Find Your Passion

By Philip Brewer on 2 December 2009 (Updated 16 December 2010) 31 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I always knew what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do changed over time, and at any particular time I wanted to do more than one thing — and sometimes I wasn't sure if any particular thing that I wanted to do would turn out to be satisfying or remunerative. But there were always things I wanted to do. It turns out that this is not universal.

Some people really don't know what they want to do. Since I always did, I'm not sure that I'm really the person to ask about how to figure out one's passion in life. But when I talked recently about ways to arrange your life so you can follow your passion, more than one person asked in the comments about how to find your passion. I did some thinking about it, and decided that maybe I had an idea or two after all.

Editing too early

I used to think that the main reason people couldn't figure out what they wanted to do was not because they didn't have any ideas, but rather that they had ideas, but figured they were impractical. The things they wanted to do (playing video games, snowboarding, going backpacking) seemed to offer no hope of making a living.

In fact, of course, there are people making a living doing each of those things. There are admittedly few professional video game players, but there are plenty of jobs testing video games, as well as jobs designing them, coding them, writing the stories, and drawing the art. Likewise snowboarding and hiking support very few as professionals, but do offer opportunities for guides, instructors, writers, and so on.

There are many ways to follow any passion. If the problem is time, maybe you can start small and make incremental progress. If the problem is money, maybe you can barter for access to the expensive stuff you can't afford. If the problem is complexity, maybe you can follow a few narrow side branches now and work your way toward the main branch. The key is simply that you shouldn't assume your passion is impractical without giving some real thought to all the many ways you might follow it.

If this is what you're doing, the solution is easy: brainstorm. Make lists of things you want to do without editing. Don't paralyze yourself by trying to figure out your one true calling in life, just write down two or three dozen things that you want to do. Start with easy stuff. Maybe you want to visit your family or scuba dive off Grand Cayman or learn pottery. Then broaden your thinking: What do you do when you have control over your own schedule? What list of activities for the day makes you jump out of bed? If you had enough money that you didn't need to work, how would you choose to spend your time?

Go for quantity — this stuff is the raw material of what you want to do with your life. Get a day or two of distance from the list, then go through it and categorize the ideas. Some are just things you want to do once. Some will likely be things that you don't really want to do at all. But among the others are likely things that you have a passion for, even if you haven't realized it yet.

At some point, think about what you do that's of value to other people. That's important in two ways. First, it's something you might be able to get paid to do. Second, something that's important to others has a greater chance of being deeply satisfying.

What if your passion really is impractical?

Some passions are fundamentally impossible. We don't know how to go faster than the speed of light or backwards in time.

Other passions are simply beyond our capabilities. Most of us will never play major league baseball, no matter how strong our passion. I would argue, though, that this is simply a matter of being too specific. If playing baseball is truly your passion, then play baseball without worrying about what league you get to.

Most passions, though, are totally doable, they simply aren't adequately remunerative, which brings us back to where we started, choosing between a dream job or a day job.

What if you have no passions?

As I say, I used to assume that everybody had a passion. I eventually figured out that really wasn't true: Some people really can't think of anything they want to do. These people are often unhappy. In fact, they're often miserable.

Often the cause-and-effect goes the other way around. People who are severely depressed are unable to think of anything that would make them happy, but the underlying problem is a matter of brain chemistry, not lack of passions. Treat the depression and they will find their passions again.

For people who aren't clinically depressed, but simply can't think of anything they want to do, I'm not sure I have much help to offer except to suggest an incremental approach. Think about which aspects of your life are most satisfying and do more of that and less of the other stuff. On a smaller scale, do the same in each area of your life. Which parts of your job are most satisfying and which are boring or annoying? What would your job look like if you did more of the former and less of the latter? Could you talk to your boss about restructuring your job to look like that? I talk some about that in a post called find work worth doing and then I talk about other aspects of it in a post called how to get a job — learn the secret from a bad movie. (Both of those posts got some good comments, too.)

