Should finding your passion really be your life goal?

“If you don’t know what your passion is, realize that one reason for your existence on Earth is to find it.”

Oprah apparently said this. At least according to Thrive, an Instagram account I follow.

So, what do you think about that? I saw the quote the other day as I was scrolling through my Instagram feed. At the time I paused and reflected over my passions – writing and painting to name two – and felt lucky to have these passions and to also actually be able to make a living off them. Still, something about this quote just bothered me, as motivational one-liners often do. The thing is, we seem to really love these motivational quotes, but the fact is, life just isn’t that simple.

I was a bit surprised that Oprah had said this because she is usually quite insightful and nuanced, and to be honest, I think telling people to dedicate their lives to chasing their passions can be quite problematic.

Well, I scrolled down to the comments section because it’s always interesting to see how other people react, and I was happy to see that many of my fellow Thrive followers were much more pragmatic and nuanced than Oprah on this particular occasion.

One of the main messages from the comments section was that if you don’t have a passion, and maybe not everyone does, that has to be okay too. Because if you tell everyone that they should spend the lives looking for passion that might not be there, it’s “a mindset that can work towards frustration,” as one person put it. Not everyone has a passion, but if they are told that they must find theirs, it invariably sets them up for a feeling of failure, or not being good enough as a person, or not looking hard enough. Or maybe you’re passionate about something mundane that can’t be translated into a successful job? Does that mean your passion isn’t good enough? (No, it doesn’t).

Or maybe all jobs don’t have to be based on passion. Maybe not everyone wants or needs to be passionate about their jobs and that has to be okay too. Or maybe they can’t. Maybe they found a passion and tried pursuing that but then realized that they also needed to afford to live.

You get the gist.

The thing is, I’m all for passion, but I’m not for sweeping generalizations where we forget that the world consists of a multitude of people with different realities, hopes, wants, and needs. I’m all for dreaming and encouraging others to do the same. What I’m not for is one-dimensional motivational quotes that become mantras and that many just can’t live up to.  Life isn’t just about passion, it isn’t just about happiness, it isn’t just about living your dream. It’s so much more, and thank goodness for that!

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The question isn’t where is this going, but rather where do we want it to go?

Last week I participated in a two-day workshop on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and digital skills. It was part of an international project on AI and digital discovery that my good friend and colleague Anthony Elliott* has been involved in developing and leading. Anthony argues that what is happening in the world today is no longer a technical revolution, but rather a technical tsunami, where the development and implementation of new technologies is so fast and wide spread that it is unlike anything we have ever experienced before. There are mind-boggling innovations being done in all kinds of areas and arenas, but few have considered what the social connotations of these innovations will be. How will they, for example, affect how we interact with each other in the future? This is something we have actually already started to see since the introduction of social media.

Well, as you can imagine, getting together with academics and practitioners for two days to discuss these issues was an exciting experience. However, there was one thing that struck me right at the start.

During the two days, we were split into groups to talk about and create an understanding of different aspects of AI and leadership and how AI will change leadership in the future. Each group was assigned one aspect of this and right then I thought, wait a minute. The question was formulated, ‘where is so and so (insert an aspect of leadership and organization) going’ but shouldn’t the question have been ‘where do we want it to go’ instead?

Because this is the way we often talk about technology, AI, and any form of innovation and development. We talk about it as something happening to us rather than something we can be involved in shaping to our needs. But the thing is, these new technologies are created for us as tools to help us in our work and every-day lives. We should be involved in talking about and affecting the direction they take – all of us, not just IT developers, coders and engineers. We need to think about what we want and need these tools to do, because yes, AI sounds like something fancy but it is in fact just a tool.

So, AI will transform social life, it already has. And we can’t stop it from happening, it is already here. But we live in a time of change and I am a firm believer that now is the time to affect in which direction we go from here, and that is something that we should all be involved in.

Which brings me to another thing that struck me in the workshop. During the two days, each group was sent on a ‘learning safari’ to get our heads around the questions at hand. My group had a Skype interview with a leader in a Swedish media organization, who had experience of AI and digital implementation. She said something that in all its simplicity was actually quite profound. She said, “I’m not afraid of AI.” The reason she isn’t afraid, is that she has been in contact with it. She has seen what it is and what it does and can do, and she has worked with it. She knows that it isn’t anything to be afraid of; that it isn’t a mystic being developed to replace us and everything human, but a tool to use and shape to our benefit.

So yes, let’s create more opportunities and get-togethers like this workshop so that people – people like you and me – can talk about what our wants, needs, and fears are for the future. Let’s make this our future. Let’s be involved in deciding how it should unfold.

*see his new book The Culture of AI