Unfollow Your Passion
Following your passion sounds like a great idea—if you know what that is. And so many of us don’t! The good news is that you don’t have to pick one specific passion to follow to create a free and fulfilling life.
6 Tips to Get Unstuck from Searching for Your Passion
Ever since I gave my now popular TEDx talk in 2015, “Stop searching for your passion,” people have reached out from all corners of the globe. Were they inspired, motivated? Sure. But the predominant emotion?
We’ve all been encultured to believe that your life will have meaning if and when you identify your purpose, and lock in for the long haul. As if everyone’s passions are out there waiting to be found, tucked into the landscape, obvious as Easter eggs.
What if you don’t know what to do, or even what you want to do next?
In this article, you’ll learn why fixating on passion can actually limit you, and how to get out of a passionless rut, even if you’re not sure what to do next.
Grab a pen and some paper (or just open a blank page on your computer) and let’s start shifting you out of neutral. If you want to get the most out of this mini self-assessment, write your answers out. Why? Because I’m checking your homework? No. Because simply the act of writing can spark new ideas and tell you things you didn’t think you thought.
1. Reframe the way you think about passion (it's not one per person!)
Since we’re young we’re told we have to make these big, sweeping singular choices: Pick a major. Pick an industry. Pick a job. Fact is, you will, if you haven’t already, work in several different industries and hold lots of different titles and work all kinds of jobs. That’s the only way to discover what you like, loathe, and have a surprising ability for.
The idea that we must pick a single thing and do it forever is a fiction. And to assume you must undermines the complexity of your personality and all that you’re capable of. It also disavows all the things that may inspire and influence your choices.
Imagine if you didn’t have to choose just one, or even know what it is. What if your happiness wasn’t dependent on “finding” the right thing, but creating it as you go? What would it feel like to embrace the idea of doing lots of things happily and well? Because you can.
PROMPT: What is your own relationship to passion? Have you felt pressured to find, articulate, or commit to one? And what has that been like? Ever grow out of one passion and into another? Give yourself a few minutes to write freely about this, about what you thought you were into, or felt you should be, and how you’ve felt about passion in your life in general.
In a career rut? Wish you knew what your passion was?
Download a free chapter of my book Unfollow Your Passion - and find out what other advice you can throw out the window.
2. Embrace a growth mindset around passion (or end up a narrow-minded quitter)
What if we let go of this idea of the passion-as-Easter-egg hunt? What would it look like to embrace or explore a growth mindset instead?
The belief that anything about you (passion, preferences, abilities) is set in stone is what social psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, calls a fixed mindset.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, is defined by the idea that you can change and evolve. As Dweck describes it in her book Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your True Potential, “your basic qualities are things you cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.”
Turns out, having tunnel vision around your passion can work against you. Because your mindset affects how you think about and pursue things you’re passionate about—as well as when you give up.
In a 2018 paper published in Psychological Science, Paul O’Keefe, along with Dweck and Gregory Walton, explored what role the two mindsets play in exploring and developing interests.
“People are often told to find their passion, as though passions and interests are preformed and must simply be discovered,” the authors write. “This idea, however, has hidden motivational implications.”
The researchers conducted five studies of college students to examine how a fixed or growth mindset about passion affected participants’ willingness to explore and develop their interests.
Researchers found that if, say, someone considered themselves only a science and tech person, they would be less likely to explore an opportunity to learn about literature or the arts. In other words, their fixed mindset would lead them to literally narrow their exposure to other potential interests.
A fixed mindset about what you “should” do or be may in fact undermine your efforts to grow, evolve, and discover who you are. And it also may cause you to limit your access to the very passion you seek. How ironic.
The research also suggests that those who believe they’re meant to have one passion are more likely to give up when the going gets tough.
As the study authors put it: “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”
PROMPT: Mine your own life for evidence of a growth mindset. Jot down a list of things you do now that you’ve gotten really good at, so much so that they come easily to you—work, hobbies, stuff you do for yourself or others. Which of those things did you know how to do a year ago? Ten years ago? If you went back in time and told yourself that one day you’d be great at these things, which would younger you be most surprised about? Which did you think you’d never be able to do, or simply couldn’t have imagined doing?
3. Let go of the idea that you are, or ever were, supposed to "know: what you should do or be
Functional medicine superstar Chris Kresser told me on his Revolution Health Radio show about one kid he knew in the fifth grade who read the Wall Street Journal at lunch, and went on to a career in finance. Again, that’s the one person he could think of who knew what he wanted to be.
If you’d asked Chris as a kid what he wanted to do, he might have shrugged and said “pro surfer?” Definitely not “functional medicine practitioner with his own podcast and supplement line.” No way.
Let’s stop thinking that we were supposed to know what we’d do when we grew up when we were kids. Kids say they want to be astronauts and TikTok stars, or play pro ball. Most of them don’t do any of that.
The longing to connect the dots from childhood is an attempt to understand our lives, and sometimes to derive some sense of meaning from what we’ve lived (and perhaps suffered) through. And if we don’t know where we’re headed, well, it’s natural to look for clues in the past.
But this attachment to what we thought we would be when we grew up is, at best, limited and limiting, especially given that you came up with the idea when you were eight.
