How to find your passion and your meaningful work
Your passion is not your meaningful work. It is only one component. Your meaningful work is the combination of your passion and your purpose.
What is your purpose? It’s what you are designed to do. It's a mix of your talent, your skills, your abilities, and your temperament.
This series is not all about your passion. It's about walking a path toward finding your own meaningful work. It’s about figuring out your deep interests, but it’s also about figuring out what you’re good at and what you have to give. It’s about increasing your knowledge and your skills. This is project-based homeschooling.
As human beings, we are motivated to share our passion and we are motivated to fill a need in the world — where those two things come together, we’ll find our meaningful work.
But today we’re talking about passion.
What is your passion? It's probably one of three things:
- Something that deeply interests you.
It gets you excited. It holds your attention. It puts you in the flow. You will natter on about it to anyone who’s willing to listen. You stay interested in it over a long period of time.
- Something that riles you up.
You care so deeply about it, you want more than anything to make people understand. It infuriates you. You will climb up on a soapbox and preach about it to whoever will listen. If you were given a million dollars to donate, this is where you would invest.
- Something that you are great at.
It feels good to rock at something. People ask you for advice, and you know how to give it. You have mastered something difficult — or it comes so naturally to you, it feels like play. Preferably both: it comes naturally and you press on to the harder stuff. People admire and respect you, and that feels really good. You know you have something to contribute.
Your passion could be any one of these or a combination. The important thing is that it affects you in a deep way. It penetrates the humdrum surface of life and touches you emotionally. It wakes you up. It makes you feel more strongly. It gives you energy.
Passions give you a reason to develop your skills and abilities. They make you want to be your best self.
Finding your passion isn’t like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event. You might have a lifelong passion, but you might have a passion that eventually fades. You might have more than one deep interest, and they might overlap in interesting ways. One deep interest might lead you on to a brand new passion. This is project-based homeschooling: a road of interest and inquiry that takes you to new places.
If you don't already know what your passion is, how do you find it?
I say this all the time: children can only work with the raw material they’ve been given. If you give them a chaotic life with a lot of distractions and transitions, TV blaring, video games 24/7, they are highly unlikely to spontaneously begin writing poetry and building a solar-operated windmill. If the physical materials they have available amount to broken crayons and cheap paper, they are unlikely to build a model of the Eiffel Tower. And so on.
So we focus on giving them great raw materials. We make sure they have what they need to build the life we envision for them. We focus on helping them experience a balanced, whole life. We prioritize our values. And we try to live that life ourselves, because the best way to encourage them to walk a certain path is to walk it ourselves.
Now think about the raw materials you’ve given yourself. If you looked at an ordinary week, what’s in there?
Think about the things you care about most. (Go look at your pinterest boards.) Then think about how much of that is in your ordinary week.
How much of what you care about most exists in your daily life?
Think about how you silently define yourself inside your own head and heart. “I love the outdoors.” “I love literature.” “I am an artist.” Then think about how you feed those interests during your ordinary week. How often are you outdoors? How often are you reading literature? How often are you creating?
If you care about something and you’re not prioritizing it, that’s a good place for you to start.
I can already hear some of you saying, “but...” — Stop. This is part of why you can’t get going. There is no need for you to start applying the brakes before we’re even out of the driveway. Yes, your life is full of things over which you have no control. Yes, it is highly unlikely that you will be the next poet laureate. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Shut those thoughts down. Banish them. Because pursuing what speaks to you, no matter WHAT it is, is the path in the right direction. Get on it. Start walking. It doesn’t necessarily lead in the direction you’re anticipating. But it definitely leads somewhere.
If you are drawing a complete blank right now because you have no interests, nothing riles you up, and you’re not great at anything, that’s okay. I have good news for you. The world is an endlessly fascinating place full of interesting things to think about and do, full of wonderful stuff other people want to show you and tell you about, and chock full of stuff that needs to be done. This is what project-based homeschooling demonstrates to kids, and you can demonstrate it to yourself. You’re just out of practice (or you never had any experience) interacting with the world with interest, engagement, and curiosity. But you can learn (or relearn) how to do it.
Think back to what I said about raw material. If you’re passionless, then you have an empty bucket. We need to throw some stuff in there.
“Wait. I just want to know what my passion is. I don’t want to do things.”
I love you, you kidder. You know you’re going to have to “do things” to change your life, right? Don’t start freaking out — it’s not that bad.
Let’s go back to the bucket. Peer into it. What raw materials are you working with? Are you doing the same sorts of things and exposing yourself to the same sorts of things (I’m thinking books, magazines, TV shows, not diseases) and going the same sorts of places and talking to the same sorts of people? Well, you see where that’s gotten you. You’re feeling a little listless and uninspired. You’ve lost the thread of the plot. You need to break out of your old patterns to see things in a fresh way.
- Read something different.
Go to the new nonfiction section at the library and bring home three books on any subject. Don't just randomly pull books off the shelf; read the titles and pick three books that look interesting. You’re not committing to anything; don’t panic. You’re just browsing. You don't have to read them front to back. Just skim through them and read whatever you want. Do this every week and in a month you will have read through a dozen books on various topics. Just picking which books interest you more will wake up that part of your brain that knows what you like. And reading new information and ideas will wake up the part of your brain that has opinions.
- Go new places.
I guarantee there’s someplace in your community you’ve never been before, no matter how small your town is. Find it. Go there.
Look at a map of your area and pick a place to go. It could be a museum. It could be a college campus. It could be a pocket of prairie, a new walking path, or a nature center. It could be a new area of town with a library branch you’ve never visited and a cafe where you’ve never eaten.
