What if I don't have a grand passion?


Dear Sara,

I keep reading and hearing that I’m supposed to be discovering my passion in life and that once I find it I just have to follow it and I’ll be fabulously happy.  Sounds great, but I honestly don’t feel like I have a big grand passion for anything.  It’s not that I don’t care about anything – I have interests and things I like doing - but I haven’t found anything that feels like the kind of consuming passion that people are talking about.  Is there something wrong with me?  What am I missing?

- Sans Passion

Dear Sans Passion, 

I’m so glad you asked this question, because so many people share your feeling that they are somehow deficient because they haven't identified have a singular passion that provides a clear organizing principle for their life.   Let's start with the definitive message - there’s nothing wrong with you!  

There are many different possibilities for why the “grand passion” search isn't working for you… let’s look at three big ones and see if any of them ring a bell for you.

1.  What if we change ‘passion’ to ‘passions’?  

This simple shift to the plural can make all the difference if you are actually multi-passionate – as so many of us are.  Because while it is true that some people do experience a compelling sense of calling around a single, powerful area of passion, this is certainly not the only pattern out there, and for sure it is not the only pattern that leads to happiness (or to great work, for that matter).

Multi-passionate types have many different interests and many different talents, and for them, worrying about trying to make it all fit under one umbrella is a just a waste of precious mental and emotional energy.  Trying to answer to a question like “what is your passion?” simply won’t lead to anything good for someone with many different areas of intense interest - in fact, it can get us pretty bogged down in fears that we are “too much” and leave us feeling like kind of an unfocused mess.  

People who are multi-passionate do much better with questions like, “What project would excite me most to take on next?” or “Out of all the things I enjoy, what has the most energy for me right now?” or “Which of my interest areas makes most sense to connect to paying work, and which will I enjoy just for me?”

2.  What if we change “discover your passion” to “trust your curiosity”?  

A simple language shift like this may be extremely helpful for you if you are someone who is not wired to feel attraction to an unruly sensation like passion.  There are, in fact, walking among us, some very wonderful humans who find themselves slightly nauseated by the notion that they are supposed to be guided by anything defined as a “strong and barely controllable emotion.” 

If you are a rationalist, who tends to trust your capacitites for reason and reflection over the experiences of your senses, a slogan focused on ‘passions’ is just not ever going to ring true for you.  You will be much more energized by a reminder to follow where your curiosity leads you, trusting that your greatest satisfaction and joy will be found in the pursuit of new discoveries.  You will do better to focus on questions like, "What intrigues me most?  What would I like to understand better?  What type of puzzle or problem would be really interesting to solve?"  

3.  Is it possible that you were raised with an orientation to pain avoidance rather than an orientation to pleasure seeking?  

If you have difficulty identifying a sense of strong enthusiasm for anything, it is worth looking at whether you were raised by people who, for all kinds of well-intentioned reasons, taught you that the best way to steer through life is to do everything possible to avoid difficult experiences – like poverty, disappointment, criticism, or failure.  

These profound discomforts are all reasonable to fear, and trying to protect you from them is often a genuine act of love, but unfortunately it turns out that steering away from what you fear is a really poor strategy for making you happy.  In fact, it dooms you to a lifetime of orienting to exactly the fears you are trying to escape, since all your instrumentation is calibrated to measuring the distance between you and the potential pain that you are running from.   

If you were raised with an avoidance orientation, the idea of being guided by your passions opens up the radical possibility that you can choose to actively steer in the direction of what you love – a strategy infinitely more likely to expand your happiness.  

As you shift away from questions like "what possible negative outcomes should I be trying to avoid," you will want to keep asking yourself questions like "What lights me up?"  "What energizes me?" "What do I love?" "What feels better?" and then be willing to take some small steps to act on the answers you find - even in the face of possible discomfort.

What if none of these three options sounds like you?  

If you haven’t found yourself in any of the reasons we’ve been considering, you might ask yourself a few additional questions:

  • Were you raised by a parent whose own passions were so intense and consuming that there was no room to develop your own?
  • Do you tend to pay more attention to the people around you, what they need and want, than to your own inner voice?  Do you have a pattern of being driven by obligation rather than inspiration?
  • Are you afraid of looking foolish by revealing that you care deeply about something that no one around you seems to care about?

If you feel like you cannot locate within your gut, your heart, or your mind, any strong enthusiasms, clear desires, or compelling curiosities, it is worth continuing to explore questions like these and seeking support to help you discover when and why you interrupted your innate drive to know and trust what it is that you love.

There are many good reasons to challenge the notion that each of us must identify “one grand passion” to guide our lives.  But I hope you’ll keep grappling with the passions question for yourself, because organizing your life around the people, experiences, ideas and activities that you most enjoy is 

  1. incredibly practical – it keeps you from wasting precious energies on being miserable or doing half-hearted work
  2. a gift to yourself – it keeps you ‘in the pocket’ of your own life, your only life, the only place where you’ll find joy, and
  3. a gift to others – when you are happy, you do your best work, radiate good vibes, and model for others that they needn't settle for "meh" in their own lives.

- Sara

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