how to show passion for your work when you’re not a demonstrative person

I loved this comment on last week’s post about whether you have to fake passion to get a job:

I’m very low-key, and it’s been an issue before at work. I’m in a nonprofit field and we’re generally expected to have PASSION for the work. I get a little bit of slack because I’m in finance, but I’ve still had to try to compensate.

I haven’t had much success displaying more “enthusiasm.” Day-to-day, I’m fairly serious and focused, not giddy with excitement over our opportunity to Help People. What actually seems to work– in interviews and more casual conversations with others in the field– is to get *more* serious and stern. At the end of an interview, for example, when given the chance to ask questions, I’ll pause, take a deep breath, and ask very seriously if I can talk a little bit about what my work means to me. That usually gets people’s attention. Then I’ll give a little speech about my work– the difference we’ve made in our clients’ lives; how hard and how rewarding it is at the same time; the way I feel called to this work through my life experience and faith tradition– and blow their socks off not with how excited I am about the work, but how seriously I take our mission.

I’ve developed a reputation for being serious and reserved, but in a way where my reserve is just a cover for the intense emotion I must be feeling all the time. I never need to fake “perky” or “bubbly” (shudder) but no one questions my commitment.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Parcae*

    Allison liked my comment! Oh gee, oh gee, oh gee. *hyperventilates* (Except not really; that wouldn’t be very low-key of me.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s truly brilliant. And “I’ve developed a reputation for being serious and reserved, but in a way where my reserve is just a cover for the intense emotion I must be feeling all the time” makes me crack up every time I read it.

      1. Windchime*

        This is actually a common misconception! I can also be very reserved, and people seem to like to think that it’s a “hard shell” that I have built up that covers some bubbling cauldron of emotion. Um, no. I just don’t feel like throwing a Mardi Gras parade for every tiny thing that happens; that’s all!

        1. Parcae*

          Bubbling cauldron of emotion– that’s it exactly! It seems to make them happy to think that, though, so I’ve mentally filed it under “harmless delusions.”

          1. Ella*

            Parcae, thank you so much for your suggestion on how to verbally *express the enthusiasm* during a job interview. It is a precious advice to all the introverts out there.

            1. tcookson*

              Absolutely, thanks for this! Even if I am excited about something, I don’t typically gush or outwardly emote about it. And it seems like so often, people take the ability to gush as the only evidence of enthusiasm. This advice is like having an alternate form of currency that is equally accepted!

    2. Gail L*


      I’ve always found I can’t act “excited,” but display my interest by discussion. Asking detailed and relevant questions is my method – it can be an impressive demonstration of my experience (“I’ve seen this – how does your organization handle it?”) and a good way to explore fit (tells you a lot about their workings) while showing you have a sincere interest.

      I feel this compares a bit – both situations have to do with taking a bit of extra initiative and control of the interview.

  2. Sharm*

    I love this! I used to work in the non-profit arts (LOTS of big personalities there). Even as someone brand-new to the workforce, I was always reserved and serious, and worried it made me look boring compared to my super-outgoing and outwardly-vocal-about-their-passion colleagues.

    I was dealt a huge project 3 weeks into my work life, and immediately developed a reputation as mature and dedicated, because I was quiet and serious but got ish done. That only continued and I got promoted almost every other year because of it.

    Over the top enthusiasm would never work for me. I love what you have said, because I think this is much more my personality, and the way I need to frame myself as I go forward. Great comment!

  3. Adam*

    I’ve worked in non-profits before, and there usually are a good number of people who’s personalities definitely can overshadow my own which is much more compact and “I’ll speak when I’m spoken to or if I feel like it”. My department director was actually kind of worried that I didn’t like my job and was planning to not stick around long simply because I didn’t decorate my cubicle with ANYTHING for the first half of the year or so that I started worked there. She was all “Not even a photo?” When I took my first vacation I came back to find a bunch of random stuff “donated” to the worthy cause of spicing up my working space including a few bouncy balls and half of a Nativity scene (and it wasn’t even a religious organization).

    And even the greatest non-profit still has jobs and task that aren’t terribly exciting or interesting. Data entry by any other theme is still data entry.

    But you know what, I keep coming in every day and no one has any complaints about my work. That has to count for something right?

    1. BadPlanning*

      I know the random decorating was likely annoying, but it did make me laugh. I just picture your coworkers frantically adding a bunch of stuff to your office and then all sighing and relaxing now that your office had stuff in it.

      1. Adam*

        Actually I found the whole thing very amusing. It’s not that I didn’t want stuff in there; I just don’t care very much when it comes to office decor. At my current office I just have a scenic calendar and that’s it. I have all kinds of stuff at home including pictures and art, in FRAMES no less! (bachelor pad here)

        Really the funniest (and most bizarre) thing to me was just how anxious my director was about the fact that I didn’t have so much as a single photo or potted plant in my workspace and how it was clearly a sign that I hated my job.

        1. jmkenrick*

          It’s great that she cared about you liking your work though. Although a bit of an arbitrary measure to use….

