You Don’t Need a “Passion Project,” You Need a Purpose

Not long ago, I listened to a thirty-year-old man tell his much older and newly-retired parent, “You need to find your passion.” Really? “Maybe he just wants to enjoy the scenery a while, hang out with his grandkids, and read some books on the beach,” I thought.

But evidently I’m in the minority these days. It seems like everybody has a passion project: Macaulay Culkin’s participation in a strange retelling of Arabian Nights is his new “passion project;” Prince Harry’s passion project is the Invictus Games; even educators are asking middle and high school students to develop passion projects.

The phrase “passion project” has popped up occasionally in the media. A 1992 article in The Hollywood Reporter, for example, mentioned people in the film industry who were “willing to cut their salaries to work on lower- budget fare if the material is a personal passion project.” But in recent years it has been used to describe nearly everything an actor touches. The Hollywood Reporter recently praised the forthcoming passion projects of Leonard DiCaprio and Salma Hayek, among others, as well as the posthumous passion project of actor James Gandolfini.

And it’s not just in Hollywood. Internet millionaires who cash out on stock options are frequently scouting for passion projects. The technology company Kayak announced new features on its travel app as a “passion project;” a business woman profiled in a women’s magazine said, “Passion builds believers. If you’re passionate for what you’re talking about and what you’re doing, it’s like a light, and bugs flock to the light. People want to be around passionate people, because they want to feel alive.” There’s even a Passion Company that offers a 30-day “creative side project that’s connected with your passions, has tangible outcomes,” and which can be completed “without quitting your job or your education.” Why so much passion for “passion”?

In the workplace, the embrace of “passion” might be a response to the highly competitive and often unsatisfying culture of work. In an economy with little job stability passion helps workers, especially millennial workers, feel better about the necessity of job-hopping and the reality of working lower-paying, lower-status jobs while burdened with student loan debt. “I’m following my passion” sounds a lot better than “I was laid off from yet another temporary contract-job.”

Of course, passion is a genuine feeling, like a buzz or an emotional high. It’s similar to the caffeine jolt we get from a late night cup of coffee we guzzle so we can finish that essay, poem, or business plan. But passion itself doesn’t build things. The history of great creators and inventors reveals that new ventures are built by putting in long hours, making hard decisions, and enduring bouts of boredom, intense frustration, untold interruptions and unfair outcomes.

Additionally, “following your passion” is different from dedicating yourself to a lifetime of service. Passion is inwardly-focused. It’s all about “me” and what “I” feel; service is about others. Passion projects have an easy, tidy exit clause that carries no moral obligation to stay with something once your passion for it fades.

So, most importantly, passion has little to do with finding purpose in your work. Every age has its “catch phrase” about work, as writer Dorothy Sayers noted in her essay, “Why Work?” In her time, it was “everyone’s duty to serve the community.” In her view, however, it was far better to serve the work—work worth doing that one could feel pride in performing—above all else:

“There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work.”

This is a different vision than that of serving one’s own, often-fleeting passions. So the next time someone asks you what your latest “passion project” is, tell them it’s serving the work and finding purpose in doing so. Just make sure you say it passionately.

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