It’s a truth universally acknowledged that 93.2% of all motivational quotes circulating on the internet are preaching the power of passion and purpose.
Ok, not so much a ‘truth’…more of a ‘something I just made up this very second’.
But for those of us who are struggling to find our ‘passion’ or identify that One True Thing – the ginormous, flaming, burn-the-boats-this-is-my-life purpose that internet memes and self help books seem to insist has been predestined for us – being bombarded with those peppy passion quotes can feel like having mini-daggers thrown at our soul.
I can’t be the only person who’s found herself spinning around in mental circles, jumping from possibility to possibility, and howling into the void:
“I can’t find my passion!
How can I find my passion?
How, cruel world, how?
OVERLY dramatic? Also yes.
But trying to figure out your passion or purpose and not getting anywhere really can cause some serious angst and mental distress. Larissa Rainey of the Unversity of Pennsylvania called this feeling purpose anxiety. She defined it in her research as “the experience of negative emotions in direct relation to the search for purpose” (gotta love academic language – so clinical).
In normal human language, Rainey is talking about the feelings of stress, worry, anxiety, frustration, and even fear that people experience when they feel like there’s a purpose out there, waiting to be found, hiding from them, which therefore renders their life inauthentic and meaningless until the moment it’s uncovered.
No surprise that thoughts like that can cause a bit of stress, eh?
I’ve always envied people who are passionate about something – especially when that something translates directly into a career. I’m talking doctors, actors, teachers, lawyers…these are the types of professions that sometimes get labelled as “callings”.
And I’m not gonna lie, I think it would be pretty fantastic to have a calling.
Now some of these passion-driven careers result in you making good money (doctors, lawyers) and others…not so much (I’m looking at you, teachers and actors). Even without rolling in the moolah, the idea is that when people are doing things that they love, it makes everything more shiny.
(Whether that’s really truly true, or just a romantic notion we all like to believe, is a whole other kettle of cucumbers).
We’ve all heard the saying,
“Do work that you love and you’ll never work another day in your life”
Who wouldn’t want that?
The truth is that not everyone has something they’re really passionate about that translates easily into a job description and a healthy pay check. And many of us (I’d argue the majority of us) don’t even have anything we’re really truly super-duper passionate about that can be seen as a realistic career option at all.
So we get stuck in our heads, overthinking and overanalysing until we finally get overwhelmed.
How many of these sound familiar?
- You spend a lot of time thinking about what you should do with your life, but can never come up with an answer that keeps you satisfied.
- You’ve made a career change into a brand new industry at least once, hoping that the new job would suddenly reveal itself to be your passion (and became bitterly disappointed when it didn’t).
- You’ve spent more time than you’d like to admit Googling things like “how to find your passion test” “how to find your passion book” or “how to find my passion quiz” for a quick fix – but have never been satisfied with the answers these surface-level explorations provide.
- You have a strong desire to do something important in the world, and know that you could really make an impact – if only you could figure out what you’re meant to focus on.
- You dream about one day taking some time off (a day, a weekend, a year) to focus on finding yourself – and believe that everything would become clear if only you could give yourself the space to figure it out.
I’m sorry to be the one to burst your balloon, but here’s the secret about your search for passion…
It’s impossible to think yourself into discovering your passion
I don’t like to use the word impossible, but I’m going to stick with it anyway. Our brain is a beautiful thing, and quite possibly my favourite thing in all the world. (Honestly – if aliens invaded and chopped us up and made us live forevermore as brains floating in jars – I’d probably have the time of my life). The thing is, though, you can’t think your way into uncovering a passion because…it just doesn’t work that way.
The only way to find out what you love to do is to…do things
That means you need to get out of your head, and try new things. Experiment. Follow your curiosity, and do stuff that seems like it’d be fun. See where that takes you, and once you find something else that sparks your curiosity then start following it too.
Finding what you love to do should be fun, not stressful
There’s no need for us to spend another minute twisted up in knots or berating ourselves for not having found our mystical purpose. Instead, we should be focused on enjoying all the exciting adventures we’re having along the way. Life (and fulfilment) is a journey, not a destination.
In his Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs said:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Jobs was talking about his approach to life and the serendipity that arose because he followed the path of curiosity. After he dropped out of college, Jobs continued attending classes on campus that he thought were interesting – regardless of what discipline they were in and without any deeper strategic rationale or purpose behind doing it.
The most famous example of this serendipity came out of the fact he was curious and interested enough to attend calligraphy classes at his college. Ten years later, it was his experience in these classes that led him to add something into the design of the Mac that nobody had thought of including before – a choice of beautiful typography.
Attending those calligraphy classes served no purpose at the time. Steve Jobs wasn’t studying to become a calligrapher (can you imagine it!) or a even designer. He wasn’t getting any course credits at all. He just attended them because he was interested, and a full decade passed before he took what he learnt there, and applied it to a completely different field.
Jobs is the perfect example of what Elizabeth Gilbert calls a “hummingbird”.
(If you’ve never seen her speak on hummingbirds vs jackhammers, I highly recommend taking 2 minutes and 26 seconds now to watch this video.)
