Condoleezza Rice on “finding your passion”

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opened her comments to students at Queens University of Charlotte this way: “While you’re in college, find your passion.”

Dr. Rice, who has served as US National Security Adviser, Stanford University Provost, and is now a Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, spoke at Queens on October 25, 2011 to a packed student lecture and later to a sold-out crowd at the Blumenthal Center for Performing Arts as this year’s Learning Society Speaker.

Rice said she is often asked how she became so successful. Her answer: “I started as a failed piano performance major.”

As a freshman at the University of Denver, Rice says she arrived on campus to find that the piano performance majors could sight-read things it took her a year to learn. So, she decided to change majors. After stumbling into a Soviet Studies course, she found her passion: international diplomacy.

Rice shared three tips on finding your passion:

  1. Don’t let your passion be determined by other people or what they say when they look at you.
    Rice noted, she’s sure people asked, “What’s a black girl from Alabama doing as a Soviet Studies major?” She could have chosen to be constrained by this critique or to pursue her passion. Luckily, she chose the latter.
  2. Find your passion and doors will open for you.
    When Rice became a Soviet Studies major, she didn’t think about becoming Secretary of State. But, as she progressed through her career, she found that following her passion allowed her to open doors to roles she was excited about. “I have my dream job,” she says of her role as a university professor.
  3. Even when your second passion comes along, you can still have your first passion.
    When she was the national security adviser, Rice received a phone call from Yo Yo Ma, the reknowned cellist, who wanted to perform with her. She remembers thinking, “Sure, Yo-Yo Ma, we’ll jam.” Rice says she was under no delusions that Ma wanted to work with her for her prowess on the piano. Rather, her second passion, Soviet Studies, opened doors for her to live out her first passion, piano performance.

“It’s important to have both a vocation and avocations in life,” concludes Rice.

Rice followed her brief comments by taking many questions from a panel of students and the general audience. They ranged from foreign policy issues to education to linguistics. I found Rice to be an engaging speaker and a natural teacher.


  1. I too was present at this speech, in fact I was one of the lucky 8 students that go to meet with Dr. Rice personally for about 10 minutes.

    This is post is very timely for me personally. It was just last week I decided to stay in college for a semester longer than planned. I was on course to graduate in 3.5 years, but I had not completely “found my passion”. I therefore decided to take more classes that interest me and stay the full 4 years. The three points you have reiterated about how to find passion are definitely true. I can share a personal story.

    A lot of my business teachers felt I should be in the finance major and I did that until my junior year, when I realized I am a people person and not someone that can sit in an office crunching numbers (even though the money would be fantastic). I decided to follow the entrepreneurship track and because I followed my passion it opened a door for me. I met a venture capitalist through Queens’ entrepreneurship circle who has offered me a part time job in one of his start up companies.

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