And Passion, Too

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I recently used the word ‘passion’, my location, and nothing else to search a national job board. It returned 2,540 local jobs that required applicants to be passionate; not just generally but in quite specific ways. Potential candidates were expected to have a passion for: results, life, excellence, quality products, travel and the outdoors, the culinary world, shoes and fashion, to educate, quantitative analysis, and almost anything else you can think of.

Passion has no single meaning, but generally it is associated with intense, often overpowering feelings. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary includes in its definition:

A. the state or capacity of being acted on by external agents or forces

B. emotion

C. plural: the emotions as distinguished from reason

D. intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction

E. an outbreak of anger

F. ardent affection: love

G. a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept

H. sexual desire

I. an object of desire or deep interest

This is heady, potent, maybe even volatile stuff! I guess it’s safe to assume that most employers are probably seeking to hire people with feelings of “love” for, or “devotion to some activity, object or concept”, as opposed to someone possessed by “anger” or whose actions are governed by “external agents or forces”.

The range of opportunities pulled up by the search was broad, from low wage relatively unskilled jobs to executive positions. Expecting passion from a highly paid executive responsible for leading the way through turbulent economic waters seems reasonable, it comes with the territory. At the other end of the spectrum, though, maybe the bar should be set a little lower.

One organization is looking for “Maids” who have a passion for “ECO green cleaning”. It’s a special person who is stirred by the thought of whisking out a commode with a natural bristle brush and a biodegradable cleanser, or who looks forward to cleaning an oven without benefit of powerful chemical agents. There was also an opportunity for a “Meat Wrapper”. Only artisans who can get excited when the plastic film is perfectly tensioned over the pork chops and the price tag is precisely aligned with the edges of the foam tray need apply. For either job, I’d have thought that someone who showed up ready for work the second day would have met requirements; if they showed up raring to go, they’re possibly overachieving.

Some time, when those of us not working in HR weren’t looking, passion apparently crept up and overwhelmed more mundane qualifications like actual skills, professional experience or academic achievement. If you search on “passion at work”, Google will return more than 400 million results. Sample just a few and you’ll discover that passions run high about work and passion. There appears to be two camps – one that believes pursuing your passion will lead to career success and happiness and the other that contends passion for work is developed over time in the doing of that work. I find myself leaning toward the second camp while having sympathy for the idealism of the first. I’ve always believed that real passions find us, not the other way ‘round. And those passions or pursuits may offer very limited opportunity for financial or material gain but that’s not what they’re about.

In November, I attended the final round of the 2012 Canadian Rally Championship, The Rally of the Tall Pines, held near Bancroft, Ontario. It was a cold day and the Tall Pines is a tough event. 2012 series champions, Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard, after leading most of the rally, had to settle for second place when the right rear suspension on their Mitsubishi collapsed late in the event. Their crew, working in the sub-zero evening cold under a canvas shelter, managed to repair the car during the final half hour service stop allowing them to finish. This type of drama was played out over and over again during the course of the event.

Rallying in Canada is kind of a fringe sport. There are few people making a living at it. The top teams are professional and funded with corporate sponsorships. The majority of teams, however, are self-funded amateurs with limited commercial backing. But I’d wager that virtually all the participants and those that support them – usually friends and family – go rallying because it is their passion. These people throw their hearts and souls (and wallets) into prepping their cars, trailering them across the country and then thrashing them on the rough backcountry roads where rallies are typically held. It’s a difficult, demanding and costly sport but you know the people involved love the challenge, just love to be there, and any reward for their effort is secondary.

The rally scene is perhaps a microcosm of the working world; a handful of people get paid to work at what they truly love, the rest pursue their passions on their own dime. There is an axiom that holds “we should do what we love and the rest will follow”. It’s a wonderful ideal, but seriously useful only as a rough guide. The whole social contract exists so that essential stuff will get done that otherwise wouldn’t – there will never be enough people around who are passionate about wrapping meat or green eco-cleaning to satisfy demand.

So, in the context of employment, maybe we need to be a little less cavalier in our use of the word passion. No one would dispute that it’s reasonable for employers to expect effort and commitment from employees – passion, not so much. If someone arrives at that magical intersection between what truly stirs them and an employment opportunity that’s a great but probably rare thing.

I think employers should worry less about finding a candidate ablaze with passion for “X” and put more effort into figuring out how to create the conditions where a little spark can be nudged into a flame and then into a good steady burn. The kind of person willing to lie on their back in a frozen field servicing a damaged rally car for the chance to help achieve a good result, is the kind of person who likely goes the extra mile in all they do. Employers should stop waiting for passion to walk in the door, and start figuring out how they can generate it within their organizations. All matches in a box have the same incendiary potential; without the right set of conditions, none will start a fire.

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