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By Morten T. Hansen
January 23, 2018
Shutterstock; (inset) Terry Husebye

When it comes to selecting a job or career, the usual advice is to love what you do. In fact, given all the talk about “passion” and “following your dreams,” you might believe that loving what you do is the only consideration. As Richard Branson remarked, “Since 80 percent of your life is spent working, you should start your business around something that is a passion.”

And yet, following your passion can be dangerous. As many a failed actor in Los Angeles will tell you, doing what you love can lead to unemployment. But what’s the alternative? Ignoring your passion isn’t so great, either. It leads people to plod along, doing dull, empty work to earn a paycheck. Comedian Jim Carrey once recounted how his father might have been a talented comedian, but he had feared failure. He chose the “safe” route—accounting—only to lose his job when Carrey was 12, leaving his family in dire straits.

Many of us bounce between following and ignoring our passion, unsure of what to do, groping for the best way forward. Is there a solution to this tradeoff? Yes. My study of 5,000 employees and managers has uncovered a third option, what I call “matching.” Some people not only pursue passion in navigating their careers, but they also manage to connect this passion with a clear sense of purpose on the job—they contribute, serve others, make a difference. While passion is “do what you love,” purpose is “do what contributes.” As my research shows, people who match passion with purpose in this way perform much better than their peers. Those matchers ranked 18 points higher in their performance than those who had neither passion nor purpose.

Take Genevieve Guay, a concierge at a luxury hotel in Quebec City, Canada. As she told me, she goes to extreme lengths to please guests. Once, she spent several days racing back and forth across town to locate objects that a particular guest needed for a photography shoot. What kind of concierge does that? A passionate one. “I love to improve the lives of others with my personal touch,” Genevieve said. “This job gives me a chance to meet a lot of people from everywhere around the world without having to move from my desk.” But Genevieve also felt a strong sense of purpose in her job: “I have direct impact. I can see directly what I gave, even with simple things like a restaurant that worked for them.” Genevieve’s great passion for her job served a purpose, helping and caring for hotel guests. Unlike so many of us, she found magic in her career, landing in that special place where passion and purpose overlap.

Studying people like Genevieve, I came to understand why matching passion and purpose helps us perform so much better. It comes down to energy. Because Genevieve loved what she did and felt that she was serving a purpose, she charged out of bed each morning, eager to get to her hotel. Once there, she greeted guests warmly and did everything she could to make their stay memorable, even when she was tired and cold on a dark January morning in icy Quebec. Yes, she tapped into her natural talents, and yes, she worked long hours—both contributed to her success. But it was the energy she brought to her work—borne from her sense of passion and purpose—that allowed her to excel.

My quantitative data confirmed that passion and purpose strongly predict how much effort people put in for each hour they’re on the job, rather than the sheer number of hours they work. That intensity leads in turn to higher performance. If you love what you do, you’ll show up with a certain amount of vigor. And if you also feel that you’re helping other people—that they need you and depend on your contributions—your motivation to excel becomes that much greater. You’re targeting your efforts toward making contributions to your purpose. You activate positive emotions such as joy, excitement, pride, inspiration, and hope, all of which gives you more energy. And that lets you do everything better on the job.

Now, you might think that this kind of matching is only possible in certain industries, like healthcare, teaching and hotel service. Not true! We found that nearly every industry or occupation boasted at least some people who reported lots of passion and purpose. That finding has implications for many of us: try to cultivate more passion and purpose in the place where you already are. Chances are that you will find more ways to feel passionate and a strong sense of purpose. It will make your job more interesting, and you will also likely perform far better.

Morten T. Hansen is a professor at the University of California – Berkeley in the School of Information. His new book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More, is out January 30.

Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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