Can passion be taught? – part 1

Can passion be taught is a question that I have thought about for a long time. I am yet to find definitive answers, but it seems that the answer is pretty close at hand. I’m sure you’ll all agree that Passion is one of the key ingredients for success. At the risk of over-generalizing, one could even categorically state that there is not a single person in the world that is successful without being passionate. Myself and Archana Raghuram have been discussing for the past 2 weeks or so about Passion. She described passion as being analogous to drugs in that it is addictive. Excellent analogy. If Passion is such a magical ingredient for a success recipe, is there a way we can teach people to be passionate? This is the question we were pondering. In the organizational context, this could be a great thing – imagine, if you’re able to teach your entire employee population to be passionate about your company’s line of work, your employees could work wonders. Even if you ignore the organizational benefits, if we could teach people to be passionate, lot more people could be successful and the world will be a much better place. When I looked for a definition of Passion on the internet, I found this very apt definition:
One of the seven modes. Its positive pole is self-actualization; its negative pole is identification. In passion mode, one releases one’s energy boundlessly, downward and outward.
The key here is releasing energy boundlessly.
We were exploring a few threads and I will write about the first one and invite your comments. I am also tagging Milind Sathe to write on his blog, which is focused on Excellence. By our definitionn, Excellence can’t be achieved without passion. Without further adieu, here is the first the thread – What is the connection between passion and one’s core strengths/capabilities? Can someone who is not good at a particular skill become passionate about it? For example, if I want to be a musician and I know I’m not good at it now, can I become a great musician by becoming passionate about it? Or should I simply pick the things I am good at and become passionate about it? Please write your comments as always.


  1. Anonymous said April 29, 2007, 9:22 am:

    As has been your stand during our discussion, you wouldn’t take no / impossible for an answer. My answer is this – It is very hard to be passionate about what you are not good at. To me passion means enjoying doing something which you can do well and keep doing it better. That’s what all great artists and musicians do. They enjoy doing what they do. Others appreciating / applauding is only incident. Can a bad singer enjoy singing, can a poor painter enjoy painting – not for long I would think. Unless he convinces himself he is doing a good job, I doubt you can do that for long.

  2. Anonymous said April 29, 2007, 1:30 pm:


    Good point. But i think it is not as simple as being good at something. Let us set aside, what does “good at” mean for the moment. How does one explain acquiring a skill and becoming an expert over time? It is possible that you have a general inclination for something – either innate or acquired through some inspiring friend or book or teacher and you become passionate about it and over time become an expert. If you look deeply at the neuroscientific level, these inclinations must be firing your brain’s reward circuitry giving you pleasure which further drives into working on that particular activity more. Now coming to the “good at” – it is possible that you may not be good at it as per what the world defines but in your mind it gives you immense pleasure and hence you are passionate about it. The classic example is Vincent Van Gogh – his paintings did not attract much attention during his life time and he died a pauper. I am sure he would have been passionate about his paintings but the world did not care. Only after he died Van Gogh got the attention his paintings truly deserve.

    In sum, i think your point of being passionate about something you are good at is valid. But, there are several instances where an individual is exposed to a new thing and the individual becomes passionate about it and possibly over time becomes an expert (as per the world’s recognition). Sometimes, we don’t try something at all because we think we may not be good at it, but when we do try due to some inspiration, we surprise ourselves by becoming good at this new thing. And we then start liking it that we later become passionate about this new thing.

    I guess it is quite complicated. Let us see what the others have to say.

  3. Anonymous said April 30, 2007, 9:38 am:

    In my opinion, being passionate at something will help a person attain the pinnacle of it, be it at work or outside. I realise it when i see people who switch their careers completely from a Lawyer to a Chef or from CIO to a Paramedic etc. and excel in their own way. It is the passion which drives them to excellence, they could have been successful in their own careers but they choose their passion instead which brought them happiness with success.

    As Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder, Success is in the eye of the performer. So when we say “being good at it” it drains down to what we define as “being good at it”. For a person who follows his\her passion every single milestone is a success. Constant practice and rework makes them excel in it, be it a painter or a dancer. Passion always leads to self satisfaction and happiness.

    This thought always crosses my mind when people ask me how i could quit my job and decide to stay at home. At this point of life, my success and my passion is in raising my kids to the best, may be i will start again with a complete new career when i feel i should or when something strikes me to do it.

    Enjoying and celebrating every step towards our passion and dreams makes it more successful.



  4. Anonymous said April 30, 2007, 11:04 am:

    Regarding the question about can we teach the employees of the organization to be passionate about their company’s line of work. The possibilities are either we need to identify\recruit the right people for the right job or train them in the field or discipline they are interested in working instead of assigning wherever openings exist.

