how passion works in guiding your path

“Follow your passion”
“Your gifts will make room for you”
“Do what you love and the resources will follow”

A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a junior in college who called me because she was distraught about how many rejections she was receiving for her applications to internships. She was baffled by what was going on and was seeking advice on how she could generate more success in the process.

On the surface, she was doing all the right things. She submitted her resume to all the right companies. She had an internship the prior summer that told a good story about how she was a good fit. And her academic major was in the right lane for the jobs she was seeking in Financial Services.

Something wasn’t quite adding up.

So I decided to ask her a few questions, starting with the easy ones like ‘what is your GPA?’ and ‘what do you do for extracurriculars?’. This helped me to identify some reasons why she may have not been seeing the success she expected.

But the question which really helped me to diagnose the problem was when I asked her:

“What are you passionate about?… what do you really want to do?”

She started off by answering about how passionate she was about ‘Sales and Trading’ and how she felt her skills and background really made her a good fit for this… but I wasn’t buying it.

So I rephrased the question:

“What do you geek out about?… what is the area in which you get consumed to a point that is almost weird to other people?”

“Well, I would say development.” Because of prior conversations I’ve had with her I knew she was talking about economic development – specifically in Africa.

“Tell me a little more about that.”

“I don’t believe microfinance is the answer…”

“Really, why?”

For the next few minutes we had an engaging back and forth dialog that culminated in me commenting:

“I bet I could get you into a heated argument about microfinance and you would enthusiastically take me on.”

This was nothing like the discussion we had about Sales and Trading. With this topic it was clear that she truly cared

… and I was buying it.

So I asked her another (somewhat leading) question:

“Do you think you are on the path you are on because its what you see everybody else doing and not necessarily what you are here to do?”

“Probably…”

“And, do you fear that if you followed the Development path, you wouldn’t make any money?”

“Yes”

I could now fully relate to her dilemma because of my own journey.

‘Inspirational’ phrases like the three quotes at the beginning of this post have been a source of continuous anxiety and stress for me for years. I have never been able to fit my skills, experiences and interests into a neat box. This is especially stressful coming from a traditional African family where only certain academic pursuits are considered acceptable to pay attention to, while other things that are more artistic or unconventional are seen as impractical and a waste of time.

My situation was compounded by my strong interest and aptitude in Math and Science because I was just as strong in the ‘hard subjects’ as I was artistically. So it was not a simple choice where I should focus. I was not like my older brother who knew from his early teens that he wanted to be a doctor.

In fact for several years I wished that I was horrible at every subject but Art or Drama so that it was more obvious what I should spend my life doing.

But there were no such easy answers because when you have interests and passions that don’t naturally line up to an existing ‘career box’ you always feel like you are fumbling around in a dark room trying to find an ever elusive light switch.

For years I searched for this light switch using different approaches:

  • pursuing architecture because I thought it would be a natural blend of my art and science skills until an internship after my freshman year where I realized it was the wrong path
  • diving head first into Film Animation as a major in college because I had never experienced the validation of an artistic pursuit being my main focus
  • applying to (and landing) a job as a management consultant because I wanted to ‘keep my options open’ in terms of career paths and a career in animation was not viable for somebody who needed a work visa to stay in the country
  • operating a freelance writing business when my management consulting career ended abruptly until I realized that I did not enjoy the stress of ‘cranking out’ writing projects on spec
  • a failed career as a mortgage broker at the height of the real estate boom in which I realized I was no good at commissioned sales

I could list several more examples of my journey, but the main point is that somewhere along the way I realized that I was trying to find a light switch that did not exist – I was trying to solve the wrong equation. I thought that I needed to figure out what career path my passions translated into and then I would catch my stride.

One of my current favorite bloggers, Sacha Chua, calls this “the myths of a sudden calling.”. In a recent article, she articulates my ‘light switch’ odyssey very well:

“When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions.”

“Passion doesn’t strike out of the blue.”

Reading this article was a confirmation of a change in my approach over the last few years that I have found to be much more successful. Rather than trying to predetermine what ‘box’ my passions are indicating, I have surrendered to the understanding that passions are more like a flash light than a light switch. They illuminate just enough of the path ahead for you to move forward without giving you the full picture. But as you move that flashlight around, you discover more about your purpose and it becomes easier to determine whether you are veering off course, or whether you are operating closer to your ‘sweet spot’.

Passions on their own are useless though if you don’t do the work of focusing, creating and shipping.

You have to deliberate less than you act.

You have to experiment more than you plan.

And you have to see failure as a source of educational data, rather than an embarrassment to be avoided.

My final piece of advice for my college junior friend was that she has to pause whatever path she has followed to this point and take a detailed inventory of where her passions really lie. And then taking those passions as a starting point, she has to face her fears and take actions that will give her useful feedback about her path. Over time, these series of steps will start to form a clearer picture of her purpose and she will be able to use each experience to inform the next successfully.

I find writing is an excellent way to do this kind of inventory – so I suggested she do a “stream of consciousness” piece of writing and see where it takes her.

I am sure she will surprise herself with what she finds out.

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