Follow Your Passion – The Misconception

We’ve all heard the stories.  A coworker quit his job to travel the world and take photos.  A friend of a friend came up with a million dollar idea and she now runs a successful startup.  These are the people I used to think of when I heard the phrase “follow your passion.”  I thought following your passions had to be loud, audacious, and radically different from what you were doing before you caught the scent of these so-called passions.  This often left me feeling frustrated and defeated.  It wasn’t risk aversion that kept me from following my passions, the problem was much bigger than that: I didn’t even know what I was passionate about.  I have friends who came out of the womb knowing their life’s purpose, and I used to envy those people.  However, I have since learned a few lessons about passion-following that make me optimistic and confident that every single person can discover and pursue that which lights you up.

The first misconception I had to overcome was the idea that knowing your passion implied your career choice.  If you are passionate about coffee, you are meant to open a coffee shop.  If you love puppies, you should open an animal shelter.  A passion can still be perfectly valid, even if you aren’t making a career out of it.  Through a quick Google search about “following your passion,” the top hits are actually about why following your passion is a bad idea because people often don’t know if there is a market for their passion or whether or not they will still be passionate if they must use that passion to make a living.  More reason to differentiate passion from career.  To me, passion is what brings you joy and lights you up, and this can be found in a variety of ways.

I also had to let go of the idea that there is ONE passion out there for everyone.  When I gave myself permission to be passionate about multiple areas in equal measure, I felt an immediate sense of freedom.  Now I have fun finding ways to tie multiple passions together in different ventures.  That being said, when considering the activities, causes, or ideas I am most passionate about, I took the time to distill them down to their fundamental principles to understand the motivation behind the passion.  For instance, for years I have been involved in mentoring and initiatives around getting women into STEM fields.  When I stopped to ask WHY I was so interested in participating in these events, I realized it’s not necessarily because I’m passionate about getting girls to code or creating more female engineers, but rather I am passionate about giving every single person the resources and opportunities they need to fulfill their life’s purpose.  This helps give direction to future endeavors I participate in, and also helps me realize that if a young girl explores coding but decides to go in a different direction with her career, that is not a failure if she now has a better idea of the direction in which to take her life.

Finding your passions can prove challenging.  The journey requires introspection, change, and letting go of old habits or thought processes.  But I promise it is more rewarding than simply punching a clock every day, followed by a quick meal and hours of mindless television watching.  And the chances of finding your passions by going through the same motions every day is slim to none.  As Jefferson put it, “If you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to be willing to do something you’ve never done.”  I’m certainly not advocating quitting your job to find yourself.  Instead, it’s easy to start small.  Think about the sources of joy in your life.  Think about what it is in those experiences that brings the joy, then figure out a way to do more of that every day.  I don’t believe in the light-bulb-eureka sort of epiphany moments when it comes to identifying your passions.  I think it’s a slow and continuous iteration toward an endeavor that brings your life true meaning.  It is only by intentionally pursuing our interests and striving to improve that we can reach Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow in pursuit of mastery.  In this state, you lose yourself and the passing of time.  You are absorbed in your task in the moment.  The activity itself becomes the reward, rather than some external driver.  In Dan Pink’s book Drive, he says that compliance can get you through the day, but it’s only this sort of engagement that will get you through the night.

There are steps we can take to incorporate our passions into every day.  It’s important to start small and find meaningful tasks that are also realistic.  I say this with the understanding that everyone has responsibilities that require making money and paying bills.  If you can’t quit your job to pursue your passion of underwater basket-weaving, then find ways to incorporate your passion into your day job and make baskets on the side.  Our perceptions shape our reality, so if you can’t change your circumstances, try changing your perception.  A small shift in perspective can go a long way.  If your passion for basket making is driven by your attention to detail, you can find ways to use this trait to your advantage in your day to day role.  When it comes to passions, I’ve opted to repurpose the anonymous quote, “Every day may not be good, but there is some good in every day,” to capture the essence of what I hope I’ve conveyed through this post: Every day may not be passion-filled, but there can be some passion in every day.