Over the years, all of us have come across tons of blogs, books, TED talks, and every other form of delivering advice to people, on the subject of “Discovering Your Passion”. There are many online tests and workshops on the subject. There are life coaches who provide personal assistance to people for navigating it. Social institutions and government policies have been created to deal with it. A ton of research has been conducted, various theories have been proposed, and many programs have been created based on them. But the truth is, that while some people may have benefited from these, the problem remains as unsolved as ever for most of us. And many of those who claim to have benefited occasionally have had second thoughts.
Whenever you come across a common problem that keeps coming up again and again over decades and centuries, and each time it has some “new” and highly “insightful” and “practical” and even “scientifically proven” solution, you should ask yourself: Why does this keep happening again and again? What happened to all the solutions they said were new and highly insightful and practical and scientifically proven? One would think the problem would have been solved centuries ago.
Well, as they say, “there are no simple answers”, particularly when it comes to the important things in life. On the other hand, we all want simple answers. This of course creates a whole industry around providing simple answers and that actually makes the situation worse because now not only is the problem itself really hard, but there are distractions. Distractions and distortions, and the lack of skill needed to navigate the complexity. A mix that will ensure that this problem will fester forever, ensuring continued interest in books, blogs, and videos.
So here is an attempt at removing some of the distractions, distortions, and may be provide some directions where one can acquire the skills needed to navigate this complexity. This is not the easy answer that most people expect, but I am not writing this for most people. I am writing for those who have tried those other approaches and realized that they need something more real. And I promise that this approach will be a lot more interesting to follow and far more rewarding in the end.
The Problem of Discovering Your Passion
1/ It goes without saying that life, the universe, and everything, as well as your own mind and its relationship to all of the above, are all extremely complex. Each one of us is different. Our lives are different. Our circumstances are different. Our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our likes and dislikes and skills and motivations are different.
2/ In addition to this, things keep changing all the time. We age, we keep learning and experiencing new things, our circumstances change, our relationships to everything change. New opportunities present themselves. Our needs and wants change. The needs and wants of the people in our lives change. As a result of all of this, our thinking changes.
3/ Some people are a little luckier. They become aware of their one true and well-defined passion early on in life and they find exactly the right path to pursue that passion and achieve visible greatness as a result. These are the people you hear about all the time, and it makes you think that everyone is like that or can be like that. But that is not the case.
4/ Some of us, may be even a lot of us, may not have just one true passion. That’s not to say that we are passion-less. We just have many passions. The idea that everyone has that one true passion is a romantic idea. It is a beautiful and popular idea, but it does not hold true in general. It may turn out to be true for a few, but not for most. And even those who claim that it is true for them, if you really dig deeper, you will find that it is more a result of the way they think rather than their reality.
5/ The people who claim to have discovered their passion early on in life usually either haven’t had a chance to explore much beyond the first few things they found interesting in their lives or have convinced themselves that there is nothing more out there. This is actually not a bad way to think – it simplifies life and even makes one happier – but if you are a curious kind of person, or haven’t led a simple stable life, this may not work for you.
6/ And even for those who have discovered their one true passion early on in life, as things change, their passion may change. It might be approximately in the same genre, but some different aspect of it. Or the genre itself changes. Or they might get tired of it completely or come across something completely different.
7/ In addition to that, not everyone’s passion may be so well defined. In most cases, it is quite vague or nebulous and can lead to many and completely different manifestations in reality. It is like the “blind men and the elephant” story. You may never see the elephant itself, but you can feel some aspects of it. And it is one of those aspects that finds an expression in reality. You might think that that aspect is your passion when in reality it is the elephant.
8/ For example, instead of something concrete like “pre-school teaching”, it could be “spending your time in the company of young children” or even, “spending your time in the company of innocent ideas and activities”, which could find expression in writing children’s books or working with animals or even making flower arrangements.
9/ Just knowing or discovering your passion is only half the story. The real goal is to live your passion. And a lot of people have trouble going from the step of discovering their passion to bringing it to life. To do that, you have to marry the passion with an opportunity in the real world. So discovering opportunities becomes another essential part of living your passion.
10/ Add to that, even when we know your passion and have found an opportunity to marry it with, when we actually try to bring it to life, the passion ends up getting drastically transformed. This happens to a lot of people because their idea of their passion is too “pure”. Since real life is messy, such pure ideas can not survive for too long.
11/ Also, a lot of things that are worth being passionate about involve a lot of hard work and drudgery in order to survive in the real world. Not only do you have to spend the proverbial 10,000 hours practicing, you may also have to deal with paperwork, competitors, politics, laws, and so on. This also turns off a lot of people.
12/ Working on your passion takes time and energy away from doing important things such as, say, making a living, having a family and friends, and just chilling out from time to time. This actually becomes a major stumbling block for most people because the world or your family and friends may not value something that you may be really passionate about.
