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The trouble with passion and purpose at work

Passion and purpose. Everything you need to get started with motivation. Right?

Many HR professionals and leaders seem convinced today that the key to motivating workers is to unlock and release their passion. But will it work?

At the ASTD2013 ICE this year, I heard from 4 people about this topic and my first impression was one of inspiration (again) and awe (again) at how right they were, how amazing their stories were and how cool the results they got were. But today, no longer under the influence of conference-buzz, I’m not so sure. MAYBE only one of their stories is relevant…


Person number 1: Sir Ken Robinson told us that people need to find their “element”. The “element” is the true passion each person has that is the driving spirit of intrinsic motivation. Find it and work is no longer work – it’s joy for which you are paid. Sound great!

Persons number 2 and 3 Jon and Owen from “The Passing Zone”, confirmed Sir Ken’s speech: If you really love it and want it, just do it and great things will follow. They told me that it might be tough, but that you shouldn’t worry about going for it.

But how is this relevant for leaders and the HR folk who want to motivate people? I worry that it is not. Is it possible to use the idea of passion and purpose to motivate people in an organisation? Or is it a dream that will create lots of buzz, but ultimately go nowhere?


Maybe if we back-track a little and define motivation, it may help. Two possibilities come to mind:

  • Verb “to motivate” = to give someone a reason or motive to act
  • Noun “motivation” = something you have that drives you to act

Thinking of the verb, we could imagine that HR and leaders will need to find the ways in which they can push or pull people working towards awesomeness. In the past, they may have focused more on carrots and sticks, but today the tendency is to talk about unlocking passion and purpose. But how exactly are they planning on doing this? My passion is surfing … Good luck putting that to work!

Thinking of the noun, motivation is something you have (or don’t have). It’s not something you will give to me. If I am not passionate about accounting, you can’t make me passionate about it. And if you aren’t interested in my music passion in your company, we are in trouble…


So here is the problem as I see it: Passion and purpose is what motivates people and the best results come from finding it and unlocking it. HR and leaders need to release this passion. But you can’t give it to someone. So what do you do?


I see two approaches:


Person number 4 at the ASTD conference was Rick Lozano, who told us that one day his manager asked him: “What are you passionate about?” Rick replied “I like developing courses” and his manager said: “That’s not what I mean. I mean “passionate”…” Rick hesitatingly replied “music” and his manager instructed him to find ways to bring THAT to work.

Read my TU100 session notes here to find out what he did

This first approach is an example of a manager (leader, HR..) using the concept of passion to motivate someone and get better results. I love the story and seeing how Rick has integrated music into his work as a trainer is very inspiring. I just don’t believe that those kind of stories are so evident or possible in every job. If a call-centre agent loves stripping (I met one!) she can’t put THAT to work. And how can the average banker bring his love of circus, golf or fishing to work?


The second approach is, in my mind, the only real workable solution and probably the one intended by Sir Ken Robinson: Schooling for and spotting passion and recruiting passion for your company.

What would this mean? Firstly, it means that at school, we need to create environments that allow each individual amazing little human being to figure out what they love. Robinson spoke about this in his famous TED speech. To achieve this, we will need to let go of our wish to produce standardised “good” students who pass all the same tests to all the same standards.

Then we will have to help people who have found their passion to put it to work. We will need to help people to navigate the vast myriad of existing and future possibilities in order to find the place to add value to the world via their work.

And companies will need to do a better job of recruiting the right people for the right jobs. They would not recruit for knowledge and skills and spend their time trying to motivate people to be passionate. They need to look for the people who have the right passion and drive already and (if necessary) develop the missing knowledge and skills later .. ..whilst just trying not to screw up the natural motivation that is already there.


In my opinion, if everyone were doing what she really loved and doing it well the world would indeed be a better place. We need to help people find that passion before they look for work, then recruit to get the right people in the right jobs. The rest will follow all by itself…

Are you feeling passionate at work?



Ken Robinson on your element, education and unique extraordinary life

“One of the most influential thinkers in creativity today” says FAST Company
“Knight of the royal realm” says the Queen of England
“Keynote speaker to kick off the ICE” says ASTD2013

According to Ken Robinson, it is early. Too early. Having spent the night trying to remember how to sleep, he is not sure it’s actually a pleasure to be at ASTD2013 today. But he is here. And he’s got a message to share.

Referring to the chainsaw juggling duo The Passing Zone who introduced Tony Bingham’s speech this morning, Sir Ken reminds us that we each have deep talents and you have to work to find them. When The Passing Zone were at school, neither of them had an idea that they would spend the rest of their lives juggling. They didn’t get taught it at school and they would never have said it would be their future.

The Passing Zone love what they do. They have passion. What is your passion? Sir Robinson says that every person IS something. Every person has talent that speaks to them, that animates them. When we find that something, we will never work again. We will do what we love and get paid for it. It will change everything.

But if you want to discover that passion and talent, you have to create the right environments. He adds that many organisations do not do this. Schools neither.

The school system created during the industrial revolution is supposed to get everyone learning the same things in the same way. As Robinson said in his famous TED talk, the school system was not designed to help a young child discover the joy of juggling, or to feel the wonder of balancing accounts. Or to help a top-class concert pianist realise that, in fact, she wants to be an editor.

Ken Robinson tells us that we are facing an education and happiness crisis. In the US, more money is spent on education (per head) than any other country and class sizes are smaller. Yet more people drop out than anywhere else and less people graduate. And if that wasn’t worrying enough, Robinson also tells us that in the US more drugs are sold for depression and psychological issues than anything else. People are unhappy. And people NEED to be happy.

