“A true passion that burns within your soul is one that can never be put out.” Zach Toelke
When it comes to choosing a career or making a career transition, many career experts and graduation commencement speakers offer the advice that you should “find your passion.” Most people today find themselves stuck in lives and careers not of their own making. Sometimes out of desperation, and perhaps also with some hope for something better, they absorb messages proclaimed by books like the 4-hour work week. They then believe that if they could only discover their passion and find the right formula for living and working, they could live happy and productive lives and pursue meaningful jobs that ignite a fire in their bellies. However, once they start down that path, they soon discover that the Utopia that was promised is not within their reach. Thought-provoking articles like the one by Penelope Trunk entitled “5 Time management tricks I learned from years of hating Tim Ferriss” forces us to think again about the “truths” espoused by all these promises of passion and productivity.
In 2015, Terri Trespicio did a TED talk where she explained why you should “Stop Searching For Your Passion”. Trespicio explains that she is leery of passion for a few reasons. One of them is that passion is not a plan. Passion is a feeling, and feelings change – especially over your lifetime. Every few years we go through significant life changes that change the way we look at things, and shift our values. Things that were important to us in our twenties don’t necessarily matter as much to us in our thirties and forties. As we mature, we shift our value base and we shift what we are passionate about. So, finding your passion will then seem to always elude you.
An entire industry has sprung up around helping people find their passion. There are books, online courses, one-on-one coaching, webinars, you name it. When someone asks you “What’s your passion?”, it’s triggering. It’s upsetting. You feel you must have a thrilling answer. What this search for passion does, is it pulls us back into our perception selves, where we care more about what others think about what we spend our time on, instead of actually figuring out what matters most to us, when we are not taking into consideration outside opinions.
Trespicio states that passion is not a job, a sport or a hobby. Rather it is “the full force of your attention and energy that you give to whatever is right in front of you”. She argues that if you spend all your time “looking” for your passion or hoping to “discover your passion,” you are missing out on opportunities right in front of you that could change your life if you take advantage of them. She says we all think we know what kind of person we are, and what would give our lives meaning and passion, but we are often blissfully wrong.
When Angela Duckworth first started interviewing her grit paragons for her research on grit, she expected that they would tell her of that singular moment when they realised what their passions were. Yet, none of her interviewees had stories of life changing moments that made them realise their passion. What all of them had in common though, was that they spent years pursuing different interests and then eventually one interest came to occupy all their waking – and sometimes even sleeping – thoughts. It is a gradual process.
This is good news; especially when faced with the prospect of living for longer and working in a future world of work that is hard to predict with certainty. A long life invites a longer exploration phase during which you try out different pursuits to develop your interest further, before settling on one or two that you will hone further into a specialisation. It also ensures flexibility and agility and learning to deal with setbacks, failures and rejection, which is part and parcel of building competency in any area of interest.
So, if you shouldn’t wait around to find your passion, what should you do instead? Angela Duckworth provides us with some answers from science. Research shows that people are more satisfied with their jobs if their jobs are aligned with their personality types. For example, people who enjoy problem solving may not be happy managing the details of projects; as they might rather want to be solving math problems. People who enjoy engaging with other people might become frustrated in jobs where they work alone in front of a computer all day etc. Hence why it’s so important to understand your personality type and your core fears and motivations. These elements help us figure out what would interest us and what kind of work or which kind of work environments would work for us and which ones won’t.
A meta analysis of 60 different studies concluded that employees with an intrinsic interest in their work, perform better at their jobs and are also more helpful to their coworkers. In other words, they are engaged at work. Moreover, those whose jobs match their personalities and personal interest tend to be happier with their lives as a whole*; which makes sense if you remove the superficial distinction between work and life and recognise that work and life are always integrated or connected in some way or another.
What else have we learnt from scientific research on passion and career? Firstly, childhood is far too early to know what we want to be when we grow up. It is unrealistic, and unfair even, to expect an 18-year old to know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their life. The good news for those embarking on tertiary study, and even graduates recently graduated, is that you don’t have to know what you want to do with the rest of your life yet. You’d be better off figuring out who you are and what matters to you most and finding ways to articulate your authentic purpose or your Why. Once you have a clearly articulated purpose statement or Why statement, you can identify your interests and spend some time figuring out which of your interests match your authentic purpose.
There will be more than one avenue for giving expression to your authentic purpose or your Why and weighing the pros and cons of each and trying out a few, is the best way to start developing a passion for something. And Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of The 100-Year Life, reckon you have until your early thirties to figure that out. They explain that in a world where you might live until you are 100 years old, you have a lot more time to explore and to spend time figuring out what you want to do, before seriously committing to anything. By extending the exploration phase of their lives, most young people are intuitively postponing final decisions about big life events – i.e. what they do, who they marry and where they live – until they are in their thirties.
Secondly, interests are not discovered through introspection alone. You need to engage with the outside world. You cannot always predict with accuracy what will capture your interest and what won’t, and you cannot simply will yourself to like something. You must try it out and gain some real-world experience. Duckworth states that boredom is always self-conscious – you know when you feel it. But unlike boredom, attention and interest may not immediately trigger recognition with you. You might only realise after a while that your interest was piqued and that you are now keen to learn more or spend more time on a particular activity.
