How Do You Find Your Passion?

22 May 2013 · 12 comments

Last night, I had dinner with a long-time Get Rich Slowly reader. Amy is traveling the West Coast with her mother, and they’ve made their way to Portland after stopping at San Francisco, Yosemite, and Crater Lake.

Amy and I spent two hours chatting about her life and about mine. As we talked, we realized we have a lot in common. We’re both divorced, comfortable in our own skins, make decent livings, and have ample free time to explore the things we enjoy in life. Though we’re both content, we’ve each been trying to find a bit of direction.

Note: I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The best part of my job is meeting people for lunch or coffee or dinner. It used to freak me out to meet strangers, but now I love it. I learn something new from every person I meet.

“I feel lucky to have started my ADHD meds,” I told Amy. “They’ve allowed me to focus. And they’ve helped me rediscover my passion for writing. I love to write. I feel like that’s what I’m called to do. Over the past few weeks, it’s been awesome to throw myself back into my work. For instance, I spent five hours writing that short article about how to live a life you love, but it came out almost perfect. It’s exactly what I wanted. I love when that happens.”

Amy sighed. “I wish I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “I haven’t found my passion. I like to read and I like to garden and I like to travel, but that’s not the same as liking to write. I love my job, but I’m not passionate about the work. I don’t feel called to do it. I wish I could figure out what I should be doing.”

I have this conversation over and over again with folks my age. People are dissatisfied. Maybe they’re content in their jobs, but they don’t find them fulfilling. They crave a greater sense of purpose, an alignment of work and values. We reach age forty, and we still don’t know what we want to be when we grow up.

“You know,” I said to Amy, “I think I have some resources that could help you as you’re thinking about what you want to do with your life. I’ll send them to you.”

The first resource is What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson, which explores how people find meaning in life. The book features dozens of interviews and stories with people searching for a greater purpose. From what I gather — I haven’t read the book yet — Bronson poses more questions than he answers. Still, I think this book could provide fodder for Amy (and other folks) as she tries to figure out what her future holds.

The next resource I recommend is the work of George Kinder, who explores what he calls “life planning”, a more holistic approach to financial planning.

I’ve argued before that the road to wealth is paved with goals. Kinder doesn’t ask us to set goals; he asks us to examine our values, and to decide what’s important. To help clients discover the deeper values in their lives, Kinder poses three questions:

  1. Imagine you’re financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor, who tells you that you have only 5-10 years to live. You won’t ever feel sick, but you’ll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life and how will you do it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited funds.)
  3. Finally, imagine that your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Ask yourself: What did you miss in life? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Kinder says that answering the first question is easy. There are lots of things we’d do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there’s a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses. Life planning is all about answering the third question.

According to Kinder, the third question usually generates responses that follow five general themes:

  • Family or relationships — 90% of the responses to the final question contain this topic.
  • Authenticity or spirituality. Many responses involve leading a more meaningful life.
  • Creativity. Surprisingly, a large number of respondents express a desire to do something creative: to write a science-fiction novel, or to play guitar like Eric Clapton.
  • Giving back. Further down the list are themes about giving back to the community, about leaving a meaningful positive impact.
  • A “sense of place”. A fifth common theme (though nowhere near as prominent as the top three) is a desire to have some connection with place: a desire to be in nature, to live someplace different, or to help the environment.
Further reading: To learn more about George Kinder and his approach to life planning, check out his books Lighting the Torch and, especially, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity. I plan to re-read the latter over the next month.

I’m reminded of Bronnie Ware’s article about the regrets of the dying. Ware spent many years working in palliative care, and she noted that at the end of their lives, people tended to express five common regrets:

  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  • “I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.”
  • “I wish I’d let myself be happier.”

So, readers, here’s a question for you: It’s great if you know your passion — mine is writing — but what if there’s nothing you feel called to do? What then? How do you find a calling? How do you know what you ought to do?

Postscript: Amy pointed me to a great site I’d never heard of: David Cain’s Raptitude. Cain is all about mindfulness. His goal is to “get better at being human”, and he writes about how to buy happiness, how to walk across a parking lot, how to deal with negative people, why your work disappoints you, and more. I plan to read the entire archives.
1 James May 22, 2013 at 12:06

Have you given any thought to your prior sleep apnea being the cause of your newly-diagnosed ADHD? Sleep apnea is a cause of ADHD in adults.

2 David May 22, 2013 at 12:54

I find a lot of this passion business to be an ill-posed problem.

How do we define “passion”? Do we know that everybody has one? How do we know that we don’t have more than one? How specific of an activity is it? (e.g., somebody like Steve Pavlina might say their passion is “to love” or something equally vague, while you say writing (writing what? anything? something specific? maybe writing about stuff you’re passionate about? ;) ), somebody else might say something super super super specific. It’s a wonder anybody can claim to have found it.

As for me, I just work to make sure nobody else can decide what I do with my time, and from there just follow my interests, which often leads me to, well, interesting places.