    It is easier with freshers, after the initial recruitment there should be a team in every company which sits down with a fresher and identify their strengths,areas of interest and then do the placement based on the findings, instead of just filling in positions. The same team should also touch base with them for atleast the next two years until they find the right area of interest. This might work for Fresh Recruitment.

    But when we hire experienced employees or reassign existing employees, instead of looking at their area of experience and doing a placement we need to try to figure out do they really fit in the position and are they really interested in doing the same job. A person strong in one technology\field can be interested in learning or moving into another technology\field of the company instead of giving them the same job, training them in their field of interest and deploying them in that line will make them succeed.

    Overall, interest based placement would eliminate monotonous work force and boredom.



  5. Anonymous said May 1, 2007, 5:51 am:

    Thanks Sujatha. Great explanation for why “being good at” needs to be a personal definition. Passion per se is something intrinsic. So as you say success would also have a personal definition.

  6. Anonymous said May 1, 2007, 6:00 am:

    Thanks Sujatha. If i understood you correctly, you are sort of saying that passion can only be taught to people in line with their strengths.

    The problem i have with this line of thinking is simple – you are passionate about a few things and I am passionate about a few as well. We were both not born with the passion for the things we are passionate now. Somewhere along the way we learnt it. Albert Schweitzer realized that he wanted to become a doctor at the age of 40 enrolled in Medical School and the rest is history. He was a theologist/priest before that. I am sure he did not have an understanding that he was going to be good in Medicine one day.

    In my view, which is slowly evolving thanks to such discussions, we need to be able to teach people how to be passionate about anything first. Then direct their passion at a part of the workplace. Now Software Engineering is a vast field and one could pick the one area that one could be passionate about and start there. We all know that if we are passionate about something it is easy for us to excel in it. The problem is, either we don’t know how to be passionate or we are passionate about things that are not related to the work we do. Is there a way we can align the two?

    In other words, can we teach people to be passionate about the things that they need to be passionate about?

  7. Anonymous said May 1, 2007, 10:01 pm:


    I have posted an article on my blog on this topic. This indeed was very interesting. Had to dig deep for this one.. 🙂



  8. Anonymous said May 2, 2007, 11:36 am:

    Sukumar – Milind’s post reminded me of another incident. My aunt started working after she married and had two children. This was about 20 years. She had to write an exam to get into railways. I asked how she studied with so many responsibilities. She said “I did not want to go for a job, but my husband insisted. Once I applied, I could not bring myself not to study. I have never failed any exam before.” From when I remember her, she is a very efficient person. She is a great cook, fabulous mother, very good at her work etc. I think the secret of her success is her passion to do whatever she does well. She just can’t do a shoddy job. May be passion need not be for a specific area of interest. It can just be a general passion for excellence in whatever you undertake. Your thoughts?

  9. Anonymous said May 2, 2007, 11:45 am:

    That’s a great insight Archana. A general passionate disposition. Very interesting – sukumar

  10. Anonymous said May 3, 2007, 1:19 am:

    Nice topic Sukumar.

    I would have to disagree with Archana’s statement – “it is very hard to be passionate about what you are not good at.” I would rather state it as “it is easy to be passionate about something you are naturally good at”. Some of the things I am passionate about, are sports related – cricket, NBA, NFL etc. I know I am not good at it or do not have the physical attributes to be good at it. However, this does not prevent me from either playing them for recreation purposes or being an avid fan and watching the games/matches.

    I also remember a colleague of mine in a previous company, a technical writer, and was very good at it. However, he was passionate about programming though not very good at it. Now, do I think he would have been a better writer if had been more passionate about his Technical writing? I doubt it.

    You find someone who is very good at what they do and see if you can drive them to be passionate about it. Also, remember that interests change over time. So, even though I maybe good at something now and learn to be passionate about it, my interest in it could wane. So, how do you sustain this passion? As Sukumar has mentioned, in an area like software development, this might be easier.

    Doing what Sukumar as suggested – “we need to be able to teach people how to be passionate about anything first. Then direct their passion at a part of the workplace”. I find this a bit difficult to digest and do not know if it is that easy to actually implement.

    To offer a slightly different perspective – one which is not really relevant to this topic – what do you do with the “passionless” folks? However much you try – for some work will be a job that pays their bills? They know they are good at their work and are mostly a 9-5 type. They are conscientious about what they do and within their time boundaries they do their job exceedingly well. They might even be better than the ‘passionate’ ones who spend much more time on their job to produce less. The success of such “passionless” folks may not be dictated by their work life. So, you reward them with what is important to them – work-life balance to enable them to be productive.

