Stop Finding Your Passion

Most people have it backwards.

They think that passion precedes effort. That caring about a project comes before pouring your heart and soul into it.

They’re only willing to commit if there was a prior discovery about how much they like this thing.

“Offer me something I’m passionate about and I’ll show up with all of my energy, effort and care.”

As Seth Godin points out, that’s a great way to hide.

Nope, I’m going to sit this one out. And that neither does it for me. I just don’t feel it.

“But,” you say, “what’s wrong with this? Surely there must be some sort of emotional connection between me and an objective before I’ll decide to invest time and effort in it?”

That is true.

But you’re not going to stumble upon this spark — this feeling of purpose. The only way for that to happen, is if you make it happen.

Winning the lottery?

Since I started writing 18 months ago, things are going surprisingly well. I enjoy it, get meaning out of it and it brings in money. When I research and write I catch myself thinking, “I sure hope I get a long life, because I love doing this.”

By contrast, when I began blogging, I had no clue it would turn into the biggest factor in my life.

Hence, people conclude I’ve been blessed to have come across this activity that floats my boat.

“You’re so lucky you’ve found your thing. I wish that would happen to me too.”

There is luck involved, for sure, but not this kind of luck.

In Nick Wignall’s words, “behind most stories of epic productivity is a story of epic privilege.” I have been terribly fortunate to have been born where I was born, have the brain I have, and so forth.

But the “I wish that happened to me too” sentiment implies a deeper kind of luck. As if I, like them, was aimlessly stumbling around in the dark, and by sheer coincidence hit upon the right life for me.

I won the lottery. By utter chance, I discovered Medium and happened to draw the get-out-of-jail-free card.

No, no, and no.


I think a lot of us, and I certainly was one of them, struggle in our 20s to get clarity about how to deploy ourselves in the world.

Everything up until you finish college is structured. You don’t have to think about it. Just make sure you pass the test.

Then, there’s a change.

Up to now, you’ve only been in charge of the micro decisions — “How do I succeed at my job as a student?” — and now you’re suddenly holding the keys to the macro cockpit as well, tasked with answering stressful macro questions like “Who am I?” and “What are the important things in life?” and “What are my options for paths and which one should I choose and how do I even make a path? — Tim Urban, WaitButWhy

Life is much more ambiguous than school, and now all of a sudden we have to navigate ourselves, ourselves.

And no one taught us how to do that.

When we leave school for the last time, the macro guidance we’ve become so accustomed to is suddenly whisked away from us, leaving us standing there holding our respective dicks, with no idea how to do this.— Tim Urban, WaitButWhy

This lack of self-knowledge, combined with the fact that the Big Wide Worldisn’t exactly holding its hand out, leaves many in an unfortunate predicament.

Consider that the belief that the lives of our children and grandchildren will be worse than our own is gaining ground. From a recent Huffington Postarticle:

What is different about the world around us is profound. Salaries have stagnated and entire sectors have cratered. At the same time, the cost of every prerequisite of a secure existence — education, housing and health care — has inflated into the stratosphere.— Huffington Post, Millennials Are Screwed

This leads to a situation in which, for the writer of the HuffPost essay,

My rent consumes nearly half my income, I haven’t had a steady job since Pluto was a planet and my savings are dwindling faster than the ice caps the baby boomers melted. — Huffington Post, Millennials Are Screwed

Millennials feel powerless, and it’s not hard to see why.

And yet, I want to maintain that it’s more than luck that allows one to escape.

Self-knowledge doesn’t come easy

I’ve been studying rigorously the specimen called “Maarten” for seven years now.

Ever since, in early 2012, a mentor advised to me keep a diary of self-observations, I have been collecting information about me. I still journal, and at this moment the most important Word document in my life contains 243.731 words of self-knowledge.

For example, on March 28th, 2013, I wrote:

“I really love making sense of something difficult, breaking it down into understandable pieces, and teaching it to others.”