What prevents many young people from developing serious career interests is unrealistic expectations and holding out for perfection, when what they should be doing is diving in, exploring and making mistakes and in the process learning and discovering more about themselves, their interests and their capacity for developing competency. Only once a significant level of self-discovery has taken place does it become easier to identify which of your interests will ignite a passion and could potentially offer a viable career path. We must dig in and live life – all of life in all its messiness and chaos, and we need to embrace every opportunity as an opportunity to discover something about ourselves that we didn’t know, or to learn something about what we are capable of. Self-discovery and finding an interest that aligns with your authentic self comes first. An authentic interest that aligns with who we are and that is pursued and practiced far and long enough, then ignites passion.
Duckworth’s advice to a twenty-something or thirty-something with fleeting interests and no career direction, is to forget about “finding your passion” and to rather look at passion as something that involves a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development and then a lifetime of deepening.
For those who are already mid-career, Tami Forman suggests that you stop waiting for passion to find you and instead figure out if there is any way that you can be passionate about what you are already doing. You figure out whether you can be passionate about what you are already doing by first appreciating the fact that no-one loves every aspect of their job. There will always be parts that are less pleasant to do, but that are part and parcel of the job.
Secondly, you should dive headfirst into your work and figure out which parts of the work you like the most and ask yourself why? Do these aspects of the job align with your core competencies and skill sets? Is this job in some way aligned with your personality and your values? In what way? If the job is not aligned with your personality type and your values and it doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to apply your best skills and competencies, then perhaps it is time to call it quits. However, if there is some alignment with your personality type and your values, and the job, in theory, could provide an opportunity for you to grow your skill set or stretch yourself a bit, then Forman suggests actively trying to find ways to become better at the good parts of your job. Enroll for a course, attend training, ask for help from a coach or mentor, but be sure to obtain feedback on how you can improve and focus more of your attention on this part of the job.
Although the job might not be exactly what you want, in this way, it can serve as a stepping stone to where you do want to go, by helping you build the critical competencies you need before you leap to something that is better suited to your authentic purpose. Developing the critical competencies you need before you leap, saves you time in the long run and lessens the financial risk that inevitably comes with changing jobs or careers.
Thirdly, what follows the initial discovery of an authentic interest, is a much lengthier period of interest development for passion to emerge. Just because you like or love something, it doesn’t mean that you will automatically be great at it. You still have to spend time developing your competencies in that particular area of interest. But keep in mind the sequence of events. First there is play – to discover interest. During the play stage, you explore, and you try out new things with the aim of figuring out if it is something you want to continue to pursue even if you are not good at it currently.
Once the interest is sufficiently piqued and you are willing to receive feedback on your performance and keep building mastery, the hard work begins; consistently tinkering away at it every day, stretching yourself with the aim of learning as much as possible and getting better and better at it. This is how passion is developed, slowly over time, rather than in one flash of lightening.
For the late career professional, figuring out what you are passionate about, is in some sense easier, because with some experience behind you, you’ve already put in some time both in exploring interests and building mastery. So, your process would require more reflective and reflexive thinking. You would have to step back and ask yourself what drew you to your original career path in the first place. Next you would be tasked with looking back over your life and career narrative to identify the recurring themes.
Spending some time solidifying an understanding of who you are, what drives you and what your core values are, would be hugely valuable in clarifying your life and career themes, and distilling the underlying authentic purpose which has probably been there all along, but needed to be uncovered and vocalised. Clarity about your authentic purpose might actually bring about a bit of an “aha” moment for you when you finally see the patterns in your narrative and recognise your authentic purpose for what it is. Most late career professionals are then immediately filled with a clear sense of what they want to do and given that you have a bag of developed competencies at your disposal, a leap is the natural next step.
I won’t encourage you to find your passion. Rather, I want to encourage you to dig deep and discover your authentic Why. Then spend some time identifying the interests in your life that align with your core motivations and guiding values. Pursue those interests with focus and consistency until your passion is ignited. Apply reflective and reflexive thinking and step back from your job- or role-related tasks and activities and rather ask yourself why you do what you do? What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want to see happen in the world? How is what you are doing, contributing to that change in the world?
- Forman, T. (2018). Haven’t found your passion? Stop worrying and do this instead. Forbes. Available online at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tamiforman/2018/02/14/havent-found-your-passion-stop-worrying-and-do-this-instead/#2e602cc11908
- Morris, M. A. (2003). A meta-analytic investigation of vocational interest-based job fit and its relationship to job satisfaction, performance and turnover. PhD Thesis, University of Houston.
- Nye, C. D., Su, R., Rounds, J. & Drasgow, F. (2012). Vocational interests and performance: A quantitative summary of over 60 years of research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, p. 384-403.
- *Su, R., Tay, L. & Zhang, Q. (in press). Interest fit and life satisfaction: A cross-cultural study in ten countries. (manuscripts in preparation).
- Trespicio, T. (2015). Stop searching for your passion. TEDxKC. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MBaFL7sCb8
- Trunk, P. (2009). 5 Time management tricks I learned from years of hating Tim Ferriss. Available online at: http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2009/01/08/5-time-management-tricks-i-learned-from-years-of-hating-tim-ferriss/
Originally published at leapjourney.org