13/ To summarize, in this process of discovering and living your passion i.e. the “riding the elephant”, we are we blind and generally misguided, scared and confused, time and resource constrained, the elephant itself moving around and changing, and our ride on top of the elephant is likely to be not as comfortable and beautiful as we might have imagined.
Wow! Just writing all this down is making me lose my nerve. Too many problems here, right? So is it all hopeless? Should we just sell out like we see most people doing?
Not at all. In fact, now we get into the real purpose of this post: a great technique to not just discover your passion, but to marry it to an opportunity and bring it into reality and feel good about the result.
The “Natural” Solution
The technique I am describing is based on 5 main principles. I will be borrowing a lot of ideas from the way evolution occurs in nature as well as how many successful businesses get started. These ideas have existed in nature forever and they have been practiced in the startup / business world for a long time. So there is no doubt as far as their effectiveness. In fact, I am calling this the “natural” method because it has a lot of parallels with the way nature evolves things.
1. MVP: Minimum Viable Passion
1/ When you start, you do not have a very clear idea of your passion. You may only have vague notions. A lot of people stumble at this point itself because they think they need to have a clear idea up front. Most other advice on discovering your passion focuses on doing some form of soul searching to suddenly one day have a light go on in your mind telling you exactly what your passion is. Again, as I wrote earlier, this may happen to a few folks, but for most, it will not.
2/ As I mentioned above, finding your passion is just half the story. The other half is to find an opportunity to marry it to. When your passion is abstract or ill-defined, it is hard to find an opportunity to marry it to. Opportunities are usually attached to other people or institutions and they need to see something concrete and proven about your passion before they will let you access that opportunity.
3/ The best you can do is to start with one of things you may consider just “interesting”, but may not rise to the level of “passion” inside your mind. One great place to look for such ideas is to look at your recent past and see what activities you enjoyed the most. What activity made you forget yourself? Or found interesting in a book or some movie. Or saw other people doing and you envied them. Or you dreamed about.
4/ There may be a bunch of such things. That is ok. These are just candidates, not the final answer yet. The next step is to work with each of these ideas in turn, creating something concrete out of them, and presenting them to a small number of people close to you as a reality check. This will of course involve learning some new things, practicing them, trying to create something presentable out of them, talking to a few people, and so on.
5/ Just the effort of going through these things will help you tremendously in terms of knowing if the ideas are just interesting or actually candidates for becoming your passions. This again is not very romantic. It requires you to involve reality fairly early in the game. But I believe this is where most of the other approaches that talk about focusing on discovering your passion completely through just meditating or dreaming or “just knowing it” go wrong.
6/ Of course, you can’t spread yourself too thin in this. Life is not long enough to leave every stone unturned. So the question then becomes, how do you know which of these ideas to pursue in this manner and which ones not. Again, not very romantic to think about this, but more likely to succeed in the real world. (And as I mentioned earlier, there is a deeper level of romance waiting for you as a reward in the end.)
7/ Here we will borrow the idea of the “Minimum Viable Product” from the startup business folks. The idea is to start with something concrete (but may be incomplete), that has a minimum set of features or attributes that may be attractive to someone who might be willing to take it seriously and give you valuable feedback. In other words, your family and close friends. Present it to them, let them play with it, and collect their feedback.
2. Meditation, Experimentation, and Discussion
1/ After you collect this feedback, analyze it. Experiment with various approaches to respond to the feedback. Meditate on it. Discuss your ideas with other people. Ultimately, modify the initial expression of your initial idea of your passion and present it again to the people. Repeat a few times and may be expand your circle of people as you gain more confidence in the idea.
2/ During this process, you may discover new ways of thinking about your passion. Some things will become clearer. You may start seeing more aspects of the elephant, so to say. You may even realize that what you thought was your passion wasn’t exactly right. May be it was some part of it or something related to it but different, or even something completely different. Be open to such possibilities.
3/ Also, new opportunities may present themselves. May be the people you spoke to the first time introduce you to some others who they feel may be more likely to help you. May be your own discovery of some new nuance of your passion will lead you to some new direction to look for opportunities. Be open to that too.
4/ Meditate on these things. This is a great way to find what you really care about. Except this meditation is not entirely in a vacuum. You have some real data, some real experiences, some real opportunities to consider. The meditation itself is a lot richer and more meaningful to you in the end because it has more connections to reality. It is not completely abstract.
5/ The entire exercise is basically about how to navigate the complex and dynamic landscape of your mind as well as the world, while incrementally closing in on your passion through experimentation and feedback. It is a proven technique in the startup business world. And a very important benefit of doing it this way is that as you get closer to your passion, you also get closer to actually living it because you are always performing all your experiments in the real world, not just inside your mind.
3. Passion Pivoting
1/ At some point, after a few iterations of this, you may realize that what you started with and what you now have are quite a bit different. You may have to ask yourself: was my initial idea of my passion wrong to start with or am I going too far away from it or have I discovered some other passion that I didn’t know I had? Be open to the possibilities.
