Finding our passion has become the new “dance like no one’s watching.”
Passion has become the new byword for vocation — an occupation or activity at which you’re particularly good and to which you feel a strong attachment. In short, it’s your calling in life, and you’re supposed to find it to allow you to follow the perfect career.
There is a bottomless well of advice out there on how to find your passion. But what if you’ve read all the articles, done all the exercises, and still can’t figure out what your passion is?
Sure. But we love doing lots of things. Just because you love cooking doesn’t mean you want to work every Friday and Saturday night of the year in a small, hot, crowded space making food for people who just want to know if you can swap the strawberries for blueberries and add vanilla ice cream on the side unless there’s fresh whipped cream.
Finding your passion doesn’t mean that you will walk right into the perfect job, and that your life will suddenly be filled with unicorns and champagne and Tardis-blue, 50th-anniversary edition Ford Mustangs.
Finding your passion means finding the kind of work that is so meaningful or so much fun that you are willing to put up with the frustrations common to every job.
I would argue that one of the things that makes it hard to find your passion is the pressure to Find Your Passion.
We’re told that to truly be happy, we must find our passion. That if we do what we love, we’ll never work a day in our lives. That if we’re just working a job, well, that’s not good enough.
We see this message everywhere from TED Talks to House Hunters International to Facebook to every single job hunting site on the internet, where people convince us that we need to find our passion to be a successful human being.
Comparing ourselves to everyone else who looks like they have found their one true reason for existing makes it harder to find our own calling. We put so much pressure on ourselves to figure it out that we chase every idea out there, or just get overwhelmed and decide we’ll never make it, so what we’re currently doing is going to have to be enough.
Another thing that makes it hard to find our passion is that we’re so busy we can’t listen to ourselves. Work, families, friends, volunteering, more work — at this rate, just getting away for the weekend is a luxury.
We have to pay attention to the news, to our social media feeds, to keeping up with the superhero shows on the CW network that are multiplying like rabbits. We have to read for our book club, visit the new brewery, train for the next half-marathon, and set up that girls trip to Las Vegas.
We all have a lot of pressure in our lives to keep up with everything that is going on. If we slow down, we might miss something. It’s hard to stop and take a step back, and that makes it hard for us to have that internal conversation that helps us decide what our passion is.
To get a little personal here, I recently left a 17-year career path. Those years included a master’s degree and six jobs in the same field orbiting the same subject. I’d wanted to work in this field since I was eight years old. I burned out, and it stopped being fun.
I know professionals who feel like they can’t leave their job because they’ve invested so much time into it, that all their forward motion would be wasted. I know people who are waiting until retirement to do what they really want to do because they’re locked in. I know people who simply don’t know what else they would do, even though they know the path they’re on isn’t where they really want to be.
We’re taught to get a degree, get a job in that field, pay your dues, and then keep working to move up the ladder. Your next job should have more responsibility, pay more, and have a better title. Become a partner, vice president, or director.
Especially if you have some specialized training in a field, you feel like it would be a waste of all that work to change paths. And the more specialized you get, the harder it is to feel like you might throw it all away.
It’s also hard to explain a potential change to people. Most of us like to look good to our peers, and we want to make our family and friends happy. Trying to explain why we want to find our passion and the process of looking for it can be scary. (Though in my experience, a lot of people will be supportive because they get it. Almost everyone has at some point wanted to chuck it all and run away to Key West.)
It gets harder to change your path when you have to consider other people in the process. It’s easier to find your passion when all you have to consider is you. Add things like kids, spouses, and mortgages into the mix, and staying safe sounds like a good plan.
We humans are stubborn, too. We can rationalize almost anything. So when we think we’ve found something we like, something we’re good at, and something someone will hire us to do — well, this must be our passion, right?
We can get caught in a feedback loop of training, hard work, advancement, positive responses to our work, and a general feeling of forward motion. And we don’t want to admit to ourselves that maybe what we’re doing is just okay instead of being our passion. For the record, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because…
The drive to keep oneself in venti iced coffees and something other than ramen noodles can be a good reason not to jump off the cliff into the passionate unknown. The need to keep your family in a safe, comfortable house with dinner on the table every night can be an even stronger reason.
Maslow’s hierarchy puts basic needs at its foundation: food, shelter, safety. We have to have a place to live, food to eat, transportation, clothes, and a sense of security to simply survive in the world. Meeting these basic needs is a driving force in our lives, making it harder for us to find our passion if that means taking a chance on an unknown field or job. None of us want to take so much of a chance that we can’t take care of ourselves and our families.
Go a little further up Maslow’s pyramid, and you run into the need for approval and feeling of accomplishment. Doing something you’re good at feels good.
Maybe you’ve had the experience where you accomplish something at work for which you get tons of praise. You get noticed by the boss, and for weeks everyone tells you what a great job you did. And so, next time that task comes up, naturally you get the assignment.
Problem is, you hate it.
There are always going to be parts of any job that we don’t like doing. But it’s worse when you’re actually good at those things. You feel pressure to like doing what you’re good at.
That can mess with your sense of true north. If you don’t like what you’re good at doing, then you might wonder if you’re just supposed to be bad at doing something you like. And that’s not a great feeling (unless it’s singing in the shower, in which case, you go on with your bad self).
Or maybe it’s just that you like a lot of different things. How can you reach the top of the pyramid — achieving your full potential — if you keep moving from idea to idea?
Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do from the time they are kids. Some people stumble across something in college and have a clear path from there on out.
And some of us like a little bit of everything. Back in the day, this person might have been called a dilettante. But I prefer to to use Ben Franklin as a role model. He was a writer, publisher, politician, inventor, diplomat, and something of, well, let’s just say a social butterfly.
It’s hard to find your one true passion if you like a lot of things, or if you don’t like the things you’re good at. It’s hard enough to figure out your passion when life is pretty good, but it’s practically impossible when you’re in a bad spot.
If you’re going home from work every single night, putting on your favorite ratty sweatshirt, having a dinner of grilled cheese, chocolate, and whiskey, and burying yourself in your favorite comfort book, you might not be happy with your job.
Running off to Key West to work on a sunset cruise sail boat (I have no idea where that particular scenario came from) might be your fantasy. And, sure, there are people who do it. But is that really your passion, or is it just the daydream that keeps you plowing your way through soul-sucking meetings?
When things get bad, we can go numb. We don’t know what we want to do because any single thing other than what we’re doing sounds good. This is the reason so many people jump from one bad job* into another bad job — they need an escape hatch, and they’ll take the first one offered.
*Note: bad job here refers to existentially bad jobs, not physically or ethically bad or toxic jobs. If you have one of the latter, your passion should be getting the hell out of there if you can.
Finding our passion is supposed to be something we’re wired to do, but pressures, needs, and our own human nature can get in the way. So don’t worry if you haven’t figured out what yours is yet. It’s not as easy to do as it sounds, and you’re in good company.
Photo credit: william87
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.