How to Find Your Passion When You Feel Lost. A 7-Part Plan to Break Through the Fog.

I’ve been thinking about how to find your passion lately, especially after seeing an avalanche of posts that say that passion is dead. The thing is, I don’t want to be a cliche, but I’m also not willing to give up on the dream. So this post is dedicated to what I’ve learned.

My spouse was a social worker, a degree that “fit her” in a conventional sense. She was a good social worker, but she didn’t love it.

When the kids came along, she took maternity leave… and never went back. It wasn’t a career she wanted to go back to.

One day, 6 years into being a great stay-at-home mom, she was watching the show Abstract—The Art of Design, and she saw an episode with Paula Scher—one of the greatest branding and typography specialists in the world.

I was in the kitchen in our little Greek apartment, cleaning up after the kids had fallen asleep. She walked in. I could see she was excited, but she was also incredibly nervous to say what she wanted to say out loud.

“I know what I want to do.”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at her.

“What, like tomorrow?”

“No, with my life.” Then she said it out loud. “I want to be a graphic designer.”

That revelation launched her journey. She looked at applying to colleges but realized that you didn’t need a college degree to do graphic design. You just needed the chops to build great stuff.

She started working on it every day. It was the first time she’d thrown herself into something in a long time, and when it came time to get up to do something else she never wanted to. She took courses on SkillShare.

“Five more minutes,” she’d yell back when I called her for supper.

Three years later, Carolyne has built her own design business. She’s damned talented, and her work is good enough to stand with the best designers. (She built the Roostervane logo. You can see her work here.)

When you start growing in the right way, you won’t want to stop. The naysayers will say, “Not everyone can follow their passion.”

To that I say, “That’s irrelevant to you. The question is whether you will!”

So if you’ve been stuck in the same place for months, years, or even decades, it might be time for your own revelation.

This might mean discovering something. Or it might just mean saying that dream out loud that you’ve known about for a long time but were too afraid to chase.

Here are some tips for how to find your passion.

Stop asking yourself garbage questions that don’t help

So many of us begin with the wrong question. Students approach me and say, “What job can I get with this degree?”

There are, of course, a lot of things that you can do with any degree.

But this is the wrong question.

The real question, which few people take the time to ask, is “What do I want to do?”

There are some who don’t know. They genuinely lack direction and it will take time to figure it out. That’s fair.

I’m one of these people who has never really had one thing that I wanted to do. I’m a typical ENFP (if you know the Myers Briggs), I have ten things I want to do with my life.

I want to be a helicopter pilot who has a money-making blog and runs an organic garden shop on the side.

Yah, that’s me… typical ENFP.

(BTW Have you ever done a Myers Briggs test? It’s not a perfect science, but it can be really enlightening! There’s a good–and free–one here.)

If you’re like me, and you genuinely get lost with the possibilities for life, you need to get rid of the terrible questions that we ask about careers. Here are some really crappy ones:

  • Does it have a pension?
  • Does it let me use my degree?
  • Will my parents and their friends “get it?”
  • Will people be impressed?
  • Will I be respected?

Throw these garbage questions out and ask yourself better ones:

  • What kind of impact do I want to have?
  • What do I love doing–whether it fits with where I’m at right now or not?
  • What are the problems in the world I’d love to help solve?

I have a whole post on questions to ask yourself here.

Quit lying to yourself. If you know what your passion is, admit it!

It’s amazing how many people actually already know what their passion is.

I grew up in a poor town where everyone obsessed with winning the lottery.

I remember a friend’s dad eyeing up a new truck that had just come out. “When I win the 6/49 Jackpot—I’m gonna get one of those.”

People would actually tell complete strangers what they were going to do, “When I win the lottery.”

  • I’m gonna golf all day.
  • I’m gonna build a huge woodshop and do woodworking non-stop.
  • I’m gonna garden.
  • I’m gonna move to Florida.
  • I’m gonna open an antiques shop.
  • I’m gonna start a small-engine repair business.
  • I’m gonna open a burger joint.

