Passion and uncertainty

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Sometimes people ask me for tips on finding their passion. I never really had a good answer for them. I stumbled across my first passions so early that I don’t remember falling in love with them. Reading and programming were just there, intertwined with my childhood. Those inevitably led to other interests that grew into passions such as writing. Now I have the beginnings of a passion for drawing, or at least I think it might be. It’s less comfortable than any of my previous transitions. It’s not as smooth. I feel more uncertain. But I’ve learned to trust that anything I learn will combine in interesting ways later on, so I keep moving forward.

When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi described the experience of flow – losing yourself in a moment of immersion.

I used to tell people to ignore the myths of a sudden calling. Passion doesn’t strike out of the blue. You find a spark of interest and you nurture it. Hard work and experience gets you past the first few ruts. You hit the part of the learning curve where you start learning faster and faster… and then you hit the plateau of mediocrity. If you have the grit to keep pushing, you might find that there’s a new height that you can reach, a new joy to discover. Or you might find that you’ve reached the end of your interest. It’s okay. Give yourself permission to move on. But if you keep going, you’ll find yourself deeper and deeper. Simple tasks become easier and more fun. Difficult tasks become engaging. Passion requires commitment in order to grow. Work at it, and you might get to that aha! moment where you feel certain that this is something you were meant to do.

Here’s what my experiment has been leading me to ask: What happens if you let go of that need for certainty? What if you do this work not to arrive at the peak of success or skill, but because the path towards it might be interesting? What if it’s okay to live a life without a passion that other people will clearly recognize, appreciate, and validate? What if your passion is life itself and what you can learn along the way? What if you can accept never being an expert and embrace always being a beginner?

This is all very meta and not something particularly useful for people who are looking for career tips. I feel a little like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I think it will be fun.

It’s tough to give up the mythology of passion. I still cling to the need to feel confident and secure in something, to know (and be told!) that I’m good. But if I keep practising this kind of practice, I think that might lead me down interesting paths ten years down the line.

So yeah. Don’t worry about not knowing your passion. It’s not as important as people think it is. You don’t really need to package up your interests into a neat word or phrase that will make people go ooh and aah. You don’t need to be an expert in order to live a meaningful life. Live your life, work on getting better at living it step by step, and you might find that you’ll pick up all sorts of expertise along the way. (Although since I’m 29, I’m not sure if I can really say this from experience, so it would be interesting to see someone with more data either backing this up or refuting it. =) )

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