July 29

Don’t Follow Your Passion. Pay Attention to What you Find Engaging Instead

The advice to follow your passion makes for great commencement speeches, self-help books, and Instagram memes. It sounds nice in theory but doesn’t translate in practice. It’s based on assumptions without evidence. It causes people to make decisions without data points or experience.

  • If you’ve never written a line of code in your life, it’s insane to declare computer science as your major and assume you’re going to be passionate about it.
  • If you’ve never taken a science class or volunteered at a  hospital, it’s nuts to commit to the ten plus year journey of becoming a doctor in your freshman year of college.

But young people often feel pressured to make decisions about how they want to spend the rest of their life when they’ve only lived a small fraction of it. They take classes and chose majors based on what they think will get them a job, even though they have no clue what working at that job would actually be like.

When I look back at the experience I had at UC-Berkeley, I realized that I wasted a golden opportunity for exploration.  A few years ago I read a book by an author who attended Berkeley at the same time I did. He talked about doing research in a psychology lab and a professor who became a mentor. Because of the myopic “will this get me a job” approach I took to college, I felt as if he was describing a different university.  As somebody who loved to write, I could have explored this interest by writing for The Heuristic Squelch or School Newspaper.

If you’re a college student, I encourage you to watch the movie, Van Wilder. He’s the epitome of an exploration mindset.

Passion doesn’t fall out of the sky or emerge from thin air. It’s the result of experimentation, exploration, and curiosity. You don’t follow it, you find it. And you find it by discovering what you find engaging.  As Tina Seelig once said to me “passion follows engagement.”

Following Your Passion Can Turn the Activity You Love into the Job You Hate

I’m passionate about surfing. Let’s say I decided to open a surf camp. Now I’d have to teach beginners how to surf, possibly manage a staff of cooks, drivers, maids and whoever else is required to keep the surf camp running. I opened a surf camp because of my passion, and ironically I’m surfing a lot less. The activity I love has turned into a job I hate.

Our cultural narratives have perpetuated the myth that our passion and the way we earn a living should be the same.  As a result, people don’t make their art unless they can monetize it or explore an interest unless they can add it to their resume.  This eventually leads to less curiosity, more conformity, and ironically less likelihood of finding a passion. If everything you want to explore has to lead to some measurable external result, it reduces the number of things you’re willing to explore, and as a result the number of possibilities for what might be your passion.

In my new book, An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for its own sake, I tell the story of an Unmistakable Creative guest named Karan Bajaj. He’s written multiple novels, one of which was optioned for a film. Despite this, he’s kept his day job and is now the head of Discovery Channel India. In challenging the cultural narrative of 4-hour workweeks, and making money by doing what you love, he told me “not tying my passionate to how I earn a living is one of the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Keep an Engagement Diary

When I looked back over the course of my life, one thing became apparent to me. I was most engaged in what I was doing whenever I was expressing my creativity in some way:

  •  Building a slideshow set to music for the Indian Student club at Berkeley
  •  Making stupid videos like this one.
  •  Writing blog posts, journal entries, and now books
  • Interviewing people for the Unmistakable Creative

I had no idea that I was passionate about interviewing people. It’s something I discovered because I tried it. If you were to ask me what I’m passionate about, I’d say “using technology to express my creativity.”

We’re not taught to pay attention to what we find engaging. You might have loved a class you took for one semester in college. If that’s the case, take more courses on a  similar subject. Go deeper into a topic you’re already interested in.

There might be some aspect of your current job that you absolutely love and makes time fly. One of my jobs on a product merchandising team was to oversee getting thousands of product samples shipped to Las Vegas for CES. Even though I was packing boxes, the complexity of the project kept me extremely engaged. So how in the world does something like that come full circle? Today, one of the things I do best for is design systems for creativity and operations.

Keep an engagement diary. If you haven’t found your passion, make a note of all the activities over the course of the day that you find genuinely engaging.

  • What parts of the day do you feel like time is flying? 
  • What activities can sustain your attention for an extended period?  
  • What are activities challenging you? 
  • What do you find mind-numbing? 

Next, make a list of all the things you are curious about, and repeat the process above.

The purpose of an engagement diary is to collect data points. With each data point, you’ll learn more about yourself, and instead of finding what you’re passionate about, you’ll likely discover your zone of genius, which beats the hell out of something you think you might be passionate about.

Conduct Experiments

To collect data points, you need to conduct experiments.  There was a time when it used to take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to do something as simple as building a website. Today we can do it in a matter of minutes. For an experiment to be worthwhile, it needs some simple criteria:

  • It’s long enough to give you a decent sample size. 
  • It results in useful feedback or data points 

Imagine if a pharmaceutical company tested a drug on one patient for one day, and tried to sell it to you. You’d think they were out of their mind. Yet this is how so many people approach experiments in their personal life. For an experiment to be valuable, you have to stick with it long enough to give you useful data.

For example, when I started interviewing people, I didn’t start a podcast. I recorded interviews, uploaded them to a simple website and wrote a blog post to go with them. It wasn’t until the 13th interview that my friend Sid had the foresight to say “you should spin this out into a separate site and start a podcast.” I collected data for 13 weeks.

Conducting experiments is still an essential part of my creative process. I use blog posts as experiments for book ideas. A few months ago I was watching David Letterman’s new show on Netflix and started to wonder what would happen if I taped the Unmistakable Creative in front of a live audience. An hour later I set up the event on Eventbrite started selling tickets for a live taping of the Unmistakable Creative in NYC.

The goal of an experiment isn’t to find one life-defining purpose. The goal is to learn something about yourself.  You might start something only to discover you hate doing it. That’s not a bad thing. You’ve learned something. As Robert Greene once said to me, no experience in your life should be thought of as wasted.

As you conduct more experiments, you’ll start to notice patterns and trends. You’ll see how something from the past connects to something in the present.

Chances are if you look back over your life, whether it’s in the extracurricular activities you did, the jobs you worked, or some hobby you decided to explore, there are elements of all of them you found deeply engaging.

When you find something engaging, it absorbs you, ignites your enthusiasm, fuels your curiosity, and drives your commitment to mastery.  It’s not an activity but a combination of characteristics in a particular activity. That’s passion.

Gain an Unfair Creative Advantage

I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.


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