Blog Short #85: How do you “find your passion”?
Photo by sdecoret, Courtesy of iStock Photo
One of the cultural mantras in vogue right now is “Find your passion!” How many times have you heard that? Unless you’re living off the grid, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.
Personally, I’m not a fan, although I appreciate its intention. The idea is to do work that you love and are passionate about. Doing work you love is indeed a wonderful thing! However, the problem with the message is that it includes the unspoken tagline:
“You should be passionate about something, preferably one thing, and be able to discover what that is.”
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was starting out, and even in college, I wasn’t sure. Some people have an obvious gift early on in life and pursue a single track that aligns with their talents and interest. But for most of us, that’s not the case.
You have an interest, you try something, change your mind, do something else, and sometimes stay somewhere for a while because you need the income or have other responsibilities that get in the way. That’s the way it goes for many people.
Today I’m going to give you a different way of looking at the idea of “finding your passion” that will hopefully resonate and give you some strategies you can use to pursue your interests.
Let me start with this short story to illustrate how this works.
When I was in college, I hated writing. I could only write a paper when the deadline was looming, and my fear of failing was greater than my horror of writing. I was a math person and wanted nothing to do with language arts. I probably should have been an accountant! However, I graduated with a degree in Humanities and Religious Studies, which I loved, but still had no career in mind.
Over the next five or more years, I had several friends who worked in social services, and I became interested in psychology. I went to graduate school when I was 27 and got my Master’s in Clinical Social Work. I didn’t have a burning interest in becoming a therapist at that time, but I had to do something, and it was a career path. Initially, I worked in the child abuse field, which was brutal, and eventually got an administrative job for a social service agency at the University of Florida.
Here’s where things got interesting. As part of my job, I had to write – a lot! Reports, evaluations, assessments, education packets, and grants. I did so much of it that it became easy, and I got better at it. And I got a lot of reinforcement for doing it well, which helped.
I’ll skip all the rest, but that brings me up to today. Writing is the thing I love to do most! Who knew!
Four Necessary Things
I told you that story because I want to point out that finding work you love isn’t a straight path. It’s often winding and rocky. It’s an exercise in faith and keeping yourself open to possibilities.
Four things are involved. These are:
- Interest and Exposure
- Competence and Mastery
Let’s go through them.
1. Interest and Exposure
Being exposed to an activity or area of interest is necessary before building a passion for it, and exposure often happens accidentally. Or at least it seems accidental. Whether that’s true or not, or there’s some destiny or fate involved, I won’t argue. That would take us way off track. But indeed, exposure allows you to dip your feet into something and explore whether you feel attracted to it or not.
Exposure happens when you’re doing something.
That means that just sitting back and thinking about what you might be passionate about often leaves you feeling strained and defeated because you have no real experience to work with.
A better approach is to engage in something and see where it takes you. You might get a job, take a course, get involved in an extra-curricular activity, or read a book.
Doing something is like a spark plug. It gets the engine going so the car can move forward.
Sometimes you get a job and find out you don’t necessarily like the job overall, but some part of the work holds your interest and spurs you on to get more education or training to develop that interest. Or, as in my case, the job you got required you to engage in an activity you had some talent for but didn’t know it and sparked a new interest.
The trajectory may be something you can’t chart out, but you narrow down your interests as you go through exposing yourself to different activities and work.
As you try out different activities, you’ll find that some energize you while others bore you. Even when you get good at something, you’ll likely let it go or move on to something else if it doesn’t energize you.
So as you begin your exploration of various activities and interests, move towards those that energize and excite you.
Once you have an interest and feel invigorated by the activity, you need to pursue it and become competent. This requires practice and perseverance over time. The pursuit of mastery deepens your passion for something. The better you get at it, the more you like it and want to do it.
One of the benefits is the experience of something called “flow.” Flow happens when you get super focused and lose yourself in an activity. You become one with it, and it feels effortless. You can have this experience with any activity when fully engaged and energized.
Sometimes developing a passion for something comes after you begin to build competence in performing it.
That happened to me with writing. Getting better at it made it attractive and created a desire to do different types of writing and explore new techniques. Exposure and practice occurred before interest and passion in that case.
For passion to remain and deepen over time, you need to believe that there is purpose in sustaining it. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth describes it perfectly. She says this:
“What ripens passion is the conviction that your work matters. For most people, interest without purpose is nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime. It is therefore imperative that you identify your work as both personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others.”
That doesn’t mean what you do has to directly help others, such as working in a service-oriented profession. It means that the work contributes to the overall well-being of all of us. Being an excellent homemaker and parent benefits everyone, as does being a physician who directly works with patients.
So we’ve gone full circle from the spark of interest to a life’s work with deep purpose.
You now understand that finding your passion is “a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening,” (Duckworth, 2016).
And, I might add, it can occur during any stage of your life and at any age. Many very successful and engaged people found that trajectory in their 50s or after. So keep at it!
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Scribner.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper.