Passion feels very democratic. It’s the people’s talent, available to all. It’s also mostly bullshit. —Scott Adams, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
At some point in your life, someone—a parent, a teacher, a well-meaning aunt—will tell you that as long as you follow your passion, everything will fall into place. Just find your passion and follow it. Forever. Sounds good and aspirational. Magic, even. We think it’s what freedom must feel like—certainly this is worth leaving your comfort zone for, right? This one, sure thing that you’re predestined to do? It must be the key to a meaningful life, right?
This sounds a lot better on paper or coming out of the mouth of a motivational speaker than it does when you try to execute on that idea. The problem isn’t that passions are hard to come by—we have dozens, hundreds!—but that the minute we decide it has to be the center, the meaning of everything, the source of all motivation and pleasure and paychecks, the pressure is on.
Telling someone to follow their passion is a little like saying, “If you want success, follow that car.” Which car? How do I know that’s the right car? Because it’s fast or my favorite color? Or looks like my old car? Because I like that car, but is it the car? You’re sure? Where is it going? Do I need to know? Do you know? This is limiting and restrictive, and presumes that you have to choose the right car to end up at the right destination—and if you don’t, you’re fucked.
What if you don’t know what you’re passionate about, or you had one and it fails to do the job anymore? There’s not a thing wrong with you. It doesn’t mean you’re “out” of passion forever. That’s like saying you’re bad at eating because every few hours you’re hungry again. Our wants and desires, appetites and drives, move in phases and stages; they rise and fall, wax and wane. There isn’t a human on the planet who doesn’t enjoy that swell of emotion and energy, that cresting wave of motivation and focus that we associate with passion. So if we’re talking about “choosing” a passion, let’s start with the fact nobody wouldn’t choose it. But passion is something we experience, not a thing we pick out of a pile like a cantaloupe.
Which means we just might have it backward.
Because more often than not, we get passionate about things that are working, not the other way around. In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams talks about all his failed attempts at business ideas and how passion was not an indicator of forthcoming success. When it started to look like his comic strip Dilbert might actually work out, his passion for cartooning also increased. “Success caused passion more than passion caused success,” he writes.
Why You Shouldn’t Wait for Your Passion to Show Up
The passion myth is a kind of fairy tale—which is what makes this whole approach particularly insidious for women. Think about it: It’s the belief that your One True Passion is out there and that if you’re good and worthy he’ll come sweep you onto his steed and you’ll live happily ever after, doing what you love and were meant to do. We have simply swapped out a romantic dream for a professional ambition, the prince for passion. We have fantasized that a singular passion or purpose must, like a glass slipper, fit perfectly in order to work—only to discover that it’s unyielding, rigid, and impossible to walk in.
We actually can court passion—not by making it sign an affidavit, but by giving it room to move, and an opportunity to be discovered. What’s far more critical than picking a passion is recognizing our capacity for it—which we all have. Each of us is capable of fire, but rather than picking up whatever sticks are nearby and rubbing them together, we keep looking for the perfect sticks. You don’t need perfect sticks. What you need is friction. You need to start rubbing things together and generating energy yourself.
The way to experience and explore it is to invite opportunities for making things matter by investing time, attention, and ability to what’s right in front of us rather than waiting for Prince Passion and milady Motivation to darken our door. When we act first, we switch on the circuits that give passion a place to go, a place to emerge. And there’s literally no limit on all the ways you can do that, which you’re about to find out.
There’s More to Life than a Single Pursuit
The expectation that passion will save the day is also a recipe for ruining your day-to-day life and robbing you of the pleasure of what does happen. We assume that once we achieve that thing, life as we know it will never be the same again and every moment will peak higher than the next. That is a very tall order indeed.
You know who learned that lesson the hard way? Joe Gardner in the movie Soul (please tell me you saw that). All Joe has ever wanted was to “make it” as a musician, to pursue his passion full-time. He gets his chance when he auditions for a famous jazz musician, Dorothea Williams. This could be it! He plays his heart out and Dorothea says, “Get a suit and be back here at 6:30 p.m.”
This is the break he’s been waiting for. This is the life he’s been waiting for. Of course things go sideways when Joe falls through a manhole and into the afterlife and spends the rest of the movie trying to get back in time for the gig, which—spoiler alert—he does. And this performance is everything he imagined—immersive, exciting, received by waves of applause. But of course, that isn’t where it ends.
Afterward, Joe is standing with Dorothea outside the jazz club after the show and he asks her, “So what happens next?”
“We come back and do it all again tomorrow night,” she says. He looks crestfallen. Dorothea asks what’s wrong.
“It’s just, I’ve been waiting on this day for… my entire life. I thought I’d feel… different.”
This is a tough moment for Joe—and for all of us—when something great happens and then things level out. Is this it, then? we think. Joe, like many of us, has been living another, fictional life in his head, about “what it will be like when.” What he learns, of course, is that doing a thing well (what he deemed his purpose) isn’t the same as meaning, as purpose. What Joe discovers is that the very thing he believes he’s “meant” to do—music—has blinded him to the richness of his own life, and what it really means to live it. He’s suffered from tunnel vision his whole life, and mistaken it for purpose. When he emerges from that tunnel, the world opens up, and he has an even bigger awakening about what his life actually means, the thing that inspires music itself (I’m not crying; you’re crying!).
But before he has that final transcendent moment, when he’s standing with Dorothea on the street, she tells him a story about a fish:
A fish swims up to this older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.”
“The ocean?” says the older fish. “That’s what you in right now.”
“This? This is water. What I want is the ocean.
This idea that passion will get us somewhere else, somewhere better, to that ocean over there, is an illusion; the water, however, is real. And it’s not something you have to go find. It’s all around you. The only thing to do?