The Dark Side of Purpose: When Your “Why” Holds You Hostage At Work


“Purpose” is having a moment, at least when it comes to conversations about how to make working life better.

Bestselling author Dan Pink, for instance, named it as one of the three pillars of employee motivation. Simon Sinek’s TED talk on purpose (“How Great Leaders Inspire Action”) has garnered 47 million views. Knowing the “why” is often the critical missing ingredient of peak performance.


As psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl puts it, “He who has a why can endure any how.” At the same time, though, putting an excessive emphasis on it can be detrimental. Here’s why.

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1. For meaning, I can be a doormat


Meaningful work can seem hard to come by. When we find it, then, we tend to be willing to put up with anything for its sake. Under such circumstances, we render ourselves vulnerable to being taken advantage of at work. In exchange for being able to do meaningful work, we allow ourselves to become doormats for others.


It’s what makes us put up with tolerate abusive bosses, toxic work environments, being underpaid, neglected, and stagnating at work. Meaningful work can make it feel like it’s all worth the struggle, but at the same time, it can also put us at a severe disadvantage, career-wise.

Bestselling author Cal Newport, for example, advocates prioritising relatively flexible qualities like autonomy and a sense of competence in career planning, over simply following our passion. This way, we avail ourselves of better career trajectories. We also stand a much better chance of having greater freedom to choose our projects later on in our careers.


2. Great expectations, great disappointments


The great paradox about following your passion is that you tend to end up being very disappointed. When you turn a passion into a career, you feel like should feel a constant sense of immense satisfaction and enjoyment at work.


This, however, is unlikely to be the case; the greater your expectations, the greater your disappointment tends to be. You will almost certainly experience periods of plateau, demotivation, or even ennui at work, as most people often do. The problem is, though, when this happens to someone for whom their career is their passion, they tend to be much more adversely affected by it than others, precisely because they had sky-high expectations.

3. Burnt out, but it’s okay


When work is your passion and vice versa, the lines between work and life can get very blurry. At the outset, it seems like a good thing; the endless enthusiasm and joy you feel because you get to what you love give you a seemingly bottomless supply of motivation and vigour at work.


As time draws on, however, it makes you much more prone to job burnout and exhaustion. In fact, studies have shown that people who pursue their passion are much more susceptible to burnout than those who don’t. To make matters worse, being burnt out about your passion can feel a lot worse than being burnt out in general; something that once gave you so much joy now makes you feel bored and disengaged.


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