Should You Follow Your Passion?

Are you following your passion? Have you figured out your purpose in life yet? Found your calling? Living up to your full potential? Doing what you love (so you won’t have to work a day in your life)?

If those questions make your blood pressure spike, don’t worry. Take a few deep breaths and try to relax for a minute. It’s gonna be okay. You don’t have to know what your passion is, let alone pursue it with tenacious resolve. I promise.

Why Do We Think We Need to Follow Our Passion?

We get the message from a very, very young age that we need to figure this out. Starting when we’re around 5 years old, people ask us, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” We’re supposed to answer with an occupation: doctor, lawyer, scientist, teacher, etc. (Those were the choices in my family. I’m the daughter of a CPA and a teacher, and grew up in a community where everyone was expected to go to college.) By the time we’re in our late teens or early 20’s – before our brains are even finished cooking – we’re choosing majors and making decisions that are intended to wrap up those pesky little career questions for the rest of our adult lives. That’s crazy.

It would be so much better to ask children, “who do you want to be?” Or, “what do you want to do?” We have a great many roles we want to play (friend, partner, parent, collaborator) and a great many things we want to do (build, create, heal, innovate, grow, lead). But when faced with the impossibly massive task of picking a singular passion or driving purpose for our life, we freeze.

Of course we freeze. How the heck do you make a single decision to define your life?

We’re passionate about helping others, making the world a better place, solving problems, and taking care of our loved ones. Maybe we’re deeply committed to a cause, like providing clean water to every person on the planet, but even that type of passion doesn’t automatically translate into a specific position. You could follow that passion into developing purification technology, designing infrastructure, capacity building through an NGO, global fundraising & development, designing websites to promote the cause, and so on. The possibilities are endless. And they are all awesome. There are no wrong answers.

The Passion Trap

I work with people at all ages and stages of their careers who are stuck because they don’t know what they’re passionate about. Or maybe they know their passions in the broad sense, but haven’t figured out how to translate them into a career that pays the bills. At least half my clients come to me for help figuring this out. Some people even want me to tell them what they should do – what career path to choose in order to be happy. (I don’t accept those people as clients. Coaches help people make decisions; we don’t make the decisions for you.)

It would be great if there were a calculation I could do. I’d add up all your talents, interests, and preferences and divide by the meaning of life. Then I’d tell you to go teach English in a foreign country, or to build your own e-commerce business, or take up web design.

But that’s not how it works. Trying to calculate, ruminate, or meditate your way into finding your passion is a trap. You will get stuck. And once you’re stuck there, it’s hard to climb out of the trap.

It's a Trap

If you’re in the passion trap, take heart! There is a way out. First you must understand where you are. Then you must take imperfect action to remedy your situation.

Understanding Passion

Passion is something that develops over time. It must be cultivated and nurtured. Yes, it starts with a foundation of something you’re reasonably interested in, but it evolves through doing.

In this video, Cal Newport does an amazing job of explaining how it works – how we work. I’m going to make it mandatory viewing for all my clients. It’ll be the best half hour you spend today, if not this week. Or month. Or year.

Action is the Way Out of the Passion Trap

But, Kim, you’re asking, “How do I know what action to take?” “What if I make a mistake?” “What if I pursue something and it doesn’t make me happy?” Or, my favorite, “I don’t know what I want to do!”

The only wrong decision is not to take any action. That is a 100% sure-fire way to stay stuck and unhappy. Any decision to take action is the right decision, even if it’s not pretty or perfect. Imperfect action isn’t just acceptable; it should be your goal.

Here are some examples of ways you can take action, starting right this very moment:

  • Considering changing fields, but aren’t sure if you want to take the plunge? Enroll in an online course through Coursera, Udemy, or any one of the other bazillion edu sites out there. Or go do some volunteer or pro-bono work in the area you’re considering.
  • Contemplating entrepreneurship? Go out and find your first freelance client. Or start prototyping your product. Give yourself a chance to get your feet wet actually doing the work.
  • Want to switch employers? Use a tactic like the ones mentioned in this post from Brazen Careerist to connect with a current employee at your desired company.

It doesn’t matter what you do for work right now, as long as you do something you’re mildly jazzed about. Do it for long enough to get good at it. Build competence. Enjoy mastery. Then you can decide if you want to do it for the long haul.

You can’t think your way into this one. You’re going to have to live it. Let go of the idea that you can find your passion and then pursue it. Focus on taking action. Focus on doing. Before you know it, you’ll realize you’ve gone exactly where you were supposed to go.

Written by Kim Eisenberg

Kim Eisenberg

I provide individual and corporate career development services to clients throughout the US. I’m your trusted business advisor, motivational speaker, professional butt-kicker, and complacency crusher rolled into one.

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