        2. Elizabeth West*

          In an office where everyone who doesn’t travel all the time decorates their cubes, I felt kind of weird not doing much at first too. But I was told I might be moved and eventually I was. Now that I’m in a more so-called permanent home (I could still be moved again if they rearrange the floor, so I saved some boxes), I have giant nerd posters, a plant, etc. And my new cube is much bigger. I’m always noticing all kinds of fun stuff I could put in here. :D

    2. class factotum*

      I don’t have anything in my cube, either, and it bugs some people. But I take the bus to work, so I am not going to walk half a mile carrying stuff and then lug it on the bus, not even one piece at a time.

      Plus, I do want to make a quick escape if the opportunity arises.

      1. Cassie*

        Not that you have to, but if you want, you could put up a calendar or colorful printouts (scenic, landscape, sports-related, whatever you like) that if you had to leave without notice, you could just leave there and not take it with you.

        I take the bus too and over the years, I’ve been bringing stuff in one piece at a time (not like personal photos or anything, but like a personal coffee maker, or snacks). I really should downsize a bit…

    3. AnotherAlison*

      Lol, people constantly come in my office and tell me I need something on my walls. I don’t really notice a problem. I have a few random knick knacks from vendors and my kids, and a 6-year old family snapshot.

      I joke that I’m going to get a Channing Tatum Fathead (life-size stick-on wall poster).

    4. Anon #2*

      That they decorated your cube without permission made me think of a great episode of “Better Off Ted”, when the company assigned each employee 1 of 4 themes, and decorated their cubes accordingly. :-)

      Who knew that those kinds of crazy sitcom plots ACTUALLY happen to people?!

      1. Adam*

        I had a reputation in that office of being funny, easygoing, with a hint of wise-ass, so they knew being the target of secret office redecorating shenanigans would all be in good fun for me. Really the big mystery to me was where they got all the stuff as there are no dollar stores in the immediate downtown area I worked in at the time.

  4. Librarian*

    I’m not a bubbling over person either, but one thing that has worked for me is to demonstrate my passion for my work by blogging about my work, joining committees through my state’s professional association, and speaking at lots of conferences. I know this wouldn’t be possible in every field, but it has also rounded out my resume and led to lots of networking opportunities (which I prefer to think of as a chance to make friends who can help me with my career.)

    Also some organizations need people who have level personalities and are hard-workers. When I am genuinely excited about something, I’m not afraid to show it and it means more because it’s displayed less often.

  5. Jake*

    “I’ve developed a reputation for being serious and reserved, but in a way where my reserve is just a cover for the intense emotion I must be feeling all the time”

    Why do emotional people always seem to think this must be the case. Why can’t I just enjoy what I do on a rational level that brings me great satisfaction?

    1. Dan*

      I enjoy what I do, and really can’t see myself doing much else. (I tried, and the market told me where to stick it.) I’ve also got some “real” experience now, so I can point to my resume and say “see, I really like to do this kind of work.”

      And I can mutter “that work is really interesting” at the appropriate places and actually mean it.

      But I work with a bunch of math geeks and software developers (heck, I am one of those) and would never imagine running around the office shouting “ooh rah rah.”

      I’m happy that I can make a good living doing challenging work that I enjoy. At the end of the day, it’s still work.

  6. Tori*

    I work for a nonprofit where most of the employees are pretty serious on a day-to-day basis. I wouldn’t go so far as to call anyone “reserved” but neither is anyone bubbling over with passion at every turn. It would never have occurred to me before that my serious attitude could be a drawback in the nonprofit field.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think there’s wide variation, depending on the organization and maybe the issue too. I’ve worked at both, but tend to prefer the “we’re serious people, and we’re serious about what we do” side of things.

    2. Bwmn*

      For a start, as Alison said there definitely are a range in nonprofit in how attitudes are expressed – but I think overall that finding a way to express commitment to the cause/issue/work in an interview does need thought in the nonprofit field. Especially if it’s a field where there can be a perspective of “Our Side” and “Another Side”.

      In a nonprofit where I worked as the fundraiser, when I left one of the applicants was essentially living a life antithetical to the organization’s mission. Basically the equivalent of an active and visible volunteer for the Republican party applying for a fundraising position with the Democratic party. The justification in the cover letter was – I’m an experienced fundraiser, I can raise money well, and I need a job. While that was a particularly bizarre situation, for certain thematic organizations finding out if someone is truly committed to the “cause” can be a critical part of the interview process.

  7. Brooke*

    From the other side of the fence – one of my direct reports is Very Quiet. Very. When he first transferred to my group, the higher ups took his reserve to mean that he was confused or not on top of things. But with clear prioritization and project assignment from me I’ve discovered that he’s actually secretly awesome. Now his deliverables are fantastic and we’ve shifted his reputation from “he’s quiet so I never know if he gets it or cares” to “he doesn’t talk much, but when he does, everybody better listen.”

