When I was nine years old, my older cousin got a brand new chopper bicycle for his birthday and it was probably the coolest bike I ever saw. With its hot lime green chassis, checker-board banana seat, and a sports car-inspired gear shift affixed to the bike body just in front of the seat, this bike looked more like a hot rod than a conventional bicycle.
The first time I saw it, I wanted so badly to take it for a spin, and so I ran to my older cousin and asked him if I could take his bike for a ride around the block. Given how it was a new bike and I was only nine, my older cousin clearly had no interest lending his bike to me.
Every summer after that, when we went to visit my uncle, aunt and my cousin, it was always the same answer my cousin gave me when I asked him once more if I could try his bike – “No”. Despite those repeated negative answers to my query, I never once wavered in my eagerness and anticipation of one day riding that bike.
A couple of years pass by, and on one of our summer trips to my uncle and aunt’s place, my aunt tells me how my older cousin is going to be taking his driver’s test soon. Given how he’ll be driving around town, my aunt tells me that he has little use for his chopper bike. She then looks at me and asks “Would you like to take his bike home with you?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. After years of asking my cousin to let me ride his chopper bike, his mom was now offering to make it mine. It didn’t take long for me to blurt out a very excited “Yes!”.
Of course, my parents being the pragmatic types thought that I should try the bike first before accepting it. Given how I’d waited years just to ride this bike, I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to actually own it. So I assured my parents that this bike was a good fit and so we packed up the bike and headed back to Montreal.
As we got home late that evening, I couldn’t try out my new bike until the next day which I figured was okay as that meant that I could show it off to my friends the next morning when I biked over to the neighbourhood park.
The next day, I went out to the garage, excited that I was finally going to be able to take this bike out for a ride. As I rode off our driveway and onto the street, though, I had an unexpected realization about this chopper bicycle – it was just a bike.
For years, I had built in my head this grand notion of what it would feel like riding this bike; of feeling that rush of excitement as I raced down the street on this eye-catching bicycle. As it turned out, riding this bike didn’t feel any different from riding any other bike.
So instead of being this amazing, exhilarating ride, it was actually unremarkable and even at times uncomfortable, especially when it came to changing the gears as the shift handle was difficult to reach. It comes as no surprise then why this bike remains the only one I’ve ever seen that had the gear shift placed down on the bike frame between the handlebars and the bike seat.
Now while my story ended in disappointment, but with an important life lesson on how sometimes things don’t live up to our expectations, I want to share another story – specifically, that of a painter – and how the contrast between his experience and mine can shed light on what leaders need to do to help their employees to succeed.
Even at a very young age, this artist demonstrated a raw talent for art and his father – a respected artist – knew he should help guide the development of his son’s burgeoning artistic skills.
Although he benefited greatly from his father’s tutelage about the art of painting, as he grew older, this artist felt a growing disconnect between the artwork he was creating and that voice within him that fuelled his love and interest for the arts.
Going against his father’s wishes, this young painter stopped his apprenticeship under his father and moved to a nearby city where artists were known to push the existing boundaries of artistic expression. Being exposed to these new artistic styles gave this struggling artist the exact conditions and environment he needed to finally bring his inner artistic voice to life on the canvas.
In this process of self-discovery of how to truly express his talent, this artist would go on to become one of the most renowned and sought-after painters of the 20th century.
So who was this painter? It was none other than Pablo Picasso.
Now I’m sure it might seem odd how I’m sharing these two stories which don’t really have an obvious connection to one another. After all, what does a young boy’s wanting to ride a chopper bicycle have to do with an artist discovering how to express his inner talent. But if we look a little closer, we can see that there’s a common thread shared by both of these stories.
In both cases, the underlying drive pushing these two narratives forward is something we all long for – passion.
Of course, as researchers looking into understanding the nature of passion as a motivating force have found, not all passions are created equal, nor do they lead to the same desired change we want to see in our professional and/or personal lives.
Indeed, if we look at my story, we can see that the passion I had to ride my cousin’s bike was driven by a sense of longing; that sense of hope we’ve all experienced at one time or another where we convince ourselves that if we obtain or achieve some particular goal, then we’ll have this better life or experience.
But in Picasso’s case, he wasn’t driven by that form of passion that fuels our sense of longing for an outcome we hope will somehow give rise to better conditions in our life.
Rather, his passion was fuelled by something bigger than simply hoping for better times; it was fuelled by an underlying sense of purpose. A sense that he had something important to share with others. A gift of artistic expression that he knew when he got it right would be something that would resonate with others and perhaps even change the way we see and understand art.
It was that sense of purpose and not simply his passion for art that drove Picasso to keep pushing himself in terms of how he expressed that inner voice. And that drive to continue to learn and explore his artistic talents can be clearly seen in how his art is divided into specific periods which demonstrate where he was in that journey to discover his talents and ideas.
In sharing these two stories, it becomes clear that while it’s nice to say we should ‘follow our passions’, as leaders if we truly want to help our employees to succeed and thrive, we need to provide our employees with a sense of purpose as well.
After all, while passion opens our heart to what excites us, it’s purpose that gives us a sense of direction [Share on Twitter]. Purpose informs us of where we can create the greatest value and find genuine meaning in both our contributions and in our lives.
That’s why we need to remind ourselves – and our employees – that passion is like a flame flickering in the wind, and that sense of uncertainty about how long it will last is what makes it such a powerful motivational force at the beginning of any new pursuit. At the same time, though, it’s that sense of immediacy that passion creates which also limits its endurance over the long run.
That’s why as leaders, we can’t limit our focus to simply providing the things our employees want, but we have to extend our focus outwards to understand what they also need. We have to discover what will inspire and motivate them to keep challenging themselves to evolve and grow; to not settle for what they’re capable of doing today, but being driven to learn what they can achieve next.
In other words, we need to provide our employees with opportunities to feel a sense of purpose in what they do [Share on Twitter].
Ultimately, there’s no question that passion is important as it is the spark that can fuel our drive for change and growth. But what’s most critical to our ability to bring out the best in those we lead and to support both their present and future successes is helping them to derive a sense of purpose in what they do. Of finding meaning and value in the contributions they make to help transform our shared purpose into today’s reality.