It's perfectly normal for your passion to change over time. The days of having just one career are almost as far gone as the days of having just one job — and that's okay. A couple years ago, several of the Wise Bread writers (including me) did a group post called what is your dream job. I talk about how my dream job changed from programming to writing.

There are a few other posts on Wise Bread on finding your passion. Here are the ones I could find:

I'd be really interested to hear from readers who had to struggle to find their passion. If you're one of the people who couldn't think of what they wanted to do, but then eventually figured it out, please comment below on how you did it.

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Guest's picture
Deborah

I wouldn't say that I struggled to find my passion so much as I struggled (and am still struggling) to get to a point in which I am able to pursue it.

Like you, I knew what I wanted at a young age (12, in fact). I am still working on the same thing I was then. Several years have passed since I first discovered what I really loved doing - which was drawing manga. I wanted and still want to be a professional mangaka.

However, several bumps along the way have prevented (and are still preventing me) from achieving the first milestone which is finishing the story. The adverse economic conditions do not help matters very much for anyone. And when you're passion is doing something like manga or comics, it's usually a very difficult thing to break into. Hence, why many comic book artists live with their parents. Unfortunately, this is not an option for me. I know it's possible because people like Ken Akamatsu are doing it and have been for years. But one has to wonder how they got there. More often than not you'll find that they had some type of help.

Guest's picture

Hi Deborah

Just came across your comment to this article about finding your passion. And what you said about Manga. I'll be honest I don't know what it is - is it to do with drawing for comics?

Well have you decided on how your dream can help others? Write a list of 10 ways it will be of benefit to others. Given that you love it, it will benefit you loads. Have you created a vision which describes your ultimate dream for Manga? All it needs to be is an A4 page which captures your vision - Your Ideal Vision. And since you draw create a drawing and under the drawing write down the reason WHY this vision must come true.

Be creative! What new ways can you use your talents to meet a need? Maybe theres a whole new way which you can use Manga to entertain the world.

Then take the next step and keep moving with love and passion in your heart and your work. You'll be amazed at what doors will open for you.

Carpe Diem!

Guest's picture
GT0163C

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. Learning and exploring about space was my passion. I wanted nothing more than to explore new planets and float around in space and build space stations and the like.
Unfortunately, due to bad physiology there was no way I'm ever going to be accepted by NASA (not the best eyes, bad knees, can't fly worth a darn). I realized this by the time I was in high school (a couple of trips to Space Camp and sitting through the lectures that included the minimum and (while not stated, actual) requirements for becoming an astronaut helped). So I headed down the path of aerospace engineering. And quickly learned that designing the structures of space vehicles was not really what I wanted to do (I greatly disliked my structures classes). But, in the meantime, I found that I aerodynamics came easily for me and controls presented a great challenge that I enjoyed. So I shifted my path, yet again, and now am working designing the stability and controls systems of aircraft. Which is cool, most of the time.

The problem is I'm not certain it's my passion anymore.
I've become more involved in my church, especially hanging out with the youth. I really enjoy teaching Sunday school but know that I would make a lousy full-time teacher and probably an even worse full-time pastor (despite having to change denominations due to my gender). I have too much of a detail and problem solving vs person driven personality. But, on the plus side, all of that makes me a great volunteer - and allows me to connect well with the geekier kids.

So, I do engineering to pay the bills. And I hang out with high school kids and do a lot of behind the scenes work for the church in my off-time. Overall, it's a pretty good split. There are times when I'm doing one activity when I would rather be doing the other. And there are times when I wonder if I shouldn't be doing more of one and less of the other (often more ministry and less engineering). But, I'm not certain that's a bad thing. It's life and, at least for now, it works out pretty well.

Guest's picture
Karen

I don't think that not having a passion necessarily means you're depressed. I enjoy my job and get satisfaction from it, but after 8 or 9 hours, I'm ready to do something else. The same with my hobbies - I enjoy them up to a point, but part of the enjoyment of them is that I don't do them all the time.

I love to read, and a few years ago, I decided to turn that into a part-time career by becoming a book reviewer. It seemed like a perfect way to incorporate my passion into my life. But I found that once I was reading books for review, instead of just for fun, it changed my experience. I could no longer just pick up any book I wanted - I had to read the books that needed to be reviewed. If I disliked a book on page 50, I couldn't just toss it aside - I had to finish it so I could write the review. And even if I was only reading books I liked and enjoyed, just the knowledge that I had to translate my feelings from "I liked it" to a coherent book review changed my reading experience. I decided to quit the job as a book reviewer and just go back to reading for fun. But that meant my passion would always have to be just a casual hobby and not a career.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Karen:

It's certainly true that some passions make lousy careers.  And, I suppose, some people find that none of their passions make a great career.  But that's okay--that's why there are day jobs.

The people I worry about are the people who have no answer for the question, "What do you want to do?" 

Guest's picture
quinn

One thing I suggest to people who ask me how to find there passion is the coffee shop test. Put simply what topic overheard in a coffee shop would make you but in to a strangers conversation? That will give you at least an idea of were your pation misght be found.

The other bit of advice I have heard from others and that i agree wit as well is try different things. Make a hobby of trying new hobbies see what gets you going and see what lights your fires.

As for myself I am one of those people who like your self has always had many things I have wanted to do. One of them, writing is something I have been scared for many years to pursue as a carreer but have recently decided to make it happen because i am tired of going to jobs I hate.

Guest's picture
Vibha

You make a very interesting point with the Coffee Shop Test. I've heard a lot of "What is it that will make you jump out of bed" and this tactic just does not work. You would be surprised to see how the desire to sometimes run away from something can make you jump out of bed for basically anything other than that :p

Though it is very rare that you would be tempted to pause reading a great book to overhear someone else's conversation...definitely worth a thought....

Guest's picture

It's not as much like work if you love what you do.

Guest's picture

Both of my sons were raised with the notion of searching out ways to make their passions their career choice.
And the notion that when your work is something you love -
Life is so much sweeter!
I always balanced this encouragement with a huge dose of REALITY.
Such as their bills must be paid, always.
Also, it would be a good idea to get that college degree.
(Made ole mom happy, anyway!)
Long story short...
Oldest son got his degree in graphic communication and has since built his passion for tattoo arts into a profitable business.
Youngest son is a senior in electronic media and will be pursuing his passion for animation after his internship.
They both keep their expenses low, while building on their dreams.
I think that is the secret, actually.

Guest's picture

It's great to pursue something you're passionate about, but you also have to balance what is going to make you happy with what your goals are in life.

In order to do this, you have to figure out what you value in life and, ultimately, what your goals are. Is it having a lot of money? Is it spending time with loved ones? Is it being able to travel the world? Is it having a lot of free time?

You should list all the things you want out of life, rank these, and then try to find a career that you're passionate about that will also provide you with the best prospects of being able to achieve what you ultimately want out of life.

I think doing this will give you the greatest chance at happiness over the long term, not only because you'll enjoy what you do, but because you'll know it's going to lead you to where you want to be in life.

Guest's picture

Great post Philip!

@Finavigation: I take on your same approach (Thanks to a Randy Komisar).

Instead of thinking about it as finding your one passion, open yourself up to a "portfolio of passions". List them out, get rid of your faux-passions*, and align your passions with the opportunities around you.

My first blog post was called "A Life of Passions". I really believe in this stuff.

Guest's picture

A job doesn't need to represent how you are defined; that is to say, one can work and have "passions" on the side. We often forget in the US that a profession doesn't need to be the only aspect of one's life that can provide for an interesting existence(one can work full time and also enjoy passions - it's not a black and white thing).

Best,
Vince

Guest's picture

I have a lot of passions, most around various arts, and they all give me a deep sense of satisfaction when I pursue them. This allows me to have several outlets which makes them more practical, but also has me wondering if I should be focusing on one above the others and bring it to the next level.

Guest's picture

At first glance, you might think this post doesn't have much to do with finances, but it really does.

Finding your passion and going after it will give you the motivation that you need to give your professional life its all, which in the end, will result in more financial stability.

Its true, and its all great advice.

It is something that I have personally experienced over the last several months.

And by the way, in my estimation, EVERYONE has a passion....you just need to find it. I don't think we were put on this Earth without passions. It may take awhile to identify it, but we all have them

Guest's picture
Olivia

When contemplating career choices in high school, I narrowed it down to graphic/industrial design or genetics. Since genetics required a masters (at least) and I was working my way through with no help from home, graphic design become the clear choice.

By laying out all my passions I've found common threads between them. As long as these threads are part of how I spend time the work is satisfying. So it could be reading up on abnormal genetics, understanding neurotransmitters, higher math, making a kid's costume, building a tree fort, or graphic design. All these have visual, problem solving, solitary aspects to them.

Pursuing common threads in one's interests allows for a great deal of flexibility and satisfaction as life circumstances change. Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was 81. I guess that gives us all a bit of time to try a few more things.

Guest's picture
George C

Hi Philip,

I'm a first time poster here, and just wanted to say that I found this blog entry to be quite interesting, particularly as someone who continues to struggle to find his passion in life (and no, I am not depressed!)

However, what would you make of people - such as myself - who simply state that their passion in life is to make money, and that they will enjoy doing whatever activity that helps them accomplish that?

For example, I have switched several activities and even fields of work in my life when they offered better payouts. I can't say I was ever strongly attached to any of them, and I found a strong correlation between how passionate I felt about my work and how much I was getting paid.

Guest's picture
Uchatome

I don't equate passions with my career and don't like working. Hate working but I have to and probably will have to for the next 30 years. My passion would be to not work, not good at selling or having my own business. Tried that numerous times, just doesn't work for me. I just take a job to make money for my passions though.

In High School there was never anything I wanted to make a career of. After college (Business Administration) still nothing I was interested in making a career of.

Sure there were the dreamy type wouldn't it be cool to be a ..... Everyone doesn't want a career, they just want to enjoy life as it is. That thing called work gets in the way though.

I wouldn't want to turn those passions into a career. Not depressed I have never been interested in a career or working. I know this topic is about passions but it seems to overlap with careers.

Guest's picture

I wonder if part of the problem is the word "passion," with its implications of ecstasy and all that.

Anyone who writes knows that there are hours of sheer drudgery involved, not to mention the awful moment when you have to discard page upon page of material.

From the moment I set foot in kindergarten, I wanted to be a teacher. Literature is my passion. But my day-to-day life is pretty steady, with some great "highs" now and then, and just as many "lows."

Guest's picture

I believe that a lot of people are afraid that if they try to do what they love and fail, they will be bereft of their dreams. Some people would rather do something "safe" that doesn't inspire them and be always able to say, "I could have been an astronaut, if I'd really tried", than to seriously try to accomplish something, fail, and have to confront the fact that their dream is dead.

Philip Brewer's picture

 @ Uchatome:

There are plenty of reasons not to make a job out of your passion.  That was one of the topics of the recent post I linked to, Dream Job or Day Job.  A day job--one that pays the bills without draining you of the energy to do what you care about--is a reasonable option.

On the other hand, life to too precious to spend half your waking hours working at a job you hate.

It's worth putting some work into finding something in between.  I call it work worth doing.

Julie Rains's picture

I think for many people -- being able to take care of their families and being respected on the job are their passions. But being able to think creatively about using a passion in a profitable way is something that should take careful consideration -- finding work with snowboarding? I know a guy who sells snowboarding equipment; finding work with hiking or cycling? I know someone else, who after struggling for years to find the right fit, is now representing high-end technical apparel and gear companies.