You might think (guiltily) that you haven’t really plumbed the depths of the places you *do* go. That’s okay. You can still do that. But right now we’re focusing on breaking free from old patterns. We’re like a little fishing boat stuck in the ice sheet. We’re going to pick-axe our way out so we can float free again.
- Talk to new people.
If you suffer from crippling shyness, this is obviously going to be more difficult. But you could do it online as well as in person. Strike up a conversation with someone on twitter. Write comments on blogs you always lurk on.
If you don’t suffer from crippling shyness, start saying hello to people. An easy way to break into chatting with strangers: say thank you. Say thank you to the people who do things for you all the time, like your librarian, the person who bags your groceries, your garbage collector. Say thank you to the person who serves your food. Look someone in the face and say thank you or have a nice day.
When you’re standing around at tae kwon do or ballet, introduce yourself to one of the other parents. As long as you’re doing this, say hello to the parent you would normally never talk to.
The people closest to you, even if they’re perfectly lovely, form a sort of climate that you live in. (If they’re not perfectly lovely, it might be a stormy climate.) Put yourself in touch with some new people — online and in real life. It’s not about making new friends. It’s just about changing your usual perspective.
- Say yes to something you’d ordinarily say no to.
Just like exercise builds muscle by tearing muscle, you can grow by stressing yourself out a little. You’ve already seen everything that exists inside your comfort zone. I’m not saying you have to leap right to public speaking or kidney donation, but maybe go to a social event you would normally invent an excuse to avoid. Maybe when someone asks for volunteers, raise your hand. When your neighbor asks if you want to go along to her book club, say yes. When you see a flyer at the library for an interesting class or seminar you would normally consider and dismiss, actually sign up. Get a babysitter and go.
- Change your routine.
This is the easiest of all. You don’t even have to leave the house. Just take your regular routine and shake it up. Go to bed 15 minutes later or 15 minutes earlier. Get up 15 minutes earlier. (I know you can’t get up 15 minutes later, right?) Go outside and walk around the house three times after lunch. Always go to the library in the afternoon? Go in the morning. Always go to the grocery store on Saturday morning? Go on Wednesday afternoon. And so on.
Prove to yourself that you can change your life, even if it’s in small, random ways. Pry yourself out of that rut.
You can see how this works. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. To get something different, we have to do something different. To have new ideas and information to work with, we have to toss some new stuff in our bucket. To think of ourselves in new ways, we have to show ourselves that we can be different people.
You don’t have to keep this up forever. But if you’re devoid of ideas about what interests you, breaking free from your old patterns of living will inject some new energy into your life. And you need new energy. You need to stick new ideas in your brain. You need to look at the world with new eyes. If nothing interests you, nothing riles you up, and you’re not great at anything, you need to shake things up. There’s nothing wrong with you, and there’s nothing wrong with the world. You’ve just been interacting in a way that’s not working for you.
Pay attention to those voices in your head saying “no, no, no, no, no” — they’re telling you something. Pay attention to when they start clamoring. Because that’s interesting. What are they so worried about? Listen to what they say and consider whether it’s the truth. “NO, you cannot be interested in mime. You will have no friends.” “NO, it can’t be knitting — everyone knits. It’t not different enough.” “NO, not politics. The family will be upset.” And so on. If you’ve gotten this far in life and you’re still wrestling with what interests you, then it’s possible you’ve picked up signals from someone that what you care about isn’t okay for some reason. It’s dorky or inconsequential or not important enough or too new-agey, insignificant, or childish. And we already know, when we pick up on these signals, we tend to take over broadcasting them to ourselves. We take our interests and push them down or throw them away or stuff them in the back of the closet because they’re dumb or embarrassing or not worth anyone’s time or not spiritual enough or whatever.
“Finding your passion” works if your passion is something you misplaced in the house, maybe in the couch cushions. But we’re probably going to have to work harder than that. It might take real effort to discover our deep interests. We have to go places we’ve never gone, talk to new people, read new books, think about new ideas. We might have to fight our own inner cranks. So we’re stalking our passion like the elusive prey that it is. Your old patterns didn't teach you enough about yourself. So we’re going to change those patterns.
People get stuck — because they don’t know what they like. Because they don’t want to waste time doing the wrong thing.
But if you don’t get started, you stay at square one. You don’t get anywhere. Doing ANYTHING at all gets you data. You are finding out more about what you like, what the world needs, and what you can do.
Everything you do matters. The doing matters. Thinking about it? Not so much. You can’t learn anything by thinking hard about what you want to do, even if you do it for weeks, months, or years. You can learn a lot by doing absolutely anything. And what you learn you can take with you as you find your way toward your own meaningful work.
You are working on becoming your most authentic self. You are discovering things about yourself and about the world. You are learning to enjoy learning. You are learning to dig for the interesting parts of whatever you’re doing. You are learning to talk to people and find out what they know or what they need or what they care about. You are acquiring knowledge, skills, habits, and attitudes that you will carry with you into your future.
You can’t give up when you try a few things and they don’t resonate. “I GUESS THAT’S JUST IT FOR ME. I DON’T HAVE A PASSION.” Maybe your passion hasn’t been invented yet. Maybe you’re still a little too close to shore. Maybe your passion is going to be a unique mash-up of two things you haven’t tried yet.
Here is your consolation prize: Even if you haven’t found that passionate interest yet, just looking for it can be a great life. If you have no idea of what you want to do, it doesn't matter. You focus instead on becoming a better version of yourself — a version of yourself that is more likely to discover deep interests. Being interested, seeking knowledge, meeting people and asking them deep questions. Having new experiences. Constantly connecting with people to learn new skills or help someone else master the first steps of a new skill. This is a life worth living. This is a person who at the very least has found one passion: Seeking an authentic life.