Passion vs Purpose: What’s The Difference?

Beautiful Caribbean scene to illustrate story about passion vs purpose.

Much has been written about finding your passion. And clients often come to me in search of it. They’re living what they perceive to be a successful life, yet they feel there’s something missing. This often leads to an engagement where we explore the role of passion vs purpose in their personal and/or professional lives. Through our work together, we determine how they can enrich their life experience and find more meaning by defining what these concepts mean to them and pursuing both.

Now, to clarify, passion is about emotion, which can be exciting and motivating, but fleeting. Purpose, in contrast, focuses on why we exist – what are the underlying motives that drive us? When you find your purpose, passion is likely to follow because purpose allows you to align your life choices to your authentic self. 

But your purpose doesn’t have to be grand. It’s truly about what is meaningful to you. To illustrate this point, I often share the following story:

Passion and Purpose in Action

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to sail the Caribbean with a group of friends and one day we anchored off a small island. There was a woman there running a little snack shack on this island and we struck up a conversation. Looking back on that day, our discussion redefined the concepts of passion and purpose for me. 

As we chatted, we learned that she had emigrated from the UK to the Caribbean many years earlier. She left a stressful position to embrace a simpler, but happier life. She went on to explain that there were days when weather prohibited her from opening the shack and that there were sometimes interruptions in getting food to the island. From our Silicon Valley career-oriented mindset at the time, my friends and I were amazed that she had abandoned our version of success to experience the level of uncertainty she faced while running her business. We asked if it impacted how she viewed her decision to move to the island.

She just looked at us and said, “You know, it’s a hard life, but it’s a good life.” 

That comment gave us pause. Later, my friends and I wondered, what does it mean to have a good life? And how can a hard life also be good? Yet, this woman was clearly content with her choices. We mulled this over for some time until the answer became clear. 

This delightful woman had found her purpose, which was to reconnect with herself while enriching the lives of others. She had chosen to fulfill her purpose by serving delicious food to people from all over the world, while engaging them in enjoyable conversation and basking in the beauty of the Caribbean. Although she encountered challenges, staying true to this purpose brought her (and others) joy and passion in life. So it was worth it to her to endure the hard times so she could continue living an authentic life.

What is Passion?

Example of Caribbean day anchorage.

Earlier, I mentioned that passion is emotionally driven. It’s about experiencing powerful feelings about something. However, there are a lot of cultural and societal influences that can color our view about what constitutes success, achievement, or even failure. This is particularly true in individualistic cultures, like the United States. There’s a lot of messaging around living your passion and doing something you’re passionate about. From this dynamic and somewhat confusing viewpoint, you’re supposed to find your passion from within and you’re the person responsible for generating that passion.

The challenge is that passion may not sustain the test of time. So people often find themselves becoming unhappy and discouraged about their circumstances when they feel they are lacking the passion that should propel them forward. 

Societal cues also tell us what we’re supposed to feel passionate about. In a consumer society, it’s about status or material goods. This is what often leads to clients telling me that they’ve achieved everything that’s possible, but it’s still not enough. They find themselves feeling unfulfilled and asking, “Is this all there is in life?”

What is Purpose?

Purpose, on the other hand, is what we define as our reason for being. It’s why we exist in the world and do the things we do. When you have a purpose, it doesn’t matter if you feel passionate in a given moment. You’ve accepted that passion will come and go because you have something to contribute to the world and you’re determined to see it through.

Think about the commitments we make in life. We might pursue an education, take a job, get married, have children, or sail the world. Your reason for doing these things may vary, and your passion for them will ebb and flow. But, there is an underlying reason that drives you. It could be as simple as wanting to experience the world or as complex as wanting to drive significant societal change. Either way, it gives you a reason to get up every day and show up as your full and authentic self. In this regard, purpose fuels passion.

When I work with clients who aren’t quite certain of their purpose, there is a sense of eagerness to uncover what’s possible for them. On the other hand, clients who come to me with a purpose in mind typically want to figure out how to incorporate that purpose into their lives. What’s exciting about either scenario is that we get to integrate passion into that purpose. 

What is the Difference Between Purpose and Passion

The difference between passion and purpose comes down to time and your ability to build something sustainable that will carry you into the future. Passion, by itself, can dissipate over time. You may get really excited about something, but decide later that it wasn’t your passion after all. And so I see a lot of people abandoning what they perceive to be their passion, then getting frustrated by the whole process. 

This is normal. We’ve all encountered situations where we feel passionate about something which turns into a disappointment. It’s perfectly healthy and normal to give ourselves permission to experience this kind of exploration. It’s part of the process of discovering who you are so you can find your purpose. 

Purpose can withstand the test of time. When you’re working to fulfill your purpose you gain focus and the ability to find passion in everything you do. This allows you to set impactful goals and to live a meaningful life that is an expression of who you really are. When you have purpose, you will find the passion and drive you need to get through your day and be present, even when you’re not feeling it. When you ignite passion with purpose, it may start off as a tiny spark. But under the right conditions, your passion can grow into a fire that warms those around you. 

So, Passion vs Purpose, Which Comes First?  

Boat anchored off an island in the Caribbean.

Many people believe passion should come first. But when it doesn’t last, they get frustrated, abandon it, then feel terrible that they didn’t achieve their purpose. But it wasn’t their purpose, it was passion. 

In my view, purpose must come first. Getting anchored in your purposes in life will create passion. That passion may come and go, and there might be frustration. But, if you do the work you may find that your purpose has been there all along, waiting to be seen. And when you grow, nurture, and cultivate passion that’s anchored in purpose it will stand the test of time.

Why Do Passion and Purpose Matter in Life?

Many people are content with existence, and that’s perfectly fine. But if you want to live your life to its fullest and uncover real meaning during your time on this earth, that’s where purpose comes into play.

It’s not about passion vs purpose, or even passion or purpose. It’s about passion and purpose. Both are important, interconnected qualities that can help you define your exceptional future.

At Exceptional Futures, I help people and organizations find their purpose so they can develop a powerful vision and design a strategy toward transformation. My purpose is to help you design a future that’s authentic and rewarding. Take the first step in your journey by visiting our resources page for a helpful quiz and other information.

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About the Author

Picture of Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C.

Victoria Shiroma Wilson, Ed.D., P.C.C., is the founder of Exceptional Futures, a provider of frameworks that help people tap into the power of their cultural identities to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Victoria is on the teaching faculty at Duke University and earned her doctoral degree in Global Leadership from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in Psychology from Santa Clara University, and a master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.

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