"Find your passion," they told us. "Figure out what you love and do that," they said. "If you find your passion, you'll never work a day in your life."
But... What the heck is my passion? It sounds REALLY important to figure out.
I better get on this.
Okay, let's see. What am I passionate about?
I like playing golf. Is that my passion? Well... I'm not good enough to be a professional golfer. Maybe a golf journalist? They have those, right? Or a greenskeeper? No, that doesn't sound quite right.
I'm a fan of baseball and football and college basketball. Are those my passions? Hmmm. No. Same problem.
Are my kids my passion? My spouse? My college major?
What the heck is my passion? If I don't figure this out... do I fail at life? Am I sentenced to a long, painful career watching the clock while chained to a cubical?
Oh, man. This is stressful.
Now imagine being an 18-year-old kid trying to figure this out when picking a major in college. Or a 22-year-old recent grad heading off into the real world. Or a 65-year-old retiree planning their second act.
That's a lot of pressure.
But, what if we're thinking about this the wrong way?
What if we change the question and instead of starting with "what will make me happy?" beginning with "where can I add value?"
JFK said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
What a revolutionary idea. But also one that doesn't necessarily jive with Western culture today, where we're more apt to put our own happiness and contentment first. I'm not preaching here. I'm just as guilty.
What if we set ourselves a lower bar? Instead of pressuring ourselves to pick our “one and only” passion from the get-go, what if we simply identified what it is that we might be curious about?
That seems like a good place to start. Finding something in which we:
may be able to add some value (maybe it aligns with a natural skill or talent)
are curious about
Now we’re getting somewhere.
You see the "passion mindset," as it's described by author Cal Newport in the book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, almost inevitably sets us up for disappointment when we ultimately realize that every waking moment of our career is not going to be an absolute joy. We have to take on tasks we don't like, and deal with people we'd rather not deal with, and be really bad at something for a while. That does not sound like passion and definitely doesn't sound like "never working a day in your entire life."
But the "craftsman mindset" as Newport describes it, is different. This is where the focus is on the job itself. On getting better at it one day at a time.
And a funny thing happens when we get better at something. We begin to love it. You might even say that it becomes a passion.
I've seen it time and time again throughout my own career—people who truly love their jobs but work in areas that might, at first glance, appear dull or boring. I've worked with experts in niche fields like European utilities research, securities law, and collateralized debt obligations—who all loved their jobs.
Have you ever heard any 8-year-old kid say their dream is to master the world of collateralized debt obligations? I haven't, but I know some incredibly talented people who are passionate about exactly that.
How did these people get there? How did they find their passion?
They didn't. They made it.
And we can learn something from the roadmap they followed.
Four Steps to Manufacture Passion
Step 1: Be Curious
If you are genuinely interested, curious, or intrigued by something, that is a heck of a place to start. Steven Kotler (aka Mr. Flow States, who I wrote about here) thinks of curiosity as 'free' energy. It makes sense. If you are learning something that you couldn’t care less about it, it is going to take some serious mental energy just to stay focused. But if you're genuinely curious about a subject, that energy is 'free' providing you with more capacity to learn it—and in all likelihood, to stick with it. (Incidentally, this goes hand-in-hand with my philosophy on kids and reading—which I think I picked up from Naval Ravikant. It doesn't matter “what” they are reading, it matters “that” they are reading. Let them go wherever they want to with it and they'll inevitably become voracious readers. Box them in and they'll hate it.)
Step 2: Investigate
This is the second step in the process—but the first step in getting serious. It may involve taking an internship or even an entry-level job. Generally, this is where you get your first real exposure not only to the actual job but perhaps just as importantly, to tangential roles. In finance, for instance, you may get an internship in Sales but come to realize that Research exists and that you think you might really like that. By the way, I'm using early career examples for illustration, but all of this rings true for mid-career changes and even post-retirement 'second acts.' This also tends to be the stage where you start to comprehend all that you don't know. It's easy to quit here—to think "My God, there is so much to learn. It is going to take me forever to get where she is." But remember everyone starts somewhere.
Step 3: Practice
You're in it now. You're doing it. And at the beginning, you're really bad at it. You don't know what you're doing. No one respects your abilities. Actually, no one even knows who you are. The amount of goodwill you have built up is exactly zero. But you start getting reps. And, importantly, you stay true to yourself—through the few successes and the many failures. You're honest. You're accountable. And you're reliable. If you can maintain those qualities while continuing to get reps, soon you begin to climb the exponential growth curve—becoming more valuable by the day.
Step 4: Master
And then, before you know it (or maybe it's after 10,000 hours of doing it if you believe Malcolm Gladwell), you're an expert. A master. And while something known as passion may have started to show itself in Steps 1 through 3, this is when it really arrives. You love the work. You appreciate its many nuances and even its annoyances. And let's be honest, you feel appreciated. Valued. And while we don't talk about it, that's what we all want. To be right up at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Oh, and this is where the work can feel effortless. Don't tell those employers who will want to throw buckets of money at you for doing it, but this is where it’s fun. Those flow states I talked about recently? This is where we really get to experience them.
And that's the process.
But guess what? It's not one and done. We can (and I think should) do this many times in our lives.
Most people won't attempt such a feat multiple times. It's too painful.
But if we can swallow our pride and endure a year or two of embarrassment—of being really bad at something—the rewards can be immense. And it's not just in our careers. It's also in our personal endeavors. Playing a sport or writing a book or running a non-profit.
The process is the same: Be Curious, Investigate, Practice and Master.
So let's set aside all the stress that comes with finding our passion—or worrying that we may have missed it. If we do the work, the passion will come.
Thanks as always for reading. I’ll be back next Thursday. - Greg
The ideas in this article are largely inspired by the work of Cal Newport. He is the author of several books, including Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You; the latter covers (in much more detail) some of the concepts I've discussed in this article.
Image credit: Zhen Hu @Unsplash.com
Extra credit: How George Costanza goes about finding his passion.
“They tend to give those jobs to … you know, people that are IN broadcasting.”