It’s a bit of a pet peeve, but words matter. Dig deeper to find the right ones to describe your career interests and professional experience.

Share story

“Don’t use that word!” I exclaimed.

My coaching client, an operations executive, looked stricken. He had just told me that he was passionate about managing opportunities that drive shareholder value.

“’Passionate’ is a great word for your bedroom,” I told him. “It’s not a great word to describe your interest and expertise in your field.”

The word is overused and badly used in a workplace setting. It means “having, compelled by, or ruled by intense emotion or strong feeling; fervid,” according to The second definition is “easily aroused to or influenced by sexual desire; ardently sensual.”

Neither is great imagery for a friendly networking conversation or your introduction to executive management. Fervid?

I hear it all the time. I admit, it’s a bit of a pet peeve, but words matter.

“I’m passionate about the fashion industry,” a young client told me recently. After I told her not to use that word, I asked her what she found so compelling about fashion.

Turns out, she’s interested in how business, art and psychology intersect. She’s been interested in fashion since she was a kid carrying around a notebook, constantly drawing outfits for the people she saw on the street.

“Your fashion is one of the ways you present yourself to the world,” she said. “It says something about you.”

I confessed to immediately feeling self-conscious. “What does my outfit say about me?” I asked her.

“That you’re comfortable in your job,” she said, kindly, eyeing my beloved and well-worn boots.

“Passionate” in a professional context signals “naive” to me. Maybe even a bit flighty. Unrealistic. Goofy.

You can say you’re passionate about your work, but even the best job has its tedious moments, its unglamorous side. Will you be able to sustain all that breathless passion when you have to grind through boring tasks, which even the best job in the world is full of?

“Whether it’s business or sports or art, you hear people say things like, ‘It all comes down to passion,’” writes James Clear in “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” “As a result, many of us get depressed when we lose focus or motivation because we think that successful people have some bottomless reserve of passion.”

Really successful people feel the same lack of motivation as everyone else. The difference is that they still find a way to show up despite the feelings of boredom, Clear writes.

“We all have goals that we would like to achieve and dreams that we would like to fulfill, but it doesn’t matter what you are trying to become better at, if you only do the work when it’s convenient or exciting, then you’ll never be consistent enough to achieve remarkable results,” Clear writes.

“Passionate” signals that you’re all in for the exciting moments, but maybe not for the long haul, maybe not for the boring parts or the tedious stuff.

The stuff that sounds like work. The stuff of meaningful careers.

Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore