I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same pang of insecurity and shame that comes from recognizing you might be semi-decent and enjoy a few things but that you haven’t yet found your thing?
I seem to meet a lot of people plagued by this same insecurity and it’s got me wondering: Where exactly it is that we get the idea that we need to have our thing? Did it emerge around the same time as this notion of a soulmate? Perhaps without articulating it, do you secretly believe that your purpose and passion is a singular “soulmate” out there waiting for you to discover it? That there is one path that will lead you into its awe-inducing, fix-all-of-your-problems, forever embrace?
Looking back on my journey, I think I did believe that. And in retrospect, it’s easy to see what an unproductive, anxiety-producing load of crap that is. To believe that your passion and purpose exists, fully formed “out there” like the handsome Italian moped–driving love interest in a straight-to-DVD Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movie, and is waiting to be found is a kind of lunacy. And it puts an awful lot of pressure on you to make the right step and get the right degree and open the right door so the stars align and you can, in a cinematically glorious moment, Find Your Passion Under the Tuscan Sun.
I am here to tell you: You will never find your passion and purpose. There. I said it. You’re probably in shock and maybe a little bit angry because you did not splurge on a hardback book only to be given the news that you’re never going to find your passion and purpose. But it’s true. Because your passion and purpose isn’t out there, buried like treasure or hiding behind a tree. It’s not waiting for you to open the right door or peek under the right rock before it jumps out at you like you’re playing some cosmically cruel game of hide-and-seek.
Passion and purpose are not an object of desire or hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. They are a canvas that is waiting for you to get the first splatter of paint on it. They are a blank computer screen that needs about 100,000 words on it to make a story, but (because of math and stuff ) you can’t have 100,000 until you have 10,000 and you can’t have 10,000 before you write the first word.
Passion isn’t a preexisting condition. A life of purpose and passion can’t be found. It is the result of being brave, curious and dare I say, plucky? You do not find your passion and purpose. You build it. You start construction when you follow rabbit trails and step forward in the general direction of north. When you ask hard questions of yourself and of the world and when you’re brave enough to actually listen to the answer, pivot when necessary and then commit. Even when the glitter and the adrenaline wear off and everyone else moves on to the next shiny thing.
There is no secret. There is no silver bullet. You just have to be brave enough to listen to the whisper that says, “Keep going.” Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, professors at Stanford and founders of the Life Design Lab have profoundly influenced my belief in the mindset shift from “finding” to “building” our passions.
A series of studies conducted at the Stanford Center on Adolescence found that 8 out of 10 people say they haven’t “found their passion” and don’t have a clear vision for where they want to go in life. If you’re someone who’s been there, who feels like they can’t answer that question with absolute clarity and fervor, you’re not alone. And if not being able to answer that seems to send you into a tailspin of insecurity and anxiety, Evans and Burnett suggest that maybe you’re not actually the problem. Maybe the real problem is that we’re simply asking the wrong question.
What if . . . Instead of asking what we are passionate about, we simply asked, What am I interested in? The stakes are a whole lot lower. The freedom to explore what you’re simply interested in might create space that allows you to just keep exploring. There is a wonderful quote by Frederick Buechner, whose work I love dearly, that says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” While I could not agree more with Buechner’s sentiment, I would really appreciate it if people stopped using this quote as instructions to help you “find your passion.” Because this sentiment is more helpful as a reflection with the benefit of hindsight than it is to guide you and propel you forward in your journey.
After all, the admonishment to go out and “find” the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet is quite a tall and intimidating order. We can’t actually see that sacred intersection until we are there. And if we are not willing start moving forward before we “find it,” we’ll never make it.
Passion and purpose are built over time with consistency and courage and commitment and pluck. Interest will suffice for now. It’s in the simple work of being interested and the brave work of exploring and the sacred work of trying and failing and trying again where passion and purpose are not found, but built.
Brick by brick, step by step. In our vocations. In our communities. In our families. In ourselves. It’s not for you to “discover” or “find” the straight and narrow path of passion that you can see extend into the future.
If you can see the path, if it’s relatively straight and narrow, if you have a pretty good idea about how the story ends, then it’s not your story. As Antonio Machado reminds us, “Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”