The Simple Way to Find Your Passion

I’m happy to see that the word “passion” making a comeback. It fell out of favor for a while, and was even ridiculed in self-help circles, because the idea of “following your passion seemed to be a one-way ticket to being a penniless hobbyist living in your friend’s garage.

However, people like Angela Duckworth started remembering that the root of the word passion was in a word meaning to suffer, and suddenly it fit nicely again into the good old Judeo-Christian work ethic. “Passion and perseverance” were found to be the key factors in “grit”, which itself was a key factor in success in many fields.

Great! So we can go back to using that word again. But a challenge still remains:

What is Your Passion?

The problem again lies within the whole idea that passion is just another word for being really into something. Because personally, I’m really into a lot of things.

  1. Marvel comics
  2. Playing guitar
  3. Juggling
  4. Design
  5. Sketching
  6. Philosophy
  7. Yoga
  8. Coffee
  9. Aerial performance
  10. Writing fiction
  11. Information security
  12. My Grandkids
  13. Self-help
  14. Consent
  15. Argentine tango

By really into I mean: at any given moment I could easily immerse myself in any one of those things and lose an hour or two.

But does that mean any of those are my passion? Popular opinion would say no, because none of those things are what I do exclusively, so therefore I can’t be all that into them. Passion is supposed to be all-encompassing, overwhelming, to the exclusion of everything.

In other words, it’s basically a Harlequin Romance. It’s a Disney movie. It’s a Nicholas Sparks novel. It is this one thing, and when it happens, you’ll know it, and it will stay the same forever.

Yeah. Right.

The problem with that particular view of passion is that it severely underestimates our ability to distract ourselves. It’s a vicious cycle: the Judeo-Christian work ethic is all about doing what you should do, not what you want to do – so if you enjoy something, it can’t be work.

Think I’m exaggerating? Tell me if you’ve heard this one: Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. See? The act of enjoying it suddenly disqualifies it from being work, and therefore it suddenly falls into the category of frivolous or, even more damning: wasting time. Or hey, let’s go to the book itself: when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Having been sold some version of this lie for most of our lives, when that thing comes up that we really love, that is our passion, we put it aside, because it can’t be real work. We try to do something that we think we should be doing, and get better and better at following the voices of our elders: stop fooling around and get to work!

A More Realistic Indicator of Passion

Richard Yang, a user interface designer for Sony, wrote about how his understanding of passion changed:

I lived my entire life without understanding what it meant to be passionate. I had always assumed that passion was some inherently magical fuel that successful people were just born with.

I thought I was “passionate” about biomechanics. As a regular person, my definition of passion for the sciences was reading the occasional scientific paper and finding a few classes somewhat interesting.

After being immersed in design for a little while, I found out that I had been wrong all this time. Passion must be discovered. Passion is when you give up sleep, skip meals, and ignore your friends — just to fit a few more design hours into the day.

So if you (like me) are still trying to figure out what your passion really is…well, I can’t help you. That’s the “like me” part. But what I do think is that we can get a bit of a clue by paying attention to our own behavior.

What things have you canceled so you could do something else? Wait, that’s underestimating our ability to rationalize again. Let’s make it a little more subtle:

  1. Pick out something that you like doing. Schedule some time to do it. It’s a date with yourself!
  2. Now, since we’re so good at making up our personal narratives, let’s make up a story: you can’t go. It got canceled, your car broke down, whatever excuse you need – for some reason, you can’t go do that thing you picked out.
  3. Finally, complete this sentence: That’s ok, now I get to –

See how it feels. Do you find yourself (secretly) relieved that the first thing didn’t work out? That’s an indicator that “plan B” likely should have been your intention all along.

Or maybe instead you find yourself saying “Screw that! I don’t need a car. I’ll hitchhike!” If you find yourself entirely dissatisfied with Plan B and going to extreme lengths to still do The Thing, then it’s likely that you’re onto something there.

It’s not some foolproof method. It’s not “Three Steps to Discover Your Real Passion”, which would have gotten this article a lot more reads.

But it’s a practical tip for making hard times happier. Good luck!

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