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A simple equation that can help you discover your passion

Photo credit: pogonici, Shutterstock

Photo credit: pogonici, Shutterstock

We all know those people. The ones who seem born to do what  they do. The ones who can’t wait to get to work each day. Whether they’re musicians, actors or Wall Street stock brokers, they wouldn’t do anything else. This passion enables them to plow through life’s difficulties with raw, unbridled enthusiasm.

How did they land in these careers? And how can we follow in their footsteps?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: “Follow your passion” is misleading. Even if it seems like certain people were destined to write, play golf or study the stars, it isn’t because they were born with these interests.

The cultivation of passion

Consider Cal Newport’s arguments. Newport is a computer scientist and author of four books about passion. He doesn’t buy into the “follow your passion” mantra. In an interview with Joshua Fields Millburn, Newport says, “There is no special passion waiting for you to discover. Passion is something that is cultivated.”

So let’s examine an equation I’ve developed with this in mind:

(curiosity + engagement) x time = passion

We start by being curious. From a young age, we’re drawn towards the things that we’re curious about, and as we get older, we’re expected to hone in on one that particularly appeals to us.

This is where most of us get stuck, because we’re afraid to pick something “wrong.” But remember what Newport said: “There is no special passion waiting for you to discover.” In other words, there isn’t a “wrong” choice because there isn’t a “right” choice, either. Pick an interest and roll with it.

Once we’ve picked something, we acquire knowledge about that subject, which requires more curiosity. We pick up some books, read articles and watch videos about our interest. We choose majors in college that allow us to explore our interest more deeply. This gets us acquainted with its world, but we don’t stop there.

The importance of the company we keep

Besides acquiring knowledge the traditional way, we also need to meet other people engaged in our interest. This serves two purposes. First, it’s easier to gather detailed knowledge from people than from static media. Second, social engagement revolving around our interest reinforces our commitment and fuels that interest even further.

There’s a reason parents don’t want their kids hanging out with the bad crowd: we become like the people we hang around. “People’s lives,” says Anthony Robbins, a world-renowned life coach, “are often a direct reflection of the expectations of their peer group.”

What Robbins is saying is that we set the bar for our lives based on how those around us set theirs. If we’ve picked the violin as the passion to cultivate, but we don’t hang out with other musicians, there’s nobody to compare ourselves to or to share our thoughts and experiences with. On the other hand, when we join a music scene, we meet people who become our mentors and peers. They cheer us on and hold us accountable.

Engagement, engagement, engagement

But all this curiosity and social context would be worthless without consistent engagement.

This is where the passion equation really comes to life. Engaging with our interest regularly and repeatedly makes it more interesting, plain and simple. The more interesting it becomes, the more it evolves into a passion.

“Whatever we focus on actually wires our neurons,” says Kare Anderson in a Harvard Business Review article. “Whatever you pay attention to—or not—has a huge effect on how you see the world and feel about it.”

Cultivating our passions requires prolonged interaction over months and years. During that gestation period, the passion becomes more and more anchored in our minds. If we’re in design, we begin to see the interconnectedness between our art and the message we’re trying to convey. If we’re in accounting, we begin to internalize the relationship between the balance sheet and cash-flow statement.

Consistent engagement drives our curiosity and social engagement as well. We must be consistently curious about our chosen passion and the things surrounding it, going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. We must also meet new people often, comparing notes, inspiring one another and holding each other accountable.

What the passion equation tells us is profound: we’ve been stuck because “follow your passion” is wrong. Passion is nothing more than curiosity and engagement over time. The truth is, we’re the leader, and passion is the follower.

Now, go “discover” your passion!

How did you discover yours?

This article originally appeared on Brazen Careerist.

Ryan Chatterton is involved in many community projects, writing, reading and cultivating his various passions every day. He is currently showing college students and recent graduates how to hack their way into first-time jobs at Get Any Job.

Brazen Life is a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. Hosted by Brazen Careerist, we offer edgy and fun ideas for navigating the changing world of work. Be Brazen!

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9 Comments

  1. Ava

    I LOVE this article. I’d already decided that trying to find my “passion” wasn’t working for me. Indeed, much time has been lost trying to fit that bill, wondering what was wrong with me that I didn’t have a “passion”, and trying to find one.

  2. Em

    This really speaks to me, but it also raises a question. What if you spend time engaging with a field/topic you were curious about only to discover that you hate it? Granted, hate is a type of passion, but it can be very discouraging. (I’m watching someone close to me basically go through something like this right now, and I’d love to be able to share some sort of helpful/encouraging info.)

  3. My passion surfaced over time, noticeably when I was a teen. I had a difficult few years but, they gave me empathy and understanding for young people. Later, I started college to study business. Even though it was a practical goal, I noticed I wasn’t as attracted to reading the business section of the newspaper as I was in learning how business, economy and social change were impacting people’s lives. I graduated with a BA in sociology and a minor in business. A few years ago I started my own company tutoring incarcerated youth in literacy and teaching work-readiness in a garden. I feel humbly powerful when a student who doesn’t read comes to love it or, when one thanks me. I recently made another leap toward true passion. I went through books I’ve collected and taught from and it was clear to me that my most passionate work has a spiritual center. So, I’m writing to educate young people in noticing and listening with ears and heart for who they are and how they will uniquely help others and change the world for good. I have a dream to create employment services for young adults. When I imagine how hugely that will impact their lives, my passion is stirred.

  4. juliana

    I agree. How do you find your passion. Without trying things. My whole life. I be been trying to find meaning and it seems like any work that requires giving such as volunteering and putting yourself in the center for people to use
    your skills and give because it allows you to understand
    People. And understand that we are the same and we need that same type of love and nurturing and growth. I’m trying to get into meditation/ Zen practice. I believe this will allow me to help myself as well as others.

  5. allison

    This article profoundly spoke to me. I am 55 years old and preparing to return to school to complete a bachelor’s degree and continue on to obtain a masters in a totally new profession. I have been a nurse for 30 years and am now going to study information and library sciences. Looking back i finally realized that helping others will always be part of what I do, but I had to discover how to do this in another way. I say be patient with yourselves and your decisions in your quest to cultivate your passion. Don’t allow anything or anyone to set limits on when and how you arrive at your place of contentment and happiness. It belongs to you. Enjoy the journey!

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