How to find your passion in life and work

I knew my passion was drama and writing and while I went the wrong way for a time, I still think I was lucky to have these obsessions that I could eventually do something with. I don’t often like to use the word lucky to do with writing because it isn’t luck or chance, I wanted what I do now and I worked for it and I got it. But I started from the advantage of know what I wanted to do, even as I didn’t think I could do it. It’s much more common to not have a single clue.

It’s much more common still to then feel that the answer is to find this thing you’re passionate about, then you could do it, then you could be as happily workaholic as I am. And by extension, if you can’t find it, you can’t. Writer Oliver Emberton has a smart piece about this:

Too many of us believe in a magical being called ‘passion’. “If only I could find my passion”, we cry. “Finding my passion would make me happy”.

Well, passion is real, and very powerful. But almost everything people believe about finding it is wrong.

Childhood is where passion goes to die

In theory childhood provides a great opportunity to try a bit of everything, find your talents, and with them, your passions.

But think for a moment how badly the system is stacked against you. Say school lets you try 20 subjects, ranking you against thousands of other children. Those aren’t good odds. Most kids are, by definition, around average. And it doesn’t matter how much we improve education, because people need to feel exceptional to feel passionate, and improving education simply moves up the average.

Say you’re one of the lucky ones, and you’re top of your junior math class. The education system will keep rising your difficulty until you find a level – like college – where you’re not exceptional anymore. Even if you actually are objectively pretty great, once you feel merely average, you’ll find your passion slipping.

And that’s if you’re lucky. What if your passion was for art? From an early age that passion is compromised by its social consequences. “It’s hard to make a living from painting” say your parents. “Your cousin is doing so well from engineering. Why can’t you be more like him?” And so you put your passions to one side, and let them wither.

In a population of billions, it’s obvious that not everyone can be unusually great at a handful of academic subjects. What if your true skills are in speechwriting, or creative dance, or making YouTube commentaries of videogames? None of those things are even on the syllabus.

And so most people grow up without much passion for anything.

How to find your passion – Oliver Emberton, personal blog (undated but probably 10 November 2014)

Makes me think of UK Education Minister Nicky Morgan’s asinine comments about arts subjects. Which then makes me think of poet Jo Bell’s calmly smart and classy rebuttal.

But back to the passion point. Emberton presents that as one of several rules to getting beyond the passion issue. Read the full piece for the rest of the rules plus some apposite illustrations.

Sticks work better than carrots – official

I do this all the time: unless I work enough to earn these things, I constantly deny myself gardening, vegetables, milk chocolate, football, all sorts of things. I may help me cope with the loss of these with periodic dark chocolate, tea and good books but that’s private, that’s my business.

We do often hear that we can reward ourselves when we do something and I’ve done that. But there is an argument that the masochists amongst us are right to punish themselves into action. Plus, we’re writers, that’s practically a synonym for masochists.

Fast Company suggests what I think is a halfway house between punishment and reward. Risk. Specifically, do something to trigger our loss aversion, which is a technical term to describe our aversion to losing things.

Self-motivation comes in a numbers of forms but masochism, on its face, seems like a dubious strategy. But what if various boundaries aren’t enough?

In those cases, when something absolutely has to get done, we have another, albeit extreme suggestion: Waste large sums of money.

“The science of loss aversion says that we hate losing $100 about twice as much as we like winning $100,” said Nick Crocker, behavior change expert and founder of the fitness app Sessions, which MyFitnessPal acquired in 2013.

What Results? Try Punishing Yourself – Rebecca Greenfield, Fast Company (28 August 2014)

Greenfield’s full piece makes this case but uses a New York Times article about loss aversion and that article is more akin to the sunk cost theory I’ve covered before. This is off the point of punishing yourself to get results but I think it does tie in to how we hang on to things we should ditch but just can’t because we fear losing anything.

New York Times:

The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that even something as simple as a coin toss demonstrates our aversion to loss. In a recent interviews, Mr. Kahneman shared the usual response he gets to his offer of a coin toss:

“In my classes, I say: ‘I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would you have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?’

“People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now I’ve been doing the same thing with executives or very rich people, asking about tossing a coin and losing $10,000 if it’s tails. And they want $20,000 before they’ll take the gamble.”

In other words, we’re willing to leave a lot of money on the table to avoid the possibility of losing.

The Sketch Guy: Overcoming an Aversion to Loss – Carl Richards, New York Times (9 Decemeber 2013)

Sometimes you just have to let things go. Because they’re already gone.