Why is this? Why are we not making it through school and coming out awesomely happy, working in line with our passion and talents? What can we do about it?


Firstly, Ken Robinson wants to remind us that we are unique. Since the beginning of time, there have probably been around 100 billion people on Earth. And they have all been different. No-one on Earth has ever had the same life you are leading right now. And never will. As the Dalai Lama said to Ken Robinson at a recent Vancouver conference on world peace through inner-peace: “The fact that you are alive at all is a miracle. So what are you going to do with it?”

Secondly, you have to realise that you are responsible for making your own life. You are given life …but you are not given your CV when you are born. Your own story, successful or not, is a result of your own talent, personal disposition and circumstance. Ken Robinson underlines the importance of this last point and says that we need to create circumstances in which people can flourish, discover their talents and make them grow. We can all be creative, we can all do something special and people need to be given opportunities to explore.

As the folks at the BlueMan Group say “If ordinary people can find their element, extraordinary things can happen.”

Think about it.

DANs closing questions:

  • If you are in learning and development, what can you do to create learning environments that stimulate real creativity and drive people to flourish and bring out their element?
  • If you are a parent, how you do the same for your children?
  • And if you are not awesomely happy yourself doing what brings you strength, fulfilling your own personal quest and working in line with your own personal element, what are you going to do about it?
  • ps Check out my Daily Dallas Weather Reports on

    Thanks for reading.
    Please come to session TU306 and share this article.

    ASTD President Tony Bingham on ASTD2013 ICE

    Having had the pleasure to interview ASTD President Tony Bingham recently on the upcoming 2013 ASTD International Conference and Exposition, this post outlines his thoughts on the state of the learning world and getting the best out of the ICE…


    Q1: Every year thousands of people come to the ASTD ICE and many, like me, come back. What will be special for those revisiting this year?

    ASTD’s International Conference & Exposition enjoys high loyalty, which is a tribute to the excellent work the ASTD Program Advisory Committee does in putting together the educational sessions and networking opportunities that thousands of people enjoy. This is a people-centric profession and I know that one of the aspects of the conference that many enjoy is the ability to reconnect with peers and network with some of the best and brightest in our field.  I also think that people return because they know that ASTD is committed to bringing thought leaders and new voices to the conference – and this includes not only keynote speakers but session presenters as well. For example, Sir Ken Robinson–our opening keynote speaker–has one of the most-viewed TED Talks on YouTube. Hearing directly from him is going to be a privilege for all of us. Nandi Shareef, one of the rising stars in the profession and featured in the April issue of T+D, will also be speaking on “The Curious Case of Workplace Millennials.” Nandi is a millennial herself and her perspective will be especially insightful to hear. I think it’s this kind of mix that makes the conference so interesting every year. That, and the fact that there are thousands of people from all over the world to learn from, all gathered together for this event.

    Additionally, there will be 100 or so new suppliers on the floor in the EXPO (over 350 total). I’m always interested in where the suppliers are investing, as this can often signal future trends. The EXPO is a great resource for attendees, and every year, you’ll find many new and exciting offerings.


    Q2: What changes have you seen over the last year in the L+D world? What issues or challenges do you think are “front-of-mind” for the learning profession at the moment?

    Technology continues to have the most dramatic impact on the profession. We’re seeing this in many places–from organizations who are just starting to use social technologies (remember four years ago hardly anyone was using the term “social learning”?) to those who are delivering training via mobile devices to a globally dispersed workforce. The use of data – and how it can inform training and development initiatives – is another area where we are seeing tremendous engagement. Responsive design, gamification, all of these trends continue to point to a horizon that is all about the intersection of technology and learning.


    Q3: Which sessions will you be following?

    I have a passion for technology, so I will be looking at sessions that are focused on trends there. But I am also interested in hearing from practitioners from outside the United States. The global nature of business – and the vibrancy of the profession abroad – is fascinating to me. There is great energy around the development of talent worldwide. It’s exciting to me to be able to listen to how our international partners and members throughout the world are coping with issues like succession planning, designing learning, leadership development, knowledge management, and more.


    Q4: When people visit the conference, they get a lot of big ideas and hear about all sorts of new trends. It’s easy to be very enthusiastic when away from the office, only to let things slip away or “achieve nothing” once back home. What advice would you give to HR and Learning professionals to better follow-up and implement things “post-ICE”?

    In 2009 I gave a speech at our conference in Washington, D.C. in which I challenged the profession to open the door to social learning. At the time it was a new concept – the idea that people could learn from tools like Twitter or Facebook. We got a lot of interest in that topic and one of the most frequently asked questions I received was, “How do I do this?” My answer then, as it is now to your question, is “start small.” There ARE a lot of big ideas and new trends that people hear about at the conference. It can be overwhelming. But people also know that to be effective in their jobs they need to solve real problems with real solutions. My advice is to approach the conference with the idea that you are going to come back from it able to address a challenge you want to fix. Look for sessions that will give you new ideas or tools on how to fix it. And then commit to using what you learn to make your work better.


    Q5: I’ve got an extra day in Dallas after the conference. Any tips for how I should use the time? 🙂

    Dallas is a great city with a lot to explore! There is an amazing arts district and great sports teams, and plenty of great food.


    Tony Bingham






    Tony Bingham is president and CEO of ASTD, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to the training and development field. ASTD is focused on helping members lead talent management, build their business skills, understand the impact of social media on informal learning, close skills gaps, and connect their work to the strategic priorities of business.


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