  11. Anonymous said May 3, 2007, 7:01 am:

    Thanks for the insightful comments Ganesh. Man, you were the BITS Cricket team captain. You were definitely excellent in cricket which i am sure you have translated now to NBA, NFL etc. But yes there are folks who are not good at any of the sports but they are passionate fanatics.

    This technical writer you talk about, did the person become better at programming over time. In my experience, i think if you passionately do something, you do become good at it over time. You may not get the flair of someone who is a natural at it, but you will be good enough.

    Finding someone that is good at something and making them passionate about it. I think this is what Archana Raghuram and Sujatha Manivasagam are saying and I think even Milind Sathe is saying the same thing.

    But to me, i think you can bring a related strength and leverage it and become good in this new skill if you are passionate.

    The comment on the passionless is actually quite relevant. Ultimately, the question i asked is to be able to convert the passionless into passionate people.

    How do i do that is the question? I think this discussion has definitely generated some perspectives. Don’t be surprised if see me starting a “School of Passion” – hopefully the Shiv Sena/BJP won’t come after me construing it as something else. 🙂

  12. Anonymous said May 3, 2007, 8:04 pm:


    Regarding the colleague of mine, the Technical Writer, over a period of time he became a decent programmer, but not certainly a good software engineer. As much as his passion dictated, this did not come naturally to him. So, over a period of time, he might have become good at it, but probably (only because you never want to doubt what the human mind is capable of – just like you have said) would not have reached the “pinnacle” or “excelled” in an area that he was very passionate about. However, he enjoyed every small step/success and absolutely relished the learning process.

    You first require the aptitude and the inclination to learn and succeed and then layer it with passion.


  13. Anonymous said June 29, 2007, 9:04 am:

    Sorry Ganesh, I saw your comment only now, I hope it is not too late to respond. You have given the example of sports as something which you are passionate about but really good at, things like movies would also fall under that category. You can be passionate about a movie without aspiring to be an actor.

    But the passion you feel for sports cannot be compared to Michael Jordan or Sachin Tendulkar. I don’t know how to explain the difference but they are different.

    I feel passion has to go with a desire for excellence. Anything which is passive, like watching a match/movie or playing for fun, I don’t know whether they fit the definition of passion (pretty much everyone is passionate about entertainment in one form or the other).

  14. Anonymous said June 29, 2007, 1:14 pm:

    Interesting distinction Archana. I agree with you. I guess we will have to split passion in to 2 types – passive passion and active passion, where passive passion is one which is enjoyment oriented, from a distance sort of – watching sports, movies, listening to music etc. Active passion is the one where you are actually engaged in the discipline – again sports, programming, writing, music, work, anything.

  15. Anonymous said June 29, 2007, 10:07 pm:

    Thanks Sukumar. Is there any way I can track comments on the posts that interest me. I just happened to see Ganesh’s comment by chance.

  16. Anonymous said June 30, 2007, 1:09 am:


    It appears the comment notification at the post level (you can see the enable button below the post) sends the notification only to the author of the post. I don’t think there is a way for you to subscribe to the comments of one post. I will investigate this further – perhaps i can give your preferences page (see link on the top of the home page) and setup comment notifications for a particular category of posts or all posts.

  17. Anonymous said June 30, 2007, 2:48 am:

    Thanks Sukumar

  18. Anonymous said July 24, 2007, 11:44 pm:

    What defines a poor painter or musician? Sure some people are born with a natural talent, but what about someone who longs to play the guitar, picks one up, and can’t play well after a year of lessons? Is he or she a bad guitar player, or is that just the perception they have of themselves? Eric Clapton almost quit playing the guitar after he struggled with it. I myself failed my first accounting class, and now am preparing to take the CPA exam. I think passion can be learned. I am very passionate about accounting. I do know, from observation, that many people lack passion in anything. It is sad because they see no need to pursue anything. To me passion is at the heart of the human soul. Many people I work with now have no passion for anything. It is as if they just exist, like a fish in the sea that doesn’t know its own existance. I have thought long and hard about being able to teach passion to a person. So far I have yet to come to any conclusions.

  19. Anonymous said July 25, 2007, 8:24 am:


    Thanks for stopping by. Did you see part 2 of this post, especially the comments. I am now of the firm belief that it can be taught. I am glad you echoed the same belief. I think the other key ingredient is perseverance or a work ethic. I wrote a post on work ethic also. I believe that by persevering in an area you are passionate about but possibly lack the natural talent, you can still reach a level that is pretty close to natural flair. So the guitar person you talked about probably lacked the perseverance/work ethic.

    I would love to hear your comments on part 2 of this post as well as the one on work ethic.