Now I don’t know about the golf or the Florida, but a few of those dreams are things you can get paid to do.

People dream of winning the lottery so they can do other people’s jobs.

What does this tell you?

There are some people reading this right now—yes, I see you—who already know what their passion is.

So, it’s amazing to me when I meet people who have a clear vision of what they want who aren’t chasing it.

How can you be lucky enough to know exactly what you want and not go after it?

I get the objections . . .

  • Well, I did this degree and I need to use it. I don’t want it to be a waste.
  • I will chase my dream, but I need to wait until the ducks are in a row.
  • I’m going to work here a few more years and then I’ll do it.

When I hear people talk like this, I know I’m looking at someone who has been given a beautiful dream for their life and will probably take it to their grave, in the words of Les Brown.

I hope there will come a day when they will wake up, but they may not.

So, if you already have a dream in your heart and you just haven’t admitted it to yourself yet, ask yourself these questions:

  • What steps could I start taking to move towards my dream?
  • What attitudes or beliefs are holding me back?
  • Who do I know that can help me get to my dream?        

Too many people never step into their passion because of the fear that holds them back.

Be really brave

When you look at the world around you, what percentage of people do you actually think have come alive? What percentage of people do you think are doing something they really love to do?

Is it fifty percent? Is it twenty-five percent?

From where I stand, based on the people I know, it’s closer to five percent.

Do you know what their holdup is?

Les Brown says it best:

Most people are governed by their habits, their fears, and the opinions of others. A lot of people never try anything differently because they have been convinced by people in their lives that they value, that they can’t do it.

Les Brown, Becoming Courageous (Speech)

That’s it. “We are governed by our habits, our fears, and by the opinions of others.”

Some people will spend their whole lives in roles they don’t like, because they’re too afraid of what it means to actually go and do the thing they want.

They’re comfortable, and building the life they want would be uncomfortable.

Sure, they’re scared of taking the jump. They’re worried about the money and paying the bills.

But they’re also terrified of what people will THINK.

I’m a respected researcher. What are people going to think when they see me selling flowers?

What would my former colleagues think if they heard that I now have a bicycle repair shop?

What would my parents think if I gave up engineering to open an Etsy store?

If you were honest with yourself, what would you love to do? If money wasn’t an issue and there was nobody who cared, what would you do with your life?

You owe it to yourself to figure out if it’s possible.

And one more thing….

There’s something that people who aren’t following their passion say all the time. “It’s great that it’s a hobby. But when a hobby becomes your job, it can take the joy out of it.”

Sure. This is what people say. It’s another piece of dumb conventional wisdom that stops people from doing what they actually want to do.

Yes, if you’re following your passion you’ll have days where you hate it, resent it, and want to do something else. Everything in life has this. But you’ll also have a lot of days where you love what you do. And isn’t it better to have more of these days than less?

Try some shit

If you genuinely have no idea which direction you want to take, maybe it’s time to try some shtuff.

Seriously, get out there and figure it out. Meet some people. Network. Drop in at a pottery class. With a few months of research, you could probably get clear on a path that you feel like you’d love and start moving towards it, even if you don’t know right this second.

You want to own a bakery? That’s your dream?

Why not pick up a part-time job at a bakery and A. Learn the ropes, and B. Figure out if it is actually something you’d love to do.

You might realize that it’s not even close.

You might not have the moment of revelation. Maybe your passion won’t hit you while watching a show and change the rest of your life. Those flashes of light and clarity aren’t given to everyone.

But why not make it your mission to engage with the world, honestly, and figure out where you want to go. Isn’t your happiness worth it?

And to be honest, you might grow into your passion as you go. There’s some good evidence that passion can develop and evolve as you grow. So maybe telling people to “just follow their passion” actually avoids the reality that you might grow into something that becomes your passion or, conversely, you might learn to hate the thing that you’re passionate about right now.

