Passion is the Fuel for Greatness

sc0002ac4d-PanoramaCal Newport denounces passion as a dangerous career guidepost in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. But he agrees with Malcolm Gladwell that mastery is what separates the average achiever from the stratospheric one.  In his book Outliers, Gladwell makes the case that it takes 10,000 hours for anyone to develop mastery – Mozart got his hours through obsessive practice in his early years; Bill Gates logged in his hours in high school before most of his peers even had access to computers. Their success didn’t happen upon them by chance, but by painstaking development of skill and talent.

10,000 Hours

It takes a lot of work to log 10,000 hours of anything.  For example, that means practicing tennis 7 days a week for 2 hours for 13.7 years.  Or three hours every day for 9 years.  Or one hour a day for 27 years. That’s a lot of practice.  And a lot of passion.

The question is – where did that passion come from? Was it “found” or “developed” or “coerced” by overbearing parents?

What the World Needs

Cal Newport argues that to find career fulfillment (or launch a killer company) you should focus not on what the world can do for you, but what you can do for the world – what you can produce that is needed. Then fill that need by becoming very skilled, and the joy of competency and success will lead you to fall in love with your career.

In fairness, this indeed describes the path of Steve Jobs.  He developed his passion for technology as a means to an end, until he found a greater passion for disrupting the status quo and “thinking differently”, which became his driving force.

But if we listen to scholar Gil Bailie, perhaps passion allows us to give the world something larger than it even realizes it needs. Bailie offers this challenge:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The Battle Between Passion and Practicality

Newport’s viewpoint notwithstanding, you’ve got to have drive and desire to develop great skill – finding your passion comes first.  In all those hours of practice or study, something else is being sacrificed. I think of my cousin who gets up at 4:30am to take his daughter Katie to swim team practice, which she does every day even on holidays and summer vacation (although not always at 4:30am). All those hours of swimming mean something else is not being done – the choice of where to focus and what to let go of is being made every day. Katie may have dedicated parents, but she’s the one making the choice to be in the pool.

In the battle between passion and practicality, theologian Frederick Buechner strikes the balance:

“Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”

What’s driving you?

Photograph courtesy of Gabriella Santander.

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4 Responses to Passion is the Fuel for Greatness

  1. Sharon Reed says:


    What a great post! I believe it’s healthy to both explore our passions and cultivate our skills, but Buechner’s quote resonates most deeply with me, for passion without a requisite sense of purpose can be directionless, while skill without passion is rarely sufficient to drive innovation, growth and change.

    At various times in my career, I have leaned into my skills seeking sufficient purpose to propel me forward, while at other times, I developed the requisite skills needed to support a budding passion. Without question, however, my greatest successes have come at the intersection between purpose, skill and the meeting the world’s great need.


    • startupcafe says:

      Sharon – thanks for your thoughtful insights. It’s true that we have different phases of emphasis, and long term success and happiness come from striking the right balance between competency and passion. Thanks again for sharing your personal insights.


  2. Cathy Hasty says:

    I enjoyed reading and, for the most part, I agree with the balance between passion and mastery. I would wonder if the reference to “scraping by” might indicate something about implicit passions. I grow weary of the notion that financial indicators are the most important measures of success. I have been in health care, counseling, ministry for many years. I have witnessed many deaths, much illness and the toll and transformation of aging. The people who mastered loving relationships impressed me, touched me. Sometimes there was an inverse relationship between financial success and a sense of peace; success was redefined and the effort put into becoming paid off.

    • startupcafe says:

      Cathy – thank you for sharing your experience. Your range of career paths certainly offers a broad view how people can balance passion and mastery. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

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