Guest's picture
mick

After SO MANY years. I'm still stuck on level 1, Lifetime. I still have not found any real passions, only mild interests and curiosities. I like technology and future trends and am taking some computer programming classes, but I'm not real passionate about it but it's the closest thing so far. I was laid off from a mundane asst. manager job earlier this year. The best thing and only good thing about it was the pay check, but throughout the day all I did was watch the clock second by second and couldn't wait until 5:00 pm. Absolute misery. My interests keep shifting. Once I lose interest in something, I simply don't care about the subject anymore and want nothing to do with it and try to find something else. I use to like drawing and art and animation, now I can't stand any of that. I used to love movies and film making and even have a BA in communications, but now I barely watch a movie and generally don't care about movies and entertainment at all. Nothing's exciting for me anymore. I don't care much about helping people, the world and all that noble BS stuff. I think all I care about at this time in life is winning the lottery and sleeping, surfing the internet.

Guest's picture
Guest

I find that one of the biggest reasons for not having satisfaction by pursuing my interests is lack of opportunities for a single mother already stretched too thin. No money, and no time. Oh sure, just do this or that. Who watches my kid so I can do so? Who pays for the transportation or tuition fees to study?
Then there is the fact that I cannot seem to focus on any one thing, I am all over the place.
One moment I start to learn Russian and want to work overseas, teaching or something, working with endangered pandas.
Then I simply want to travel.
Live in a big city and socialize a lot.
Then I want to settle in a small village in Ireland and live a simpler quiet life.
Then I want to be a social worker or adviser.
Then I want to be an archeologist, or an actor.
You get the picture.
I need professional help I think. For free of course!

Guest's picture

I believe that the only real way to be successful in this world is to be pro-active. I’d bet you’d be very hard pressed to find a success story where the person just sat around and waited for the perfect opportunity to fall into their lap. That would be nice, but it’s not realistic.

In order to make all your dreams a reality you have to just go for it sometimes. It’s true that you might miss, but you’ll never succeed if you never take a chance.

Instead of sitting around waiting for some great idea it's important to get out there and do something. Right now is the perfect time to buy a small to mid size business. This economy has left a whole lot of businesses out there selling for less than their worth. Now is the time for people who want the most out of life to grasp on and take the plunge.

There are many mature, profitable businesses for sale out there. Most of these are for sale by owner on the hidden market. All you need is to do the due diligence and maybe get a little help from someone like a business broker, or even better an Authorized Business Buyer Advocate.

Find an area where your expertise can be put to work for you rather than just hoping and praying for the next great idea. Most of the totally great new ideas have already been taken. Wouldn’t it be easier to take someone's great idea and make it even better?

Anyone interested in the buying of a business should check out http://www.businessbuyeradvocate.com/ . It is a great blog full of must have knowledge for anyone thinking about taking the plunge. It’s frequented by quite a few experts in various aspects of the field that can help you with any questions you might have or perspective you might need.

Buying a business very well could be the most important decision you ever make in your life. You have to make sure you buy the right business the right way.

Guest's picture
Greg Dean

Hi,

I had a crazy passion for learning Russian. I still love it, but my motivation isn’t alive.

What I find is that if I am trying to talk Russian and the Russian I am speaking to begins to speak in English, I automatically revert back to English. So I think “Why do I need to learn?” This is why I prefer to have just a couple of female Russian friends who have no idea how to speak English. It forces me to keep practicing.

My wife is Russian. I met her on Skype and we met for a holiday in Thailand. Amazing trip, but now we only speak in English (she needs it if she is going to survive here and work). And because i'm still learning, if I force myself to speak (I can actually hold a deep conversation in Russian), if I don't know words, I go back to English and then have to force myself to go back in, even though these Russians know English.

