grit, less of that) in pursuit of life’s big goals.


He offers these insights into why it may be actually inappropriate to follow your passion: (1) passion is not something you find, but rather, it is something to be developed; (2) it is challenging to pursue your passion, especially as it wanes over time; and (3) passion can also lead us astray, and it is therefore important to recognize its limits. He suggests that, rather than seeing passion as something to be “discovered,” consider instead that it is something you can actively develop. To do this, spend more time exploring the tasks that pique your curiosity and working more closely with those who inspire you. It also helps to get to know your colleagues, what they are passionate about, and how they view what they do through that lens.


Purpose Can Be (And Often Is) Enough


So if passion is not all that, or if we simply don’t feel passionate about that One Grand Idea, are we destined for life less well-lived? Fear not. Research in the area of sustained work success suggests that identifying and intentionally living your purpose provides a more sustainable fuel source than passion alone.


Purpose in this context includes:


  • The “what” (as in what I am interested in/curious about?)

  • The “why?” (why is this important for or needed in the world?)

  • The “why me” (how will I serve the world in this space?)

  • The “how” (what values drive my service?)

Note that, defined in this way, our purpose gives our passion direction and beyond that, is outward-focused in the sense that it seeks to serve. How do I want to channel myself in service to others, to the world? What problems am I most interested in solving, what suffering do I want to relieve? Leaders and coaches who define their “why” in this way find it easier to inspire others to follow. People who do this kind of purpose exploration and live by a coherent life purpose literally live longer.


Applying these standards to my own life, I serve the world by helping people show up, perform, and relate with less friction, more sustainability, and more happiness, qualities I firmly believe the world needs more of. My background in elite sport, seeing the consequences for athletes and coaches when sustainability and happiness were not valued or accounted for, gives me the courage of my convictions. I advocate, educate, coach, and counsel with kindness and compassion for the people I work with and care about.


If I were to make it even simpler? Be Here. Be Nice. Do Good.


Discovering Your Purpose


Here are some strategies, based in part on suggestions from Richard Leider, author of the book The Power of Purpose, to help clarify your life purpose:


1. Write down your “Big Event” lifeline: What were the important or “stand out” events in your life? Alternatively, reflect back on your life in 5-year increments. What was happening when you were 5, 10, 15 years old and beyond? Write down what happened, what it meant to you at the time, the significance it holds now.


2. What are your gifts and talents? If you don’t know, ask friends and family to tell you.


3. What activities and pursuits do you love doing?


4. What’s worth caring about or doing? What issues, interests, causes or curiosities capture your enthusiasm?


Once you complete these reflections, what emerges? Do you detect themes? Underlying motivations? What insights emerge from your successes…and even more importantly, your failures? Then try your hand at writing a few purpose statements. It is so often true that it is in your third and fourth efforts that your truth starts to emerge.


Doing this exploration takes work and time, which is a deterrent for even those of us who want to discern our life’s meaning (much less those of us who have yet to realize that this might be a good idea). Yet, I ask, what’s the alternative? How does denying ourselves the gift of purpose serve the world?


George Bernard Shaw puts it this way:


This is the true joy in life, the being used for purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.


Being and staying gritty is hard enough. Don't find out you were headed in the wrong direction or working hard for the wrong reason. Getting your purpose right increases your grit “efficiency” by clarifying where you’re heading, every day.


Thanks for reading! As always, I appreciate your thoughts and feedback.


I provide individual and group coaching on how you or your team can learn more about getting out of your own way and working with your mind for more frictionless and sustainable performance. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com




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