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I’m a huge tennis fan.  I’m not a tennis player, but I love watching it.  The tennis season runs roughly from January through September, so I’ve been in a bit of a tennis drought for the past few months.  The Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament of the season, begins soon, and I can’t wait!

One of my favorite women’s tennis players is Serena Williams.  I saw her play live at the Family Circle Cup tournament in Charleston, South Carolina in 2008.  As exciting as she is to watch on television, it was even more exciting seeing her in person, especially since she won the event.  Serena became my tennis hero when she entered the 2007 Australian Open ranked number 81 in the world, out-of-shape, overweight, referring to herself as a “dangerous floater,” and emerged after a fortnight the champion, ranked number 14 in the world.  I hadn’t given her much of a chance to win, and on several nights I stopped watching her play because she was on the verge of losing.  Each time, she battled back from the edge of defeat and won.  I gained a new respect for her focus, hard work, tenacity, and just plain grit.  She demonstrated for me how a person can accomplish seemingly impossible tasks through talent, sheer determination, hard work, and will.

A journalist at the 2012 Brisbane International tournament in Australia interviewed Serena recently, and Serena made a very surprising statement.  Serena Williams said that she doesn’t love tennis.  What?!  How can someone as talented and accomplished at something she has spent her entire life doing not love it?  How do you account for her heroic 2007 Australian Open win if not passion?

We often hear that if we choose to do something we love, something we’re passionate about, we’ll excel at it.  While I think that’s generally true, I believe there’s another path that leads to career excellence, and I believe Serena has embraced it.  It’s not always passion, but another word that starts with a “p”:  Professionalism.  Serena is a true tennis professional.  Okay, okay, granted, maybe cursing out the line judge in the 2009 U.S. Open and then lambasting the chair umpire in the 2011 U.S. Open were not professional conduct on her part, but when it comes to her play of the game – her talent and commitment to excellence — she is the consummate professional.

The “passion equals career success” idea may be largely a myth.  How many people do you know with successful careers who are truly passionate about what they do?  I think not very many.  Despite a lack of passion or love for their careers, they excel nonetheless.  That’s because they have approached their chosen career path with a level of professionalism that leads to success.  Boxing champion Muhammad Ali stated in his book Soul of a Butterfly: “I hated every minute of the training. But I said suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion.”

True champions at work are professionals.  Being a professional has nothing to do with the type of job you do – professionalism isn’t limited to doctors, lawyers, teachers or other so-called “white collar” jobs.  It’s not what you do for a living, but how you do it that makes you a professional. Everyone, regardless of job title, can be a professional.  Professionalism means achieving a high level of job competence, working toward continual improvement, maintaining a high level of integrity, striving for excellence in all you do, maintaining a positive attitude, having confidence in your talent and abilities, and being willing to pass what you know along to others.

If you’re passionate about what you do and love every minute of it, count yourself one of the fortunate ones who found the “thing” in your life you were made for.  However, it’s more common for a person’s career to develop through a combination of interests and opportunity, not passion.  So, if you are interested in what you do, enjoy a measure of success in it, and are motivated by the intrinsic rewards it brings, you are probably like most people.  You may not love it, but it works reasonably well for you.

If you care about career success and want to excel at what you do, don’t wait for passion to sweep you into upward career mobility.  Focus on professionalism – competence, excellence, integrity, and lifelong learning.  The intrinsic reward and satisfaction that comes with achieving a high level of career success can be as exhilarating as any feeling of passion you could dream of.

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