03/27/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

In Pursuit of Passion: A Life-Long Journey

Over the last two weeks I have keynoted two student-organized events on social entrepreneurship. One was organized by students in a major UK business school based in London; the other was held at Copenhagen Business School, organized by Danish business school students who are part of a country-wide network focused on social innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the case of the latter, I was particularly surprised at the crowd of about 500 that gathered, given that, according to a February cover article in the Economist, Denmark and the other Nordic countries are the "latest supermodel" all other nations should be emulating. From my experience, social entrepreneurship is a response to market or government failure -- and if Denmark is a success in both respects, then why so much fascination with social entrepreneurship on the part of its youth (and young at heart, I might add)?

For want of a better explanation, I think much of the reason boils down to that word we like to throw around when describing social entrepreneurs -- "passion." There is nothing as infectious as listening to a passionate social entrepreneur tell his or her story. Those stories -- which are often the same ones -- are now told and retold from conference podiums and in journal articles, books, documentaries and increasingly, Hollywood films. Combine the dissemination of tales of entrepreneurial triumph with the zeal of youth to "make a difference," and it is small wonder that even in tiny Denmark where there are supposedly few problems, a conference on the subject can draw 500 people.

The latest buzz phrase seems to be "follow your passion" when it comes time to choosing careers. But that missive is a source of not insignificant concern for the young people around the world that I interact with on a daily basis. "I am passionate about lots of things," they say. "How do I pick what to pursue?" Or, "I don't know what I am passionate about. What do I do?"

The pursuit of a passion-filled life actually sounds quite exhausting. I, for one, really go for a few "same-old" moments. But I am highly sympathetic to the "passion" question. I think perhaps the way we go about talking about the subject -- not to mention the greater exposure to successful social entrepreneurs, the leading exemplars of passion in the service of humanity, can unsettle many of us mere mortals.

So I would like to propose flipping the discourse on passion. It is not a matter of waiting to have a "Road to Damascus" moment a la St. Paul, where the Almighty sends a lightning bolt, striking you from your proverbial horse and sending you on a passion-filled journey.

I found myself again reflecting on the "passion" question -- hence the subject of this blog -- when last week, in Geneva, I had lunch with a friend I had not seen for several years. I was describing what I was doing at Oxford University's Saїd Business School -- and perhaps going on a tad too long about it. Having been witness to my various reincarnations -- from economist to grassroots community organizer to public health professional to my now involvement in social entrepreneurship and academia -- she interrupted my soliloquy gently and remarked, "Have you ever not loved what you were doing?"

That took me aback. She was completely right. But it made me sound rather superficial. I thought I sounded like Toad, one of the main characters in British author Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, The Wind in the Willows (interesting point: Grahame bequeathed all the royalties in his works to the University of Oxford -- smart man). Toad's "passions" spanned the gamut of possible "cool things to do" at the time Grahame wrote the book -- i.e, punting, houseboats, motorcar racing, horse-drawn caravans, etc.

But, I reasoned, Toad pursued "fads" and "fads" are different from "passion."

The truth is, similar to many of us, I have never been "passionate" about any one thing -- rather, in pursuing opportunities where I have thought I could make a substantive and positive contribution, I have found passion. As those opportunities presented themselves, my specific "passion" also evolved.

I think this is not too dissimilar from the experience of many of the social entrepreneurs we celebrate. They are "serial" entrepreneurs, albeit, unlike their commercial counterparts, they tend to focus on one major challenge. Mel Young in Scotland started The Big Issue in his country, and as it successfully grew, he moved on to set up the International Network of Street Papers, which then formed the basis of the organization he now runs, the Homeless World Cup. Despite changing roles, Mel's focus has been on eradicating homelessness and its various contextual expressions in different parts of the world. Jeroo Billimoria started Childline in India, moved on to set up Childline International and now heads up Child Finance. Her focus has been on empowering children, particularly those who live in difficult circumstances. And so on.

The image of social entrepreneurs and their relentless and single-minded pursuit of approaches to transform unfair or unsustainable systems and practices fails to capture how their own passions emerged -- or evolved. In most cases, they did not have an overriding passion from the outset that they pursued. Rather, they were fortunate enough to be exposed to situations where their passion found them. Their talent was in being able to identify the opportunity.

We must expose smart, committed and creative young people -- which they all are -- to the diversity of challenges that need to be addressed in our world, and help them identify the opportunities for channeling their entrepreneurial energies -- and hence discover their passions.