However, when I started learning to speak Russian, one of the best CD’s I bought taught me to speak romantically in Russian. Sure there were useful day to day lessons and great grammar lessons, but I loved the romantic Russian. It REALLY helped when I met my girl in Thailand and when I travelled to Russia and met her family and friends. Once again, she doesn't require that learn Russian. She prefers to speak to speak in English.

Anyway, this program, which I highly recommend is at http://speakrussian.bilstonaudio.com . It's awesome if you want to get a jumpstart in the language. What I found is that after I mastered this series, learning all the past, future and gender versions of other words was a breeze. PLUS I know how to speak romantically in Russian.

http://speakrussian.bilstonaudio.com

Hope it helps.

Greg

Guest's picture
Cody

Thanks for the great article Philip! It can be really intimidating at first to go down this unconventional path to actually carve out something you LOVE doing in life rather than going about it like a robot like everyone else, but I think no matter how "impractical" your passion may seem, it's just all about sticking to it until you find a way to make it work and support yourself. The other thing I've really found useful recently was Henri Juntilla's book doing what you love for a living— literally the best ebook I've read in a long time, and even after doing the online thing for several years I found it really helpful too:
http://www.thrillingheroics.com/passionate-living-finding-passion-doing-...

Guest's picture

Great article. Following our passion ensures we have the energy and interest to follow through when the going gets tough. And no matter whether we choose to follow our passion or not there will be challenges we face that are tough. If we are passionate about what we are doing we are more likely to succeed in overcoming that challenge! Just today I read a great quote in Mark Fisher and Marc Allens book "How to think like a millionaire", it read "When we do what we love, offering our gifts and our talents, without causing harm to anyone, we are working at the highest level of service for ourselves, those around us and our planet". So I agree it is very important to nourish and grow our passion in life! Carpe Diem!

Sean M Kelly
www.BeInspired-blog.com

Guest's picture
Raina

I'm someone who struggled to find her passion for a few years (I think I just figured it out last year at the age of 22). I did have Major Depressive Disorder in high school and ended up taking time off after high school since I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. I had always been good with computers; a lot of my teenage hobbies focused around building websites, creating graphics, etc, but I knew I didn't want to be a webmaster. Nonetheless, my computer abilities helped land me in a few nice jobs that moved me forward in the world while I took some generic classes at the local community college.

Finally, after a couple of years at my current job, I visited a coworker in his office to discuss changes to a program he'd been developing for my department. Looking over his shoulder at his screen, I felt a surge of jealousy over the work he was doing -- I wanted to pull up a chair and start coding software. I had taken C++ in high school and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I don't know why it never occurred to me to become a software developer. Sitting in that guy's office, I just knew. It clicks with my personality - it's mathematical (I was a big math nerd ever since elementary school), logical, problem-solving, computer-heavy, a culmination of all the things I enjoy. Better yet, you can sit in a quiet office by yourself and code away (I'm not a big fan of more social jobs). So I changed majors from my generic Business Management to Computer Science - Software Design, and I'm really excited about what the future holds.

Philip Brewer's picture

Congrats! There's nothing like having passion for your work. I remember when I'd just started at my first computer programming job, thinking, "I sure hope they don't figure out that I'd do this work for free, just to get access to the computers."

Guest's picture
Guest

@ Sean M Kelly, thanks for posting re thinking about the benefits to others of whatever your passion may be. I am fortunate enough to have a great job with people I respect and like, that also pays enough to not have $$ worries. But my passion is a different project, and sometimes finding the energy to work on it post-job is tough. Your words are a tremendous help, because completing my project will help a specific set of people (very much so, I think). So, now I have a new tool to keep me focused and energized and working toward completing my passion project. Thanks again, Sean!

Guest's picture
noir

I think the most depressing thing about not having a passion is this insistence from society that I MUST pursue something. I don't particularly enjoy working. My passion is playing video games. Not competitively. Not to develop them or test them. Just to play them. In other words, I am pursuing my passion and the only depressing thing about it is that society deems me a bum for doing so.