Curiosity is More Useful Than Passion

In this modern age of infinite choice and information overload, we are encouraged to find our passion.  Pursue our passion; do what we are passionate about; follow our passions and let the rest fall into place.  In practice, this does not always work.  What if you aren’t passionate about much of anything?  Are you doomed to a life of hum-drum mediocrity?  What if your passions develop later in life?  Does that lay waste to your young years?  What does passion even mean, and who in the world feels that strongly about one thing over the long arc of life?


Recently, a Millennial with about 10 years of work experience was contemplating a career change.  He discussed being ‘passionate’ about developing others, especially leaders.  But upon further scrutiny, he revealed that the real driver behind shifting careers wasn’t passion at all—it was anger.  He was angry about having worked for sub-par leaders during his first decade in the workforce—whether the manager was rude or incompetent or invisible or all three—and was now fixated on righting this wrong in the world at large, all under the guise of ‘passion.’  In reality, he felt angry and burned by his experiences and was now guided by those feelings in charting his next career move.  Now is a good time to ask: is anger the best guide for making a major life decision?

Curiosity Is a Better Guide

Without doubt, a curious mind will take you farther than a passionate mind.  Curiosity implies a genuine interest in learning, including learning about things for which you may have no discernable passion.  The history of the Mayan civilization, the difference between oil- and water-based paint, knife skills in the kitchen, secrets for a well-organized closet, how the masters play chess—you may not be particularly passionate about anything on this list, but if you are curious about them, your base of knowledge and skills will grow, and this growth will spill over into other areas of your life, including your professional life.

And for those who struggle to find their passion—and there are many—curiosity is one of the best tools to help find it.  Curiosity leads to learning, learning leads to discovery, and sometimes you discover passion.  Sometimes you discover several passions.  And sometimes those passions are things you want to monetize (i.e., do for pay), and some are things you just want to enjoy for their own sake.  Sometimes you discover an absence of passion, but an ocean of interests that lead to a lot of new experiences, both personally and professionally.  There is no rule book, but there are guidelines: curiosity will do more for your career than passion, and so will skill-building.

Skills Are More Useful than Passion Too

The common advice: do what you’re passionate about.  The better advice: do what you’re good at.  The reason why focusing on skill-building is almost always better advice is because skills—from technical skills to project management to relationship-building to conflict resolution to the ability to sell your ideas—tend to be more durable than passions, which are subject to variation in intensity and can even fade away altogether.  And being really good at something—anything—can increase your confidence over time, and increased confidence often leads to good feelings about the work you do, if not outright passion.  To the extent passion develops at all, it often does so through prolonged exposure to a particular discipline, craft, way of thinking, way of being, etc.  Someone once said, “so much of beauty is just understanding what you’re looking at.”  In this regard, beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder—it’s in the mind of the beholder.  The more you know about something, the more you hone your craft, the more you are able to appreciate it.  Far from growing bored in your work over the years, you can increase your interest and engagement with it.  Skills atrophy faster in the digital age than at any time in human history which, from the standpoint of career development, is actually a good thing.  The threat of atrophy permanently frees us from boredom in our careers, because we will never run out of new things to learn, new skills to acquire—just to keep pace with the relentless change surrounding us.

People who encourage us to follow our passions are well-meaning, but often misguided.  Passion is defined as a “strong and barely controllable emotion.”  Should you really predicate your career choices on a feeling you can barely control? 

Wash Post Life is the people side of The Washington Post focusing on stewarding a culture of innovation, ownership, speed, collaboration, and diversity within a rapidly growing media and media technology company.

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