  8. Mike C.*

    I think the other thing that employers need to understand is that it’s perfectly fine if someone wants to do something just for the paycheck.

    Long ago I applied to a formulations laboratory. It was basically a warehouse/factory where things like soap, shampoo, cleaning products, etc were mixed together, packaged and shipped out to retail locations. Sure, if hired I would do my best to ensure good lab practices were maintained and so on, but how in the hell could I be passionate about shampoo and soap?

    Does it mean I would slack at the job or be unwilling to handle difficult problems? No, in fact such things would be a welcome relief. But I’m not going to gush on and on about the wonders of floor polish or skin cream.

    Some jobs out there just aren’t that exciting, and that’s ok. As long as an employee does what they need to do while the clock is running, who cares if it’s only because of the paycheck?

    1. Dan*

      You know, I was having a conversation with an old boss about this.

      There were two people on my team who seemed to be in it just for the paycheck. The first guy did what he was supposed to do, did it well, and did it on time. If he forgot about work when he left the office, I could have cared less.

      Another person on my team had been there as long as I had, and never really progressed. Her work would sometimes require heavy re-do, and never seemed to care when we told her that she needed to improve.

      The first guy left for a huge payraise. The later person got laid off.

      I don’t care what you think about when you’re not at work. But when you’re at work, I need you to earn your paycheck.

      1. Dan*

        And when you’re salaried, the clock is a metaphor. You go home when the work is done, not cause it’s 5 o’clock.

      2. Mike C.*

        Yes, and most employees would prefer to have their wages rise with per capita gdp. Fake passion about the banal and the mundane isn’t going to do anyone any good.

    2. ellex42*

      On one hand, I agree – I don’t need to be passionate about my job to be good at it. On the other hand, I think it makes me both better at my job and a more valuable employee if I make an effort to find something interesting about my job. Not only does it help me pay attention to the work, but it gives me anecdotes to use in conversation – and as an introvert, such conversational fuel is a huge help in social situations, both in and out of the workplace.

      For example, since my job involves reading deeds and other legal documents (which can be incredibly boring), my coworkers and I share a list of the interesting and unusual names we come across. Keeping the list brings us together as a team, makes the work a little more entertaining, and shows our boss that we’re invested in our work.

    3. Lindsay J*

      This is what I hate when I’m applying to retail-type jobs.

      Why do I have to be passionate about coffee to work at Starbucks? I have awesome customer service skills. I know how to work a register and am always accurate. I work quickly. What does writing a paragraph about why I love coffee tell you that my relevant work history doesn’t.

      And on the flip side when I’m hiring I’m always a little cautious about the people who are too enthusiastic about the job. Sure, amusement parks are great but if you come in all excited telling me how you loved coming here as a kid and all “OMG aren’t amusement parks the best thing EVAR? I love roller coasters and cotton candy and bumper cars AND…” I’m going to be wondering if you know that you’re being paid to work and not to play games or ride rides, and worried that after a few long, hot, summer days that you’re going to loose all this enthusiasm, become disillusioned, and ultimately quit or just disappear on me.

    4. Bwmn*

      With the “who cares if it’s only because of the paycheck” – in the nonprofit world (and I could also see business/government thinking this way) the big red flag with this would be that it may not be very difficult to find a higher paying job. Particularly jobs that are not nonprofit specific (communications, IT, financial, data entry, etc) – then you risk spending time training someone who might be more prone to leap to the next better paying opportunity.

      Also, if it’s just for a paycheck – why even apply for a nonprofit job? Has the employee ruined their reputation in another sector and therefore this is their last option? Are they just not very savvy about likely salary?

      I think it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of people who want to work in the nonprofit industry aren’t doing it because money doesn’t matter to them. They could be working in the for-profit world, but choose not to – and are often used to expressing what those reasons are. Or at least expressing those reasons in an interview appropriate manner. So nonprofit hiring managers/executive directors are used to hearing “your organization’s work is important to me because……” in dozens of interviews over the years. Trying the approach of “I’m amazing at my job, but just work for a paycheck” is going to stick out, and I wouldn’t imagine in a good way.

    5. MissDisplaced*

      @Mike C. Thank you for this.
      I really feel the buzzword “passion” is overhyped these days.
      A job is not necessarily a passion. It’s wonderful if it is, but it doesn’t mean someone still can’t do a great job with the tasks at hand.

  9. RQSCanuck*

    I love this comment! I often struggle to show my passion for a job when I interview because I tend to be one of those reserved type of people. I think that I come across as even more reserved in interviews. I often question whether or not my passion comes across, because I often associate showing passion with having to be very demonstrative or outwardly enthusiastic. It’s not that I am not enthusiastic, I just don’t feel the need to show it off in a very big way. This comment has really inspired me to find a way to share my passion and have that passion come across in a really authentic kind of way that it true to who I am. Thanks again for sharing OP!

  10. tickledpink*

    I’m the opposite, I have to work hard and intensely focus to make sure my enthusiasm and noise don’t skyrocket. It’s super obvious when I like a task!

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