Is ‘calling’ the same as ‘passion’?

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09/01/2021

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09/01/2021

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Follow your passion

‘Is following my calling the same as following my passion,’ you asked.

Nope. And here’s why.

Our passion may not be what we are called to do

As discussed in an earlier post, one’s calling is the intersection of doing what we are good at, what we love doing, and what the world needs. If we define passion as “a powerful emotion or feeling of love” towards something, then that may seem to fit “what we love doing”. However, loving the thing is not the same as making it our lifelong calling.

I remembered how I loved singing as a teenager. I was so passionate about Mandarin pop songs that I will wait by the radio to tap record my favorite song on air (this was during the time of cassette players), and try to guess the lyrics and writing it on my notepad (since I couldn’t afford to buy the albums). I will sing to myself everywhere I go. But I doubt anyone would pay to hear me sing. In fact, they would pay not to! Neither does my singing serve any need in the world (my girlfriend-now-spouse agreed to the proposal in spite of, and not because of, my singing).

But doesn’t being passionate about something motivates one to pursue and practice it as a calling? This is true, but only to a certain extent. What matters is that we must have an affinity with what we want to do. We each have our strengths and limitations, and despite what the media may say, we can’t be anything we want to be. It’s possible to absolutely love doing something but be totally lousy at it. If we have zero affinity with what we thought we love doing, it doesn’t matter how many sets of 10,000 hours we put into it. We will never reach the stage where others can say, “This is what he/she is called to do.” (Yes, calling has to be recognized by others).

Then what about ‘following your passion’?

Many attributed the advice of ‘following your passion’ to Steve Jobs. Cal Newport, in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, made the controversial statement that “follow your passion” is bad career advice. He observed that many people misinterpreted Steve Job’s advice below as following your passion at all cost:

And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steve Job at his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University

But according to Steve Job’s own life story, says Newport, his success was not because he ‘followed his passion’. As a student of Reeds College, Oregon, Jobs was not interested in business or electronics. His field of study was Western history and dance, and he was deeply interested in eastern mysticism. That’s “passion” for Steve Jobs! His later project with Steve Wozniak soon caught the imagination of the newly bludgeoning personal comupter market, but his success did not start from an initial passion for technology or entrepreneurship.

Of course, Jobs eventually grew passionate about his work. But if we start off with what we are passionate about, and believe that to be our calling, we may be in for a disappointment.

For many people, the search for passion can actually make things worse. It leads to chronic job shifts and discomfort when a person doesn’t achieve their dream.

Cal Newport

There are many other articles that discussed why ‘following your passion’ is bad career advice (such as this Forbes article). What I want to do here is to differentiate calling from passion. To follow one’s calling is to find the greatest fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. It can involve doing something you love, but it is far more than that. Passion (as strong emotion) as a criterion is too fickle to measure what we truly love doing.

Let Passion FOLLOW your Calling!

While following our calling does not necessarily start with following our passion, passion should follow our calling. We should be passionate about what we are called to do.

As mentioned earlier, Steve Jobs did not start out by identifying his passion, and then deciding if that is his life work. But he did become passionate about his work.

We become passionate about what we do when we get better at doing it. Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, spent years studying the science of human motivation. He asserted that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the 3 elements of true motivation – not passion!

Passion, like happiness, is a by-product of doing what you are good at and meeting the real needs of others. Aim at passion, and it will come up short. Aim at helping people and becoming better at what you do, working at it with all your heart, and you’ll find passion and fulfillment in what you do.

Passion as Suffering

Perhaps the original Latin meaning of passion as ‘suffering’ is closer to what calling is about. (Remember The Passion of the Christ?)

Passion as ‘suffering’ captures the essence of calling better. It is for the sake of something or someone we love so much that we will put up with any form of suffering. To love is to suffer. Any worthy cause or mission requires some form of suffering. I’m sure St Theresa didn’t wake up excited every day about attending to needy lepers. When we struggle with self-doubt, difficulties, and opposition in our work, that does not mean we are not following our calling.

It may well mean that we are right in the center of our calling.

So, to find your calling, do the counterintuitive thing: start with where you are right down. Assume that as your calling (don’t worry, calling is not static). Do your best in it, and increase your competence. Passion will follow. And if you happen to suffer for that, remember the last sentence.

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