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Pick purpose, not passion

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I wanted to be a journalist from about the time I was 11. I did what I was supposed to: served as editor of my high school newspaper, interned at a weekly the summer after my freshman year of college, and found a job as a copy aide my junior year.

With my foot in the door at the Gazette (back then it was the Gazette-Telegraph), I had my career path planned. But that plan crashed down around me one Saturday when I reported to work. The newsroom administrator called me in while I was typing up that day's obituaries. "We're getting rid of the part-time positions," he informed me.

As I fought back tears, he assured me that I could get a job delivering newspapers.

It took all my will power to not scream at him. "Deliver papers?! You just don't understand!" This job was not about the paycheck. Running page designs downstairs and proofs back up (this was before pagination), writing and fact-checking obits, and being around journalists — this was the initial step on my path to a Pulitzer. And with the decision to eliminate a few minimum-wage, part-time positions, it was gone.

I didn't know it then, but that was my first lesson in separating passion from career.

The propaganda of "finding your passion" and making a living doing it starts early, usually in high school. We're told we must be able to define a passion and make it our career.

I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but I say don't fall for it.

When you invest your passion with an employer, you run the risk of being downsized and stripped of your dreams. I wish someone had told me that before I graduated from high school, or as I rushed through to complete my bachelor's and master's degrees.

Not to mention, as a friend once told me, even when you land your dream job, a day will come when you drag yourself out of bed and not want to go to work. The honeymoon of the dream job might last six months or a year, but that day will come when you wake up and would rather do anything than go to work.

Before you condemn me for suggesting people spend 40 hours a week at a job they hate, just to make money, let me elaborate.

Passion is misleading. It's the same thing that we are told we need in relationships. And like that dream job you find yourself dragging ass to, there are some days that once-perfect partner leans in to kiss you first thing in the morning (or after eating an odorific lunch), and you wonder where that weak-in-the-knees passion has gone. But that doesn't mean you don't still love that person.

It's true, we do spend too much of our lives toiling at activities that are not rewarding. So instead of passion, I suggest finding purpose.

I share a story in a Foundations of Leadership class I teach at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The story exemplifies the importance of communicating a mission throughout an organization — but it also fits with finding purpose in your work.

The source is not clear, but the story exists all over the Internet. It goes like this: In 1961, President Kennedy visited NASA. When he came upon a janitor mopping the floor, the president asked what the man did for NASA. The janitor answered, "Sir, I'm helping put a man on the moon."

Does anyone grow up feeling as though his or her calling is scrubbing toilets? Probably not. But there is purpose in keeping bathrooms clean. Same goes for the barista who hands me a perfect latte in the morning, or the doctor who performs a life-saving surgery.

Passion is dizzying and intoxicating. Purpose is fulfilling and rewarding. Passion is not sustainable; purpose is. This goes for careers and relationships.

Think I'm advocating a life without passion? Oh, heck no. Life is too long to not spend at least part of it with that giddy, exhilarating feeling. But where does passion fit? In the other 128 hours in your week, in the hours of your life that you control.

Passion can be found in drinking an exceptional glass of wine. It can be in reading a book that transports you to another world. It can be in volunteering to make our community a better place. Or getting kissed by your partner after years together and still feeling weak in the knees.

Passion is too important to waste while earning a paycheck.

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