Paths to Success: Weighing Passion, Expertise and Motivation

In her interview with the always insightful Anna Farmery, marketing consultant Kathleen Gage addressed the question of how to unlock the inner secrets that lead to professional success.

What struck me in particular, was the discussion concerning how professionals choose the right path in their career or business evolution. The discussion was couched in terms of a dichotomy between expertise and passion.  I’d like to add another dimension: motivation. Motivation as a factor distinct from expertise and passion.

For the creative business owners I work with, the question of choosing the “right” path to success is one they often navigate fearfully.

To begin, creative professionals are generally assumed to be drive by passion above all else because many people equate designers with artists which carries its own baggage of assumptions. Certainly like great athletes, designers (most professionals, I would argue) are most successful when their passion and expertise beget a mutually beneficial cycle of positive reinforcement. More simply put, they identify early on the passion that leads to competency that reinforces the passion that drives them to improve or broaden the competency, all yielding positive feedback and on and on.

And yet . . .

Passion vs. Expertise?

Let’s stop for a moment and think about passion and expertise.

Right now, make a list of all the things you feel deeply passionate about. If you’re anything like my clients, colleagues, friends and family, you’re writing a pretty long list. Maybe your chosen profession isn’t even at the top.

Now, a new list. Thoughtfully and immodestly list all the things you do skillfully; things that you might even be expert at or could become quite exceptional at given the time and opportunity. That could be a pretty nice list, as well. Is it comprised of only the things you do at work? Doubtful.

The point being, we are often driven by passion and skill (or expertise) to follow a particular path at the onset of our careers, and the development of expertise might keep us moving briskly along a particular path, but there are many factors that inform the decisions we make about how to evolve and manifest our desire for success.

How do our ever-evolving circumstances inform the changes we often need to make about the initial paths we’ve chosen? How can we remain alert to our needs, goals and expectations as they shift over time?

Absolutely, age is a factor, as Ms. Gage points out. Our individual age as well as the relative ages of our colleagues. What happens when we find ourselves more senior in a field that seems to reward youth? How do our life circumstances shift as we get older, and how do those shifts - responsibilities concerning family, home ownership, travel goals, etc. - inform our professional choices? How might our insights about and experiences in the world evolve our view of what’s possible?

Similarly, our own sense of what we care about can change. While we began a career in a field we might have studied in school, or was expected of us for various reasons, we might decide to strike out on a divergent, parallel or dove-tailing path. Again, our experiences inform these changes. As we become more aware of our strengths, insights, interests and the larger context of the professional universe we inhabit, our options may seems broader than we initially believed.

While evolving in one’s profession does not necessitate wholesale change, a clear-eyed assessment of why we make the choices we must is necessary. For that we must think beyond our passions and expertise and consider our motivations.

  • PASSION is the work I absolutely love, that give me joy and an inherent sense of satisfaction. Few external measures or motivations are needed to keep me interested in my passion.
  • EXPERTISE is my ability to do something exceptionally well. It is my area of particular competence, which evolves over time.
  • MOTIVATION is what drives me to make choices and changes throughout my career.


For many professionals, regardless of their passion or expertise, what drives change is a personal goal or a set of external factors that inform what they need at any given point in their lives. Motivation is a force of its own.

I'm going to take us back to Freud for a second. Let's call PASSION the ID - this is our instinctual self acting out its desires. EXPERTISE acts as the EGO, balancing our instinctual and questioning selves to enable us to act within the social world appropriately, in this context, to do good work. MOTIVATION then is the SUPEREGO - the internal voice that guides us to weigh choices thoughtfully. Sometimes the Superego is the brake system - our moralizing voice - telling us to slow down when making a decision. This side of us asks that we act rationally and weigh the factors that will lead toward the best possible outcome.

What are those factors?

    •    Money
    •    Upward mobility
    •    Social responsibility
    •    Renown
    •    Legacy
    •    Respect
    •    Personal or professional relationships
    •    Power
    •    Flexibility
    •    Control
    •    Philosophical insight
    •    A desire to gain new skills
    •    Location
    •    Sleep!

One strongly motivating factor for some people is the ability to answer the question, “what did I do today that was worthwhile?” Here’s another very pragmatic one: the ability to check things off your to-do list every day.

When we consider our priorities, one or two motivations naturally emerge above the others as key factors in our decision-making process. And these shift over time. In fact, where at one point we may be more motivated by money - higher earnings or the promise of upward mobility; at another stage we may engage in a major shift because a new baby or an ailing parent demands our attention and so more flexibility is needed. We may leave a job to launch our own business with the certainty of less money in the short term because ownership offers more control and the possibility of legacy.

Four examples

1. Gayle recently confessed to me that her real motivation right now is money. She would be willing to set aside what she loves for a position that increases her earnings. Five years ago, she felt very differently. At that time, she sought meaning and was motivated more by feeling connected to and needed by her colleagues.

2. Isabela is undoubtedly passionate about design, but what’s motivating her to grow her business in a particular direction is her desire for renown within her field. As a result, she is making hiring decisions that will allow her more time to travel and attend conferences; and we are developing a PR strategy for her that amplifies her message within her client industry and the design community.

3. Malcolm started a legacy project at the age of 50. He launched his own business five years ago because he was driven by a need for control following the sudden death of a family member. Leaving a high profile position in a renowned design firm for the wilds of entrepreneurship hasn’t been easy, but he knew that he needed to shape his own destiny at this stage in his life.

4. Amelie and her business partner have been running a successful design firm for over a decade but new ideas have started to percolate and they’re now thinking about a seismic shift in the firm’s offerings because, as we diagnosed, they started to feel that they were living in an echo chamber. Only talking to design insiders and losing the opportunity to engage in a larger cultural conversation. Their motivation for change is based on a philosophical insight about who they are and what they want to become.

“Two Roads Diverged in a Wood, and I”

Thank you Robert Frost for my final thought on this matter. As you forge your own path toward success, and you get ready to make a career-shifting decision, know that as you stand at the fork in the road you are not walking ahead blindly. You have all the force of circumstances and insight to guide you. Know not just what you love and not just what you excel at, but what best suits your needs at this time. To do otherwise is to set yourself along a path toward feeling overwhelmed, underwhelmed, guilty, ambivalent and otherwise unsatisfied with the choice you’ve made. With clear insight about your motivations, you will find a path for success in all its complex and ever-shifting meaning.