And the chronicle of my early twenties has many entries lamenting how I thrive on independence and freedom, and prefer working alone over having a day filled with meetings.

These data points allowed me to make increasingly specific decisions about how to live, progressively choosing activities, observing myself in these new situations, feeling something and writing that down, adjusting once more, and so forth. It’s a virtuous spiral.

I was, without knowing it, heading out of for a career as PhD-candidate in philosophy who writes essays where he hopes to entertain others seeing how he thinks through things.

Here’s the rub: harvesting data about yourself is not easy. It’s hard, and requires placing yourself in different and uncomfortable situations to test how they make you feel.

I spend a shitload of time into learning how to podcast only to abandon it because it didn’t grab me as much as I expected. It required months of volunteering in Cambodia to discover how wonderful I find teaching. It took me an eight-month solo trip to detect my passion for writing. My decision to apply for PhD programs was preceded by countless hours of self-reflection and advisory conversations — and I definitely didn’t anticipate that, one year later, I would decide that an academic career wasn’t my thing after all.

Do you spot the progressive nature here? I had to spend a year doing the PhD to recognize my true feelings about academia. You can’t bring those convictions to light merely by sitting down and thinking through them. You must get your hands dirty and study yourself in the field to acquire the pricier pieces of self-knowledge.

This is the work that many people don’t realize lies behind meaningful Wednesdays, and because they fail to acknowledge it, makes them conceive of having an aligned life as a matter of luck.

When people see the end product, it’s easy to mistakenly assume that it comes from an attribute as opposed to from a skill.

If the lottery metaphor is apt, which I believe it’s not, because it hugely understates the amount of agency and struggle involved, then I only won it because I bought many tickets, and had to work hard to afford all of them.

What you should do

So far, we’ve seen that many young people have shallow self-knowledge and also face an uphill battle in landing themselves an exciting vocation anyway.They kinda have certain preferences — but in reality the job market is very stubborn and there’s no entry-level position that quite makes them dance. Of course.

However, a meaningful life is not an on-or-off switch that requires that one perfect profession to show up at your doorstep.

Rather, there’s a slow, difficult progression towards crafting your ideal existence. You need to systematically collect data about yourself, to even have the possibility of making informed decisions about what to do to be happy.

So if you don’t have that choice-algorithm about the specimen called You in place, a better economic situation is not likely to get you a happier life. You wouldn’t even recognize the golden ticket if you saw it.

And this data-collection process, and then making the honest decisions, is where you can exercise your agency, no matter what the job market looks like.

The fact that society offers few opportunities for optimization is irrelevant if you don’t even know what you should optimize to get the life you want in the first place.

Yes, school screwed up in preparing us for this. Yes, cool professions are rare. No, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.

Best-selling author Jim Collins drives the point home:

“One of the key principles from all of our work is the notion that life, great things build by disciplined people, disciplined thought, disciplined action and building it to last. Then, you multiply times return on luck. The evidence is very clear. The big winners are not luckier. The big winners get a higher return on their luck than the comparisons, but they don’t get more luck per se.” — Jim Collins on the Tim Ferriss podcast

There won’t be an aha-moment if you don’t engineer your life for it to happen.Luck only becomes relevant after you’ve got the system in place. So start building it.

Step one. You need to try a bunch of stuff and notice what bites you. The only way to do that is to throw a lot against the wall and see what sticks. You have to go out, be curious, take classes, socialize and make yourself uncomfortable.

Force yourself to do things. Put yourself in difficult contexts. Even if they don’t strike you as amazing immediately. Spoke Seth, “Nothing is good enough to earn your passion before you do it.”

So do it first.

Disciplined action.

Step two. Study yourself. Observe how doing these activities and surroundings make you feel. As you’re going through life, with dispassionate objectivity, make notes observing the homo sapiens called You. Be relentless about your personal data.

Disciplined thought.

Step three. Mold your life accordingly. Build it to last, in line with your hard-earned in data points.

And only then, multiply returns on luck.

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