Will I ever find my passion?

“Maybe the secret to lasting relationships is just that: At some point, you decide it should last.”
– Maureen O’Connor

I used to believe that if I could just figure out what I was really ‘meant’ to be doing with my life then everything else would fall into place. It was a useful fairy tale to cling onto because it meant that I couldn’t mess up the decision if I dared to make it myself (without divine intervention).

As I grew older, I saw that marathon relationships had little to do with cosmic prescription. Whether it was in work, in my personal life, or in my friends’ lives – I saw the same patterns over and over again. Long-term love was not always thrilling – it involved sacrifice, vulnerability, forgiveness, and banking a tonne of really boring and mundane moments.

This is the heart of Cal Newport’s message in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. He questions why so many of us are obsessed with finding our passion when that the concept of one “true calling” is false.

Like searching for “The One”, the passion myth can be a convenient story to buy into. Yet it can also be a way to dodge the hard work that comes with building a purpose as opposed to stumbling upon it via fate.

The Danger of the Passion Myth.

Mariah was an Escape member from Austria who always seemed to struggle with finding something to anchor herself to. She worked in business development for nine months then decided to become a yoga instructor. After doing her yoga teaching qualification, she realised that what she really wanted to become was a drama teacher.

Paralysed by indecision, she kept finding ways to hate each job because she wasn’t sure if it was really what she was “meant” to be doing.

I asked her what she was interested in – what common themes had emerged from all the zigzags. She couldn’t tell me. She hadn’t been paying attention to what interested her. She was too busy searching for the thunderbolt that was going to clarify her entire career.

“If it’s meant to be, I think I’ll just feel it,” she replied, and it reminded me of what my 22-year-old self used to believe about love. Then she went on to add, “I haven’t felt it yet.”

By buying into the idea that passion strikes us, we start subconsciously waiting for that epiphany to hit, Newport argues. Instead, passion is a process that unfolds over time.

In reality, we could excel at multiple careers, just like we could build fulfilling lives with multiple partners. The secret is to pick one path and to commit to it until we get to the point of excellence – instead of worrying that we didn’t select the one path that we were ‘meant’ to be on.

A smarter approach than waiting for an epiphany is to uncover interests and to commit to developing them over time. Through sustained commitment comes competence. Through competence comes engagement. Through engagement comes ‘career capital’ (experience, knowledge, networks) licensing us to take our pick of interesting opportunities in our chosen area.

The Craftsman’s Mindset.

Lucy was an Escape member from New York who worked in finance for five years before deciding to make the leap into startups. She found herself attending various startup events. She became friends with some of the organisers and was soon organising events herself.

As she became better at organising events, she approached an education startup that put on a variety of courses and lectures. They hired her to help out at a few events and slowly she built up her skills and networks in the space. Just a year later, she was opening a branch for them in a new territory.

Did she dream of doing this when she left finance? No. But she followed her interests, developed competence, and then used that base to network her way into an interesting opportunity.

Without knowing it, Lucy had developed what Newport calls the Craftsman’s Mindset. If passion is a process as opposed to a thunderbolt, then it is catalysed through the act of deliberate practice. Newport argues that having the discipline and patience to develop our skills in an area of interest causes us to improve in that area.

When we become good at something, we tend to enjoy it more. When we enjoy something more, we tend to want to keep doing it. And so we practice, more often, and then get even better, and so on. When we learn to build well, the interesting opportunities follow.

Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell explores the idea of 10,000 Hours of Practice in his book Outliers, arguing that it takes roughly that amount of practice to achieve mastery in a field. (There has been a bit of debate on this but the principle remains the same: disciplined practice is the only route to excellence.)

Mission-Driven Work.

Andy, an Escape member from London, works for a media conglomerate as an accountant. He once told me that although he doesn’t want to be at that company forever, he will always get excited about the area that he has developed competence in: being able to deliver a snapshot of a company’s fiscal health.

While he didn’t dream of doing this when he was younger, he was always interested in business and math. He followed those interests into accounting. Now he has seven years experience and can take his pick of opportunities around the world using the base skills he has developed.

His “passion” might not be accounting, per se – instead, it seems to be the ability to connect executives with an accurate cash-flow reading. Yet he is passionate about the work that he gets to do each day, regardless of the company at which he carries it out.

Newport says that once the skills have been gained, we can use them to discover options and find something to be our life’s work and driving motivation. This mission transcends whatever organisation we may be in at the time but instead provides the overarching theme for our entire career.

He talks about how mission-driven work is often what people are referring to when they talk about ‘finding passion’ – being deeply engaged and feeling connected to a purpose greater than oneself.

“So, will I ever find my passion?”

Whenever an Escape member asks me about finding their passion, I usually end up quoting Newport’s book. It is so easy to put pressure on ourselves to ‘figure out’ what it is that we’re ‘meant’ do with our lives. It is so easy to feel stupid when we don’t have clear answers.

A lot of the confusion disappears when we realise that we are not meant to immediately guess the answer to some riddle. The solution comes from building the answers over time.

A lot of the pressure fades when we realise that we could be happy with multiple options. When it comes to career (and love), maybe there is no such thing as The One. You get a handful of shots, and when you’re ready, you just pick and that option becomes the One.

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