Purpose or passion? Here’s what research says leads to high performance

purpose or passion

By Keith Reynold Jennings, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Does purpose or passion lead to stand-out performance?

What do YOU think?

This article is an exploration of that question, through the lens of some interesting research.

Whether you or someone you know is starting out, starting over or somewhere in between, I hope the insights in this article offer guidance toward sustainable career success and work-life significance.

Let’s begin this journey in Nashville, Tennessee.

Deconstructing The American Success Myth

I used to live in Nashville, or what some affectionately call Nashvegas.

Every year, scores of country music hopefuls leave their hometowns and venture to the country music capital with dreams of honkytonk stardom. And, every year, all these extremely talented hometown heroes discover that they are mere grains of sand on a vast beach, as they find themselves surrounded by tens of thousands of people as good or better than them.

They’ve done what every cliche commencement speech exhorts. They’ve “followed their passion.”

But this isn’t the case with nonprofits.

Every nonprofit founder starts out to right some wrong they see in the world. It could be homelessness, human trafficking, food insecurity, foster care, unjust incarceration, you name it.

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. and well over 10 million in the world, as best we can estimate.

Nonprofits are all about purpose. However, employee turnover in the nonprofit world is high and fundraising is hard. Very hard. Most nonprofits remain small, local, and supported by an unchanging inner circle of supporters.

In both cases, it appears neither purpose nor passion leads to high performance. So what about the wealthy? Has purpose and/or passion played a role in their success?

Learning From Self-Made Millionaires

The first time I noticed a counter-intuitive interplay between purpose and passion was through the late Thomas J. Stanley’s books.

Stanley was renowned for his multi-decade study of the affluent. His research revealed that the majority of the wealthy lived in normal houses in average neighborhoods. Drove normal cars. Were frugal. Weren’t workaholics. Enjoyed time with their families. The typical multi-millionaire was (and still is) a far cry from the stereotypes of mansions, private jets, and excessive spending.

According to Stanley’s research, only 55 percent of self-made millionaires stated that they initially chose their career out of a love for the work. Most chose their vocation because it offered financial independence.

I’ve never forgotten that data point because it made me realize that “following your passion” wasn’t a guaranteed path to success or significance.

This bothered me for years. It led me to think that I needed to prioritize the income-producing potential of my work over some greater purpose or sense of satisfaction.

However, earlier this year, I discovered research that paralleled Stanley’s. But it came with a surprising twist.

Performance: Purpose or Passion?

Morten Hansen is a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has done some interesting research on how purpose, passion and performance correlate with top performers across all industries and demographics.

Before we jump into his findings, we need to get clear about what we mean, when we use the words “purpose” and “passion.” They have been so overused, they’ve lost their propulsion power.

According to Hansen,

  • Purpose is “doing what contributes value.” Purpose is other-oriented. It looks out into the world and seeks to make a difference.
  • Passion is “doing what you enjoy.” Passion is self-oriented. It seeks satisfaction. My passions are fueled by things I like and enjoy. Yours too.

In his study of 5,000 managers and employees, Hansen revealed that following your passion didn’t lead to higher performance. But here’s the twist: the data also showed that ignoring your passion was equally detrimental to performance.

What Hansen discovered was that the highest performing professionals matched passion with purpose. He calls this, “P-Squared.” Here are his findings:

  • People working with passion AND purpose placed in the 80th percentile of performance
  • People with purpose but not passion placed in the 64th percentile
  • And those with passion but not purpose placed in the 20th percentile.

So what can we learn from this?

Lead With Purpose; Let Passion Follow

Hansen’s findings are not only insightful, they’re applicable to our everyday jobs. Here’s how…

Step 1: Start With Purpose

Remember Hansen’s definitions. When we use the word “purpose,” we’re talking about how we contribute to others.

Instead of focusing on what you enjoy or want to accomplish, start with how you can contribute value. Right now. Today.

Each day, with every encounter you have, find ways to create value. For your clients. For your team. For your family. For your friends.

Step 2: Discover Passion Within That Purpose

As you go through each day contributing value, pay attention to what you’re doing when you feel joy and satisfaction.

This is your passion. And you may discover new passions through this process. Then, optimize for more of this.

Step 3: Achieve Peak Performance (And Ultimately Profit)

When you think of high performers, what qualities come to mind?

The highest performers I’ve worked with, over the years, bring consistent value and positive energy to every team, situation, and challenge. Let’s break that down. They bring consistent value (i.e. purpose) and positive energy (i.e. passion).

Over time, promotions and pay flow their way.

As I read back through Thomas Stanley’s research on millionaires, I discovered something fascinating.

Sure, the affluent started by choosing work that could lead to financial independence. However, they did that by choosing a business that created value for an underserved group of customers. That’s purpose!

And, over time, they fell in love with their work, because they saw how it was serving and helping their customers. That’s passion!

This is essentially the process Mark Schaefer discovered and codified through his research for his book, KNOWN.

What if aspiring musicians and artists started by focusing on contributing value, rather than focusing on what they most enjoy? And what if nonprofit workers intentionally cultivated passion within the purpose of their work?

How might strategies like we’ve explored in this article prevent burn-out?

An Invitation to Go Deeper

I’m fascinated by the tug-of-war people feel between their desire for success AND significance. And I’ve discovered, through available research, that many of the stories we tell ourselves about our work are negatively impacting our ability to do work that matters (to ourselves and others).

If this is a topic of interest to you, I want to invite you to join me on a journey into work-life significance. I’ve recently begun a monthly letter, called Root Notes. It’s not a blog or a traditional newsletter. And it’s not something I’m publishing publicly. Sign up here, if you’re interested. There’s no cost or bait-and-switch. I promise.

Now, go do work that contributes value and that you enjoy! The rest will take care of itself.

Keith Reynold Jennings is an executive and writer who serves as vice president of community impact for Jackson Healthcare. He’s also an advisor to goBeyondProfit. Connect with Keith via LinkedinMedium, and his monthly letter, Root Notes.

Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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