2/ Even more interestingly, some new opportunity may present itself that isn’t really in your initial area of passion, but it is too attractive for various other reasons to pass up. These are the things I mentioned earlier such as the need to make a living, having a family and friends, or just the need to take a break etc.
3/ This is a tough one. Should you give up on your original idea – something you really felt deeply about or should you go after this new shiny thing? What if it turns out to be a mirage? But what if it turns out that it opens completely new vistas with entirely new passions that you weren’t even aware of before and hence you couldn’t be passionate about? This brings us to an extremely important and often overlooked aspect of the passion discovery process.
1/ Following your passion is a highly personal project where, at least initially, most of the benefit accrues only to you, not to the world. But then, you are always a part of the world and you need the world to support you while you pursue your passion. So you have to have resources at your disposal to spend so the world can support you in return.
2/ Again, not a very romantic notion. But look at the people who are famous for having followed their passions and ignored their realities. Many famous painters, musicians, scientists and so on, who died penniless and more importantly, unappreciated, in their own time. But, if your passion was so clear to you as it was to them, you would have known about it already. You would not be reading this blog.
3/ Again, let me say that I am a romantic myself. I absolutely hate having to say stuff like this. I hate having to say that you have to figure out some way to make your passion real. I have read about all those artists and musicians and so on and I really wanted to be one of them. It did not work work that way for me that way. I was too curious about the world and always more interested in the things I didn’t know than the things I did. But, as I have mentioned earlier, there is an equally beautiful prize waiting for you at the end if you go through this process.
4/ Resources can take many forms: time, energy, money, relationships, knowledge, skills, and so on. In order for you to have them at your disposal, you need to earn them. The process of earning them may not fall in exactly the same direction as your passion, but due to the set of skills or relationships you may have developed in your journey, that direction may be available to you. Why not take advantage of it?
5/ A lot of people may feel that this is basically selling out. Doing what the world values, even if that is not what you really wanted to do. But it is selling out only if you really give up on your journey towards living your passion. As long as you look at it as a way trick the world into giving you enough resources that will allow you to pursue your passion, it is a perfectly fine thing to do. What’s even more interesting, the world may have its own tricks up its sleeve.
6/ Many times, while engaging in activities that help you earn these resources, you may come across knowledge, skills, relationships, and opportunities that might enlighten you in ways that you never imagined possible. It may make you “pivot” as I mentioned earlier, taking you even take you closer to your passion. Or you may see a completely new path you never saw before. Always keeping an eye out for those things and taking advantage of them is how you keep true to your passion.
5. Stars rather than Paths
1/ The most important point in all of this discussion is to not treat the ideas here as a “path” or a “prescription”. It should be treated more like “stars in the night sky” that you navigate by. The idea is not to approach the stars themselves, but to use them as guidelines to help you make your own decisions based on your own evaluations of your local circumstances and constraints.
2/ Following a well-defined path to the letter is one of the main pitfalls that many people fall into. Everyone’s path towards discovering and living their passions is going to be different. The situations you will face, the decisions you will need to make, and the satisfaction you will have with those decisions will be different. This is the real beauty of complexity.
3/ In the same vein, always keep in mind that, for most people, their passions themselves are not very well-defined. They are fuzzy and malleable. They have many different aspects and can be expressed in many different ways. And they change over time. Being open to these possibilities, and internalizing them through meditation, experimentation, and discussion will take you closer to your passion than strictly holding on to some well-defined notion that you may have had in the beginning.
To close, let me just say that I am one of those lucky people who have multiple passions, and they have kept changing throughout my life. I have had opportunities to pursue a few of them to various extents. I have been lucky enough (and old enough now) to have some resources available to me to be able to do more and more of that as i have gotten older. In fact, this blog, which consists of both, my writing as well as some photography, is one expression of my passion for curiosity, analysis, imagination, and creativity. And I would say that I am still in the pre-MVP stage of this and working on getting to the MVP stage. Just the exercise of putting a blog together has led me to many insights into my own passions and that has been one of the bet parts of it.
What’s really interesting though, and something I had not anticipated at all, is that through all of this, I am beginning to see the vague outlines of what may actually be my real true and only passion (the “elephant” from the “blind men and the elephant” story again). It is not the elephant I would have imagined earlier, and I am sure it will not be the elephant I will imagine it to be in a few years. But I am sure I will be closer to seeing it more clearly. What looked like multiple passions to me earlier are now looking like they are all leading up to a single point.
And this is where I am going to hint at the “prize at the end” that I mentioned a couple of times in this post. Somewhere deep inside, I feel that this “elephant” is actually the same for all of us – that the “one true and all consuming passion” for all of us is exactly the same. This is exactly where not just discovering your passion, but living it, and particularly following the “natural” method as I have described it to get there, becomes the most meaningful. It is my belief that, this method, if followed honestly and diligently, no matter what specific path it takes in reality for each one of us, will lead to exactly the same point in the end for all of us. It is hard to describe what this point at the end is and why it may be the same for all of us, but if you follow this approach, you will probably begin to agree.