Be willing to turn your back on some stuff

Can I tell you why some people will never find their passion? Sunken costs.

The sunk cost effect is manifested in a greater tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made. Evidence that the psychological justification for this behavior is predicated on the desire not to appear wasteful is presented…

Arkes, H. R., & Blumer, C. (1985), The psychology of sunk costs. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140.

People have sunk in too much time effort and energy into degrees, career paths, and so much else, that they often don’t follow their passions into one or two things happens.

  • First of all, some of the rare people are able to save up enough money to retire at 35. These people then turn to follow their passions. 
  • Other people need to turn their back on a career, either because they choose to, because they have a breakdown and don’t have a choice, or they get fired and it’s a wake-up call.

But the good news is, finding your passion doesn’t mean you have to quit at the office tomorrow. Start dabbling a little bit. A lot of the best things are built in the hours after a day job. (Actually, if I’m honest, some of this site was built in the hours during my day job.)

Dabbling is a good way to decide whether something is really your passion or not. If you find yourself burning out and hating it after a month, it’s a good sign that you haven’t found your passion.

 Think Outside the Box.

It’s September 2020 as I write this. I’m not making a full time living off of Roostervane yet, my main income is still consulting on research projects.

But I DO make some money off of this.

I get to help people with my writing and speaking and get paid for it. And at some point in the future, this will be my only income.

If you’d have told me that I’d be able to make a living BLOGGING—writing my thoughts on the internet for the world to see, I’d have laughed.

People don’t really make money on the internet, do they? Isn’t that reserved for people who do cheesy YouTube commercials and guilt people into buying stuff or those who have mastered drop-shipping?

Well… no!

But I had to see that it was a possibility and chase it. I love to write, and if I’d told anybody else, “I want to make a living writing my ideas down for people to read,” they’d have laughed at me.

Oh yeah… By the way… The “good advice” I heard from people about staying in school and getting a degree left me purposeless AND financially imperiled. Conventional wisdom sucks.

If you want to make a living doing what you love, there’s a good chance you need to think outside the box. I don’t know what this looks like for you.

It might be an etsy shop or it might be going to work for an RV-building company. It might be becoming a day-trader or it might mean going into politics. I have no fricken clue. But you’re smart enough to build your roadmap.

Get clear on the problem you want to solve.

Look, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but one job isn’t likely to perfectly fulfill your passion.

Neither is entrepreneurship, even though we live in a culture of entrepreneur porn. #sidehustle

The thing that’s going to sustain you in the crap times is the overarching vision or mission of what you want to do in this world, the problem you want to solve.

If you believe in your cause, whether it’s organic food or marketing, public policy or painting beautiful art for people’s living rooms, you’ll be more likely to feel an overall sense of passion.

This might not mean every minute, but when you look back over time you’ll feel like you’ve devoted yourself to something that matters.

I have a lot of friends in Ottawa who care about foreign policy. None of them stay in a job for longer than 2 years. But all of their roles revolve around foreign policy, no matter which role they have. They just take progressively better and more challenging roles.

This is the basis of finding your passion in a job. Not everybody will have one job that’s their passion. Some will fall in love with an industry or discipline and spend their life growing into it.

Get moving! And keep an open mind.

Okay, so if you think you know what you think your passion is… start moving in that direction! Take steps to see if you can make a living off of it.

But keep a totally open mind.

Go somewhere that hurts a lot and scares the shit out of you.

And it seems really hard to understand that you could do some things for a living.

Can you really make a living off of writing your thoughts online?

Can you really make a living off of working with animals, or photography, or researching nanoparticles?

The answer to all of these is absolutely yes. You can make a living off of almost anything if you are strategic about how to monetize it. We are living in an age when even the most obscure hobbies have high-paying blogs devoted to them.

So my friend, if this is you, this is the road to you want to go down. Admit to yourself what it is you actually are passionate about. Or, take the time to figure it out. And give yourself permission to learn how to make that thing grow in its importance in your life.

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