Why Passion is the Keystone of Success

January 12, 2017 at 10:00 AM by William Clarke

BackpackerPassionHeader.pngThis is the sixth in a series of ten posts on hiring candidates for characteristics linked to high performance. Each post focuses on a key candidate trait, why it matters and how recruiters can develop processes to correctly and fairly evaluate for it.

So far, we’ve covered the science of first impressions, the important difference between hiring for personality versus character, how to hire candidates committed for the long haul, how to find and hire motivated candidates, and how hiring teams can find and hire talent committed to collaboration. This post will look at how hiring teams can identify and hire passionate candidates.

When it comes to the ingredients of success, none is more celebrated than passion. It rightfully brings together divergent figures like Phil Knight, Marie Curie, Quentin Tarantino, Toni Morrison and Michael Jordan. For each of these people, their overwhelming commitment to reaching their goals allowed them to do the remarkable things.

As Michael Jordan once explained in an interview, passion reigns supreme because it powers the hard work, determination, and creativity that ultimately allows great things to happen. Whether you’re a novelist, film director, scientist or CEO, passion is the deep motivator that gives you the wherewithal to work extraordinary hard at something even when the benefits are far off, uncertain, non-monetary, or purely internal.

More than that, it’s something that can’t be taught or faked, which is also why it’s so important for recruiters to be able to reliably identify passionate candidates. It’s not easy, especially since people passionate about getting a job may not necessarily be passionate about doing the job once they have it. But identifying the signs of passion can make all of the difference when it comes to hiring the best possible candidates.

Why it matters

Passion matters because it correlates with the desire and capacity to go above and beyond the call to achieve superlative goals and outcomes. It’s often what separates average performers from extraordinary performers. It’s not entirely different from motivation, in that it is one of the key aspects of grit.

As shown within Indeed’s 2015 Talent Attraction Study, the number one concern among recruiters hiring passive candidates was lack of passion and commitment. You can have people who check all the boxes – they went to the right college, have relevant experience, and seem to have a personality that could mesh well with your team – but if they are missing genuine passion, they could easily wind up an as average or, worse, a below average hire.

The difference in ROI between average and great hires is huge, by some estimates more than a million dollars in revenue per hire over the course of an employee’s stint at a company. Those are, by any measure, massive stakes.

Finding passion

If talent is a collection of skills, experiences and attitudes that altogether make someone more or less likely to succeed in a specific role, then think of passion as the keystone of all eventual success. Yet, despite its importance, passion remains a difficult skill to quantify and identify.  

Identifying passion is a bit like identifying motivation. It’s about why not what. The key is to understand why someone accomplished what they did, and less about what they accomplished. Are they motivated by money, recognition, or something else entirely? Do they thrive on solving complex problems or being part of a team and helping others out? These questions are about how a recruiter can figure out how well a candidate aligns with an organization.

A recruiter could correctly identify 90% of the key skills a candidate needs to thrive in a role, but if they fail to identify a candidate’s passion or lack thereof, it could still wind up a bad hire. So it behooves recruiters to learn what kind of passions are most predictive of success in various roles on various teams.

This process begins with asking the right questions. As early as the phone screen, asking candidates about their goals is a clear way to understand what drives them. Are they team-oriented or more individualistic? Do they focus on the long term or short term? What matters to them when it comes to work? What makes them get up in the morning? What gives them satisfaction?

These are all elements for evaluating the passions that drive a person. Understanding their underlying importance to a candidate gives crucial insight into how they will perform within the work culture and expectations of your organization.

Failure is a precursor of innovation

The origin of the word passion is the latin word pati, which means suffering or enduring. Over time, passion’s meaning has evolved considerably but one aspect that remains is the idea that it involves a certain degree of sacrifice and forbearance.

Work is rarely easy. Succeeding at work requires a willingness to grit your teeth, dig deep, and grind it out when the going gets tough. It also means you don’t quit when something doesn’t work out like you wanted. These are, quite clearly, essential qualities in candidates.

Regardless of your industry, career path or talent level, some failure is inevitable, and success can take years. It took tennis great Steffi Graf almost five seasons to win her first major title. Yet, after her first she won 21 more. Would Graf have won 22 majors if she had responded badly to losing? It’s doubtful.

Identifying how candidates respond to failure is essential to identifying their resilience and capacity for innovation. Moreover, candidates who respond to failure by assessing and adapting are apt to see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve.

But responding positively to failure is impossible if you don’t care enough about why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. Passion is what generates the desire to learn, try again, and do better next time.  

The arc of success looks more like a zig zag than straight a line, and how well a candidate is prepared to endure, learn from, and overcome setbacks will determine a candidate’s performance.


There’s a reason that self-actualization is at the top of the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. It’s the rarest but most gratifying need that can be fulfilled in the human experience. It means that a person is intellectually and spiritually nourished. Controlled, directed passion is the fuel that inspires and drives people toward specific goals, no matter how unlikely or difficult they might be. Passion generates the enthusiasm we need to plough through the deepest furrows and overcome the most intractable challenges. It inspires loyalty, teamwork, hard work, and, eventually, success. And that’s the stuff of greatness.

Other posts in the series (so far), Evaluating the Traits of High-Performing Employees:

1. What The Science of First Impressions Can Tell Us About Recruiting

2. The Dangers of Hiring Candidates Based on Personality 

3. Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining Talent For The Long Term 

4. How to Identify and Assess Motivation in High-Performing Candidates 

5. How Hiring Talent Breeds a Creative, Scaleable Organization 

Related Articles:
How Collaboration Integrity and Grit Power Entelo's Sales Team
Women in Leadership Share Challenges of Workforce Diversity, Pillars of Success 
The Four Imperatives of a Woman's Journey to Success 


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