Passion is overrated

When it comes to our careers, most people buy into a simple equation. If I do a job I’m passionate about and I work hard at it, then I’ll be happy and satisfied with my lot in life.

It’s an equation that’s fed to us on repeat. The media is full of stories of people achieving extraordinary success when they follow their passion. And we absorb this message indirectly too; down the pub, as we hear a colleague talking about her latest passion project, or via friends’ inspiring and envy-inducing social media feeds.

But what if you don’t know what you’re passionate about? Worse still, what if this starts leading you to rebuke yourself for your perceived ‘lack of passion’?

Finding your passion is seen as the holy grail, but I think it sets unrealistic expectations.

I was listening to a podcast this week in which the BBC journalist Kirsty Young was being interviewed. She’s a hero of mine. She’s wise, savvy, confident, but also humble and gracious. Turns out Kirsty has a bug bear with the word passion too. In her soothing Scottish accent, she asked – “Why isn’t it enough to just quite like something?”

I liked that.

Back in October, it felt like I’d been cast adrift. My career in TV and my health had become incompatible. I was desperate to find a new anchor; a new direction in life. I was flailing around, trying to find something to grab onto. I was convinced that finding my passion would be my life raft, my one-way ticket back to safe ground. But the more I tried to figure it out, the harder it became to reach.

The trouble was, I had such high expectations of what my passion should be that none of the ideas I was coming up with were hitting the mark. I started knocking myself out with a volley of negative thinking. I convinced myself that if passion = happiness and if my passion eludes me, then happiness in my career will too.

The irony was that trying to find my passion was actually getting me down.

I was listening to Kirsty Young again yesterday as she interviewed the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on Desert Island Discs. His big insight is that, in general, people are far more scared by what they stand to lose than what they stand to gain.

In other words, if you want to motivate someone, don’t terrify them. For many of us, setting yourself the target of trying to find your passion induces a fear of failure. It sets the bar way too high. I think passion has become too closely associated with a word that genuinely is unattainable; perfection.

Instead, try a different question. What do you like?

These are the things I like.

I like hearing and telling stories. I like people. I like reading and learning. I like understanding why people behave the way they do. I like helping people. I like writing. I like being my own boss. I like being in control of the hours I work and being home for my kids’ bedtime. I like being a Samaritan. I like yoga. I like blogging.

As I look at my ‘likes’ now, many of them are related to or enabled by the new career I’ve chosen in coaching. If I’d sat down and written that list four months ago, I might have saved myself a fat load of angst.

If you find you’re a bit stuck, try it. It’s not a magic bullet but it might help.

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