Kids don’t have the market cornered on career coaching. I mean, I don’t know any eight-year-old career coaches. Do you?
It wasn’t until Chris was exposed to some gnarly toxic waste on a surfing trip and got very sick that things took a dramatic turn. His years-long struggle with acute and chronic conditions ultimately led him to a career in functional medicine. No one could have foreseen that.
By the way, this also doesn’t mean you will have a singular, life-defining, life-or-death moment; you will have many moments, and every one of them will shape your life, like a river shapes the land.
(I say this because people think that unless they climb Mt. Everest or receive a terminal diagnosis, they have nothing to talk about. Not true. Plenty of people encounter both of those things and have little to say about either.)
PROMPT: What’s one thing you do now, or want to do, that you could never have predicted? What life experience or relationships had a profound or significant effect on what you do now?
Feeling stuck? Not sure what you’re passionate about?
Free yourself from the (old, unhelpful) ideas holding you back. Download the free mini-course, The Passion Trap: 5 Half-Truths Keeping You From Living a Full Life.
4. Start to separate what you want from what other people want
People have had opinions and ideas about you since before you could form conscious thoughts. They heavily influenced the way you see the world and yourself—so much so that it can be tricky separating what other people think about you from what YOU think about you.
While you’ll always have obligations and sacrifices to make for myriad reasons, are there things you’re not doing, pursuing, or even considering because of what others may think? None of us wants to disappoint other people. The question is, whose opinions matter the most and why? What are the stakes? And whose agenda, in the end, do we want to stick to?
PROMPT: How are others’ opinions affecting your choices today? When you think about things you want to do or try, whose voice do you hear in your head that causes you to pump the brakes? What does it say and why has it carried weight for so long? What would it look like to act in spite of that voice?
5. Don't give passion all the credit (or responsibility)
We give passion far, far too much credit to passion. We assume that passion alone will do the job. You know why we think that? Because that’s what we hear people say.
Watch any interview with a rich, famous (and usually white) entrepreneur or rockstar founder or CEO or artist how they got to where they are, and 9 times out of 10, they’re going to say passion. It’s become this sort of easy, trigger-free, uncancellable, democratic response which denies the role that everything else plays.
I’m not saying passion doesn’t play a role. But so does…discipline, work ethic, focus, resources, connections, education, and luck.
In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Dilbert creator Scott Adams says that when he worked as a commercial loan officer for a big bank, his boss said “never make a loan to someone who is following his passion,” i.e., a sports enthusiast who wants to open a sporting goods store. He said, you’re far better off loaning money to someone who wants to start a dry cleaning business.
“It’s easy to be passionate about things that are working out, and that distorts our impression of the importance of passion,” Adams writes. He found success and fame as a cartoonist. But it wasn’t because he was more passionate about it; he says that as his cartoons gained traction, he got more excited about doing it. “Success fueled passion more than passion fueled success,” he writes.
Passion is an emotion, just like ecstasy or anxiety or boredom. It’s also a fickle bitch.
It will wax and wane, show up and leave. We can’t base every decision on that one emotion. Start doing the work, whatever work that is, and don’t be surprised when passion has a way of turning up. She’s like a great party guest, but don’t expect her to be the first one there.
PROMPT: Think of a time when you lost yourself in an activity, even if it wasn’t something you were “passionate” about. What was it like to be in flow. How did you get into it? What led you there? And what about that work or activity make you want to keep doing it?
6. See your life as a journey, not a to-do list
If we like the idea of our lives as a journey of discovery, then we have to forego the notion of a strict itinerary. Because you literally can’t discover what you already know. And the only way to expose yourself to discovery is to embrace uncertainty. There’s the rub.
If you knew exactly where you were headed or what for, that’s not a discovery; that’s…an errand. And even errands don’t always go the way you think. Also, the idea of trudging through life with a list of to-dos—things you “have” to do—is the opposite of discovery. And joyless.
The sooner we let go of this idea that we should have been or done something else, we can start to be who we actually are, and choose to focus on what matters and is available to us now.
Take me for instance. I get to do a lot of stuff I love and I’m passionate about what I do. But you think I planned it? Hardly! Sure I loved writing, and yes I worked as a magazine editor, but when that job ended, what I was most passionate about was keeping my apartment in New York City without a full-time job. And that was passion enough.
So, I drew on what I knew, what I could deliver, and what other people needed and had budget for. The work I did had to be something I could make a valuable contribution to, but the subject matter itself didn’t have to align with one passion I plucked out of the sky. Not if you’re going to pay rent in New York City.
A lot of what I get paid to do now I had no idea you could get paid to do. I made it up as I went, based on what I was skilled at and what value those skills have for people willing to pay for them.
Bottom line, you don’t need to know or commit to any one subject or industry or idea in order to do work that lights you up. Waiting to find some perfect passion first is disempowering—and can cause you to delay decisions that could change your life now. What you need more than passion is trust—in yourself. The goal isn’t to get everything “right,” but to seek out and respond to each opportunity, and channel your innate passion into whatever you do.
Don't stop now - time to write YOUR next chapter.
Download the Write Your Next Chapter Guide and audiobook and do the prompts to uncover some fascinating insights you didn't even realize you had.