In Make Waves, I wrote “If you’re passionate about something, and you can’t motivate yourself to take that first step, then your first step is probably too big.”
This was a point I made earlier on a recent episode of The Minimalist where we answered questions from callers about goals.
When Ryan & Josh posted that quote on Twitter, someone asked the following question: “What if you’re passionate about nothing and still can’t take the first step?”
This is a question I hear a lot. So I thought I’d tackle it here on my blog where I don’t have to abide by the character limitations on Twitter.
Here’s what I would say to anyone who doesn’t know what to do because they’re too overwhelmed by the process of trying to sort out what their life passion is:
Don’t force yourself to be too specific too soon.
Before you try to figure out what you love, take some time to follow up on what you like. Instead of seeking a big epiphany about what you want to do for your entire life, make a small effort to explore a few things that seem interesting to you right now. Commitment isn’t the starting point for creating your life. Curiosity is.
Too many people place an unrealistic pressure on themselves to find their “one true calling” while overlooking the wisdom and directional clues to be gained from cultivating a sense of wonder towards everyday life. We approach the process of finding our life path as if it’s supposed to be like falling in love at first sight when it’s really more like figuring things out on a first date.
If you’re not passionate about anything, then your first step is to release yourself from the pressure to be passionate about some single specific thing. Then give yourself permission to playfully explore whatever you’re curious about without feeling the need to marry it or monetize it right away. Repeat that process again and again until your knowledge of self begins to manifest in the form of creative impulses that you can’t resist expressing.
Exploring your curiosities is like pouring water into a cup. If you keep doing it, the water will eventually spill out in every direction and you’ll have a condition called “overflow.” Being passionate about something is the result of creating a condition of “personal overflow” by consistently nurturing your sense of wonder. When you consistently pour into your creative self, you’ll start spilling over with projects and proposals at every turn. And the best part about this state is that it’s really difficult to suppress. You go from asking “What should I do with my life?” to asking “How am I ever going to find enough time to do all these fascinating things?”
My favorite description of the overflow state comes from Ray Bradbury:
If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.
What Bradbury, a prolific Science Fiction writer, describes here is the total opposite of stressing out over ideas for what he should write about. He spends so much time pouring into his creative cup that he’s always working from a state of overflow.
Here’s the thing about “finding your passion”: Life isn’t going to just walk up to you and say “Hey, here’s a single specific passion that I’m going to assign to you and this will provide you with all the insight you’ll ever need about what to do for the rest of your life.”
Life gives you questions. It sends a bunch of experiences your way and some of these experiences resonate with you. You can feel that resonance as the sensation of intrigue. At various moments, you’ll find yourself intrigued by certain types of conversations, stories, topics, hobbies, games, styles, etc. And you’ll find yourself asking all sorts of questions about how those things work. When those moments happen, your job is to follow your curiosities just as Alice in Wonderland followed the white rabbit: all the way down the rabbit hole until your life begins to intersect with the characters and adventures that seem uniquely designed for you.
In What You’ll Wish You’d Known, Paul Graham writes:
You don’t need to be in a rush to choose your life’s work. What you need to do is discover what you like. You have to work on stuff you like if you want to be good at what you do.
Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That’s why he’s so good. If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was when he looked at Maxwell’s equations and said, what the hell is going on here?
It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name “mathematics” is not at all like what mathematicians do. The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn’t like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting– only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly.
When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.
And not only in intellectual matters. Henry Ford’s great question was, why do cars have to be a luxury item? What would happen if you treated them as a commodity? Franz Beckenbauer’s was, in effect, why does everyone have to stay in his position? Why can’t defenders score goals too?”
No one has all the important answers about what they’re supposed to do, but everyone has interesting questions they know how to pursue.
If you focus on getting all the important answers too soon, you’ll stunt the development of character, competence, and creativity that only chasing your curiosities can provide.
So the key is this: Prioritize the challenging questions that make you come alive over cookie-cutter answers about how to make a living.
Passion is like a flower. Curiosity is like a seed. Your dream of building a wonderful garden will never be realized until you’re willing to patiently nurture your small seeds of curiosity even though they look far more fragile and unflattering than the beautiful end goal you have in mind.