For those who skipped the video – hummingbirds is the name Gilbert gives to those of us who don’t have a singular, focussed passion. We flit about from tree to tree, from interest to interest, learning and doing and sharing the diverse knowledge we’ve gathered as we move from thing to thing.
And by doing that, we carry ideas from one experience into seemingly unrelated areas and “cross-pollinate” the world. Just like Steve Jobs applied the lessons he learnt in a calligraphy class to the world of computer science.
Gilbert says that hummingbirds keep our entire culture “aerated and mixed up and open to the new and fresh” and how fricken’ awesome does that sound, my hummingbird friends??
So if you’re struggling to find your passion, then it’s time to stop beating yourself up about it. I’ve seen too many heartbreaking messages from people – even young people – feeling utterly despondent that they haven’t felt the bolt of lightning insight that a clear passion is supposed to provide.
And because so many shouty “jackhammers” are out there screaming that everyone has a passion and you’ve just got to find it and oh my god life was terrible before but now it’s all unicorns and rainbows and it’s all about passion passion passion…we hummingbirds can start to feel like there’s something wrong with us. That there’s something missing. That we’ve failed.
My friend, none of this is true.
So instead of beating ourselves up, wishing we were jackhammers and tearing up the world looking for something that would help us act like one, the easiest solution is to just accept who and what we are. And that means we should STOP looking for our passion.
It really is that simple.
So here’s my truth bomb for the day…
The easiest way to stop feeling anxious about the struggle to find your passion, is to stop trying to find your passion
I can totally feel your resistance to this idea pulsing out at me through the interwebs.
“Hey, Trish, are you seriously telling me just to give up and accept a passionless life of drudgery and meaninglessness?”
Uh, no. You know I’d never do that.
But the “find your passion or else you’re not living life right” vibe that’s becoming increasingly common these days is a flat out lie and it’s causing too many of us stress and anxiety that we really, REALLY don’t need to be feeling.
Here are some hard truths about the quest for passion:
1. You’re never going to find passion if you’re putting that much pressure on it.
Chasing your passion strips the joy out of life. The weight of expectation is too heavy. I’ve even seen people start to question things they’re enjoying and talking themselves out of happiness that they were already feeling.
Once you start hearing yourself say things like “I like it, but do I like it enough to be a passion? I think maybe not. Oh no, that means it’s not my passion. That means something ELSE is my passion. Why am I wasting my time doing this thing? I need to go find my real passion” then all the joy you were feeling about that thing just evaporates.
If that’s you, then it’s time to step back and take a breath. Allow yourself to enjoy what you’re doing right now, whatever it is. There’s no need to burden every little endeavour you undertake with the ‘passion’ test.
Here’s my recipe for a happy life (patent pending):
(It’s not rocket science)
2. You don’t need to find “a passion” to live a meaningful and fulfilled life
There, I said it.
Passion doesn’t have to be the end result of anything. Passion isn’t compulsory. And not having a passion doesn’t mean not having happiness and joy and purpose and meaning and fulfillment in your life.
You don’t need to find a passion, to live with purpose.
They’re totally different things, y’all. And we can all find purpose without the rigmarole and judgement and crazy high standards that people project onto the search for a passion.
Finding purpose is about finding meaning and reward in whatever it is you’re doing. So even if you change direction a month or a year or a decade down the track, it doesn’t take away from the purpose you felt in the past. Contrast this with people who spend years studying in one field, then look at it as a huge waste of time when they decide that their passion lies elsewhere. They can regret the time they spent doing “the wrong thing” and wish that they’d honed in on their passion earlier. But looking at the world with a purpose lens takes away this kind of regret.
You don’t have to figure out your passion to live a fulfilled life. You just have to do a series of interesting things. And all of them matter, whether you end up sticking with them or not.
Once you’ve made this mindset shift, the confusion lifts and your next steps become clear.
Try lots of different jobs! Change your career! Travel! Start a business!
Whether you have an obsessive curiosity about the inner workings of eighteenth century clocks, geek out about personal finance strategies, or have always wondered what it would feel like to build your own house, then take that curiosity and go to town on it.
Take the pressure off yourself, and just do fun things.
By following this strategy, you’ll move towards something that ticks ever more boxes for you over time. And even if it doesn’t result in you finding yourself with a pretty amazing life that has you exactly where you need to be (though it probably will), then at worst you’ve spent your days and lifetime doing a series of fun and interesting things instead of spending those same years beating yourself up about failing to find this one thing that society has told you that you’re supposed to have.
It’s a win-win situation!
If there’s just one message I can leave you with, it’s this: Struggling to find your passion doesn’t make you weird, or broken, or unintelligent or defective. It just makes you normal and part of the majority of humans out there.
So in summary:
If you want to know how to find out what you’re passionate about, try new things and dig deeper into the ones you like.
If you want to know how to get rid of the anxiety and stress you feel about the struggle to find your passion, just stop trying to find your passion.
Here’s to living happily ever after!
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Do you identify as a Hummingbird or a Jackhammer? Let me know in the comments!