Follow your passion.
We’ve all heard it a million times, right? Follow your bliss. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. The admonitions to find exciting, deeply fulfilling work–with the implied or else. I don’t know where I first heard this, but I do know it was somehow embedded in me from early on. Because of this, I spent most of my teenage and adult years ignoring my casual interests and curiosities, even my natural talents, because I was waiting for the blast of inspiration that would be my passion.
But…it never came. Despite internships, paid jobs, and volunteer experiences, nothing ever grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, shouting, “I am your passion and you will follow me! Behold, you have found your Life Path!” So I just kept moving and wandering, searching and waiting. And waiting…
A couple weeks ago I went for a long walk and listened to a conversation between Krista Tippett and Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) on the podcast On Being. I’d read the book Eat, Pray, Love and found it entertaining, but I’d been deeply moved by her TED talk. In the conversation, Gilbert talks about the danger of this “follow your passion” business:
…[W]hen we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.
And I stopped walking and possibly--possibly–started to cry a little, because Gilbert essentially had just named, and I’d realized for the first time, why I’ve always felt so adrift in the world. I thought that everyone else had their passion figured out except me! I thought I was one of those few lost, lone souls who just wasn’t given a passion on the day they were handed out, so I was forced to make do with a series of unconnected jobs and an unfulfilled work life.
But here, for the first time, was hope.
Gilbert goes on to provide some of the most useful and inspiring advice I’ve heard when she talks about curiosity:
And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you….
And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so — almost nothing, right? It’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God….
And here’s the thing. Sometimes following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t, and then guess what? That’s still totally fine. You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.
I found these ideas so revelatory and inspiring. They let me off the hook of having to find the most perfect and fulfilling work, and allowed me to feel okay in focusing on the small curiosities and joys that are the foundations of this blog.
But then a few weeks later, as I was reading Angela Duckworth’s wonderful Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, I started to get a knot in my stomach when I began reading the chapters on passion. The section begins with several quotes from famous people about following your passion, and Duckworth identifies passion as an essential element in the grittiest and most successful people, across occupations and centuries. I started to feel a little lost again, until I read this:
…[M]ost grit paragons I’ve interviewed told me they spent years exploring several different interests, and the one that eventually came to occupy all of their waking (and some sleeping) thoughts wasn’t recognizably their life’s destiny on first acquaintance….
So, while we might envy those who love what they do for a living, we shouldn’t assume that they started from a different place than the rest of us. Chances are, they took quite some time figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. Commencement speakers may say about their vocation, “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” but, in fact, there was a time earlier in life when they could….
Is it “a drag” that passions don’t come to us all at once, as epiphanies, without the need to actively develop them? Maybe. But the reality is that our early interests are fragile, vaguely defined, and in need of energetic, years-long cultivation and refinement.
Discovering these thoughts on passion, curiosity, and career has been instrumental for me lately in reframing what I’m doing with my life and what I should do (hint, hint: pay more attention to my casual interests, like lifestyle and design blogs). Going deeper into these works has also helped to spell out the path forward – namely, working hard to develop all of the skills that go into pursuing an interest.
I would LOVE to know your thoughts on passion versus curiosity. Have you found work that you are passionate about? How did you discover that passion? Did you always know what you wanted to do? Did you ever try something that you thought would be your life’s work only to realize that it just wasn’t right? Please share, I’d love to know. (See also: ‘Follow Your Passion’ is Crappy Advice)
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Photo by Matt Benson.