It’s nice work if you can get it but it shouldn’t make you cry

Opinion: being passionate about work is just another example of language inflation

“Those who feel ‘harmonious passion’ towards work enjoy their jobs and experience that lovely sense of ‘flow’ when they are in the thick of it.”

“Those who feel ‘harmonious passion’ towards work enjoy their jobs and experience that lovely sense of ‘flow’ when they are in the thick of it.”

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 01:00

The other day I gave a talk to about 80 middle-aged, mainly male tax experts. I asked them to put up their hands if they considered themselves to be passionate about their work. About half of them stuck their arms in the air at once, and the rest, seeing which way the mood was going, hastily put theirs up too.

There was nothing obviously passionate about these men; they looked wan and defeated after a morning spent watching someone go through a couple of hundred slides on the niceties of transfer pricing. But their response did not surprise me in the least.

The passion fashion, which I first wrote about nearly 20 years ago, has now got to such a point that to admit in public that you are not passionate about your work is about as shocking as admitting to fiddling your expenses. If you type “passion” into the jobs website Glassdoor the search returns 105,000 jobs that require it. But try for “conscientious” – surely a much more valuable attribute for any job – and you get a mere 2,823.

I announced to my tax fanatics that I feel no passion for my work at all. I explained that I like my job. I’m lucky to have it. It suits me. I can’t think of anything else that would suit me better. I care about it. But I’m not passionate about it.

Crucifixion

I pointed out that the word “passion” properly refers either to a strong sexual attraction or to the suffering of Jesus Christ at the time of the crucifixion, neither of which are terribly appropriate in an office setting. Then I asked for a second show of hands. This time almost all decided they weren’t so passionate about tax matters after all.

At the time I took this as evidence of what I had always assumed to be true – that the passion fashion was just another tiresome example of language inflation.

Just as companies refer to all employees as “talent”, even when they are lazy and mediocre, and just as they talk flatulently of “astounding” and “enchanting” customers, they also insist on passion as an entry ticket to any job. It is brainless and bogus, but these are just words.

The next day in the office I was reading through a list of forthcoming papers from Harvard Business School and came upon something that makes me think I’ve got it wrong. The insistence on passion at work is about more than words. And it is a lot more worrying.

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