How to find your passion


How to find your passion has been an eternal question. First it’s important to ask “What is a passion?”

Researchers found there are two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive. The latter is a bad thing, more like an addiction or being a stalker. We’ll focus on the former, thanks. So what defines harmonious passion?

Robert Vallerand and colleagues came up with a “Passion Scale.” How many of these are true of an activity you engage in?

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

1. This activity allows me to live a variety of experiences.

2. The new things that I discover with this activity allow me to appreciate it even more.

3. This activity allows me to live memorable experiences.

4. This activity reflects the qualities I like about myself.

5. This activity is in harmony with the other activities in my life.

6. For me it is a passion, which I still manage to control.

7. I am completely taken with this activity.


Passion is good for you

As long as it’s not of the obsessive variety, having a passion can really be a positive.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

The positive benefits of harmonious passion can be explained by the repeated engagement in positive emotions. Barbara Frederickson and her colleagues have conducted an impressive amount of research showing that positive emotions lead to an “upward spiral” of adaptive behaviors and better psychological adjustment.


Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

Elderly individuals who were harmoniously passionate scored higher on various indicators of psychological adjustment, such as life satisfaction, meaning in life, and vitality, while they reported lower levels of negative indicators of psychological adjustment such as anxiety and depression. 

And it wasn’t just inherently “passionate people” who saw these benefits. Given the freedom to choose what they studied and pursue what interested them, otherwise “dispassionate” students saw the benefits of passion in academic subjects as well.


Passion projects are better projects

When we do things because of passion, not money, the quality is higher.

Via Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

“Our results were quite startling,” the researchers wrote. “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works than when doing non-commissioned works.”

And artists who focus on money over passion are less successful in the long run:

“The less evidence of extrinsic motivation during art school, the more success in professional art both several years after graduation and nearly twenty years later.” Painters and sculptors who were intrinsically motivated, those for whom the joy of discovery and the challenge of creation were their own rewards, were able to weather the tough times—and the lack of remuneration and recognition—that inevitably accompany artistic careers. And that led to yet another paradox in the Alice in Wonderland world of the third drive. “Those artists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for the pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior,” the study said. “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.”


Can your passion be a career?

Cal Newport points out a weakness in the “follow your passion” argument.

Most people’s passions (sports, the arts, etc) are quite difficult to make a living at.

Via So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love:

84 percent of the students surveyed were identified as having a passion. This sounds like good news for the supporters of the passion hypothesis — that is, until you dive deeper into the details of these pursuits. Here are the top five identified passions: dance, hockey, (these were Canadian students, mind you), skiing, reading, and swimming. Though dear to the heart of the students, these passions don’t have much to offer when it comes to choosing a job. In fact, less than 4 percent of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96 percent describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.

In my interview with Cal he explained that career bliss comes from doing what we’re good at, not chasing passions which may be fleeting and unrealistic:

Long-term career satisfaction requires traits like a real sense of autonomy, a real sense of impact on the world, a sense of mastery that you’re good at what you do, and a sense of connection in relation to other people.

Now, the key point is those traits are not matched to a specific piece of work and they have nothing to do with matching your job to some sort of ingrained, pre-existing passion.

What’s interesting is that most often it is passion that leads us to “10,000 hours” of deliberate practice and subsequent expertise.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

The researchers also looked at the role of passion among 130 undergraduate students enrolled in a selective psychology course. They found a direct path from harmonious passion to deliberate practice: the students who were more harmoniously passionate about their work were more likely to engage in deliberate practice.


How to find your passion

Cal Newport is right that we are happiest doing what we’re good at. Many people write to me asking “But how do I find out what I’m good at?

There are quick ways to find out where your gifts lie. Professor Martin Seligman has a strengths test you can take here. Adam Grant points to other great resources here.

But I think there’s a far more important factor in how to find your passion: Trying more things.

This is deeply obvious yet eludes most people. Want to discover your passion? You need to do new things.

Why doesn’t this occur to most people? Fear of failure.

Fear of failure is one of the most powerful feelings.

Via Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy:

In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success; the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on (and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”

You know what the funny thing is? It’s never as bad as you think. Really.

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness has studied how long people feel lousy after bad things happen. The answer? Not nearly as long as they guess.

You anticipate regret will be much more painful than it actually is. Studies show we all consistently overestimate how regret affects us.

We need to fail to learn. When we fear failure we limit our ability to succeed. 

So is there a way to fail that isn’t scary?


What to do now

My favorite tactic for how to find your passion is to make “little bets.” What’s a little bet?

Via Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries:

A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.

A little bet allows you to break out of your comfort zone and try something new knowing that if it doesn’t work out you can quickly recover and try something else.

In Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You he recommends little bets for someone trying to develop their skills and create a career:

The important thing about little bets is that they’re bite-sized. You try one. It takes a few months at most. It either succeeds or fails, but either way you get important feedback to guide your next steps. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of choosing a bold plan and making one big bet on its success.

The more things you try, the more likely you are to find a fit.

Failure isn’t that bad. But passion can be that good.

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