3 Do or Debt May 22, 2013 at 23:44

I think finding out what you love is a process of trial and error. Keep trying new things. Maybe the things you hate, will inform the things you love. A breakthrough experience can be an epiphany….a feeling, a longing, or desire to give back….feeling like there is something GREATER than yourself. I think when people are stuck with that question, they look inward. I think people should look outward. You can find so much about yourself and the way you interact with others.

4 Lucille May 23, 2013 at 04:56

Life’s unfair….we’re not all equal….passion is relative and can be negative.
I prefer peace to passion. Finding what you love to do is easy…..earning money from it is not. I see “bad” people prosper and “good” people suffer – life’s too complex to know exactly what it’s all about. Sometimes I want to know but sometimes I don’t.

5 joey May 23, 2013 at 06:34

Just lovely writing, J.D. This is the kind of post that’s missing from your previous gig’s website. Keep it up.

6 Kris in JP May 23, 2013 at 16:26

I agree.

7 Amy F May 23, 2013 at 09:52

Thanks for the resources, JD, and for taking time out of your schedule for dinner. I will put these at the top of my list before Ecuador so that I’ve ‘put in the work’ before our session. Wish I would have checked your website before I visited Powell’s for a few hours yesterday :-).

To address some comments made about whether passion as a life-calling is necessary, I think it really depends on one’s situation. As a single person with no kids, my life is entirely my own to mold as I would like. I’m in a high-paying job, own a home, have strong relationships with family and friends, yet something is truly missing. Yes, this is an extreme first-world problem to have, but that doesn’t make my restlessness any less meaningful to where I am on this earth. I have a healthy fear of a sense of regret, and now that I’ve reached a place of control in both my personal and professional life, I know there is something more for me. Without a marketable talent (like writing), it makes my next move a little more difficult to define. Hence my call to JD, as he is someone who transformed his life through the identification and pursuit of a passion.

Again, thanks for the lovely chat, for the resources, and for the sense of hope.

8 PawPrint53 May 23, 2013 at 15:14

Does your passion have to involve a marketable talent or skill? Can you find a passion and still maintain your high-paying job?

9 Christy May 23, 2013 at 10:52

I attended WDS 2012. One of the speakers was Cal Newport. He has written a book titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You: When Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

He argues that the advice of follow your passion is bad advice. People are not born with pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. Newport states, “If your goal is to do what you love, you must first build up career capital by mastering rare and valuable skills and then cash in this capital for traits that define great work.”

After reading this book I was very hopeful. Newport supports his hypothesis with examples and provides strategies for both productivity work and craft centric work. While I have not read Kinder, I get the sense that he can provide a macro look at passion and Newport provides the micro strategies to get there.

10 jdroth May 23, 2013 at 11:00

Great comment, Christy. Newport’s talk was great, and I ought to have included him as a resource here. Thanks for mentioning him.

11 chacha1 May 24, 2013 at 09:41

The whole “find your passion” thing whizzes right past me because I’ve never had any doubts about it. My life has been filled with enthusiasms, some of which have evolved into serious interests and some beyond that into enduring passions. The key was consistent engagement and persistent improvement, right up the point at which I discovered the limits of my ability, found the return on investment unsatisfactory, or accepted that my interest was insufficiently high to warrant additional time devoted to the particular enthusiasm.

The only way to find out what truly turns you on is to try a bunch of different things, and to really pursue the things you want to learn more about. It isn’t to sit in a room and think, because the only stuff you have to think about is stuff you already know. Passion comes from learning, IMO.

I also think trying to tie your “passion” to your livelihood is the source of a lot of misery. It works for a few people whose passions, talents, and marketing skills intersect; but that is rare. I believe most people would be happier over the long term seeking peace and contentment in work and daily life, and joy – unencumbered by expectations – from pursuing that thing, often creative, that gets them in the zone.

I love ballroom dancing to the point of obsession, but most of the fun would go out of it if I had to teach it, day in and day out, in order to pay my rent. Would I be a better dancer if I did it for a living? Almost certainly. Would I be a happier dancer? Almost certainly *not*.

12 Del May 27, 2013 at 17:01

Quoting Thomas Keller, Jason Kottke wrote about passion on his blog:

“It’s not about passion. Passion is something that we tend to overemphasize, that we certainly place too much importance on. Passion ebbs and flows. To me, it’s about desire. If you have constant, unwavering desire to be a cook, then you’ll be a great cook. If it’s only about passion, sometimes you’ll be good and sometimes you won’t. You’ve got to come in every day with a strong desire. ” (http://kottke.org/13/04/passion-vs-desire)

I think that Thomas Keller is spot on. I’m in a career shift and the career I’m going to is one that I’ve desired. I’ve had passions but they ‘ebbed and flowed’ this one has been constant through the years.

I would like to add that we do ourselves a disservice by thinking that there is only one ‘passion.’ I think that we probably have a few that will be discovered as we mature and grow through life’s journey.

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