A personal development guru on the Internet once told me that finding my passion was the key to success in life. He told me that I wouldn’t amount to shit unless could answer the all powerful question, “what is my passion?”
Naturally, since I believe everything I read on the Internet, I took it to heart.
My first reaction was fear. I didn’t know what my passion or purpose was. And therefore, according to this personal development guru, I was doomed to a life of mediocrity.
The fear motivated me to buy a few books, seeking some special nugget of wisdom that would help me find it. I didn’t find that special nugget — or my passion. So I embarked on a quest. This time relying on taking action instead of consuming information or introspecting.
In this article, I’ll share what I learned along the way, including 4 alternatives to finding your passion and why I think finding your passion is the least important thing you have to worry about.
1. Create a system that enables you to find your passion without dying.
If you wait for your passion to magically be “found,” like I did, you may be waiting for a long time. That’s why I always have a bias towards taking action as opposed to introspection.
But taking action doesn’t just mean setting goals, forming habits and working on whatever strikes your fancy. It requires a system. My system is to focus on the inputs that are going to not only help me find my passion, but succeed regardless of if I ever do.
Some of my “inputs” include…
- Getting high quality sleep
- Being around people I love (and removing negative people from my life)
- Running experiments that have limited downside and increase my chances of success
Writing can lead to meeting great people, building your brand or selling books. High quality sleep will increase your focus and prevent you from getting sick. Lifting weights will increase your energy and self-confidence.
Even if you don’t find your passion, if you do these things, good things are likely to happen — one way or another.
Of these inputs, I believe experimentation is the most powerful, and it’s a methodology that anyone can apply, rather than a tactic that may not be relevant to you. So I’ll explain this strategy in more detail and save the others for separate articles.
2. Experimentation: test and iterate your way to success.
I used to be a political nihilist. I knew the system was flawed, but I also believed that fixing it was mostly out of my control. Furthermore, I believed that if I even tried, it could hurt my professional and personal life. If my views were controversial, it could hinder my professional opportunities or people might stop being friends with me. At the very least, the time I would have to spend studying politics could otherwise be spent making money or being with people I love, and the frustration that would come from inevitably discovering inconvenient truths would only set me back.
A few years ago that started to change.
It actually started because I broke up with my girlfriend and decided to take a month off drinking at the same time. This meant I had a lot more free time and not drinking meant I had a lot more energy and cognitive functioning.
I filled much of this newfound time and energy with podcasts, books, YouTube videos and blog posts on politics, economics and philosophy.
To my surprise, I found it extremely interesting. The logic and strategic thought that goes into it was fun and the day to day storylines were captivating. Furthermore, I started to believe that these issues do and will affect my life and the lives of my future children.
But was politics something I was “passionate” about? Did my combination of skills in writing, marketing and understanding of complex philosophical and political concepts make it my “purpose” in life?
After thinking about it for some excessively long period of time, I realized there was no way I could know for sure. It reminded me of business ideas I had had in the past. They sounded great to me, but I had no way of knowing if they were commercially viable.
It made me think about what I had learned as a Lean startup practitioner: build, measure, learn. In non-startup world jargon: form a hypothesis, run an experiment, get some data, then use that data to make a better decision.
To test my hypothesis that political philosophy was my passion, my first experiment was to write an article for my friend’s political website.
Would it be fun for me? Would people even find value in my writing?
In this case, I didn’t set a quantitative success criteria or a goal of any kind. I just wanted to have the experience.
In writing and publishing the article, I had fun, and I got a few messages from friends who really appreciated it. That felt good. So I started tweeting about politics. And then I wrote a few more articles.
Each experiment gives me more data. It also gives me results. Yes, I’ve lost a few Twitter followers and gotten some negative responses from friends, but I’ve mostly gained. I’ve gone “viral” a few times. I’ve met some great people. I’ve gained some website traffic and email subscribers and even sold a few books, too. It’s been great.
It’s been about a year since writing that first article and I continue to run experiments — each one more significant than the next — and I will continue to do so.
I’ve also had plenty of failed experiments. However by running an experiment instead of going all in, I lived to tell about them.
If instead of writing one article, I took a job as a staff writer at a big media company, and it turned I hated politics, it could have been pretty harmful to my career.
Experiments enable you to learn, adapt to change and make continual progress while reducing your risk.
How can you apply what I learned from this experience to your life?
Here’s an idea: Write down 10 ideas about things you might be passionate about. It’s ok if most of them aren’t likely to be good ideas. By running a small scale experiment, you limit your downside while increasing your chances of finding a good idea. Then, think of a way you can test your hypothesis. For me, it was writing one article. For you, it might mean doing standup comedy at an open mic, taking a guitar lesson or reading a book about psychology.
3. Don’t let lack of passion stop you.
In his critically acclaimed book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell put forth the 10,000 hour rule. It was interpreted as: with enough practice, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. In other words, if you want to become one of the best in the world at something, all you have to do is practice it for 10,000 hours.
This interpretation was actually a misinterpretation on a grand scale. Countless articles have been published both encouraging people to practice for 10,000 hours in order to achieve success, or attempting to debunk the the argument — an argument which Gladwell never actually made.
Gladwell has more recently clarified his position…
“the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible.”
Gladwell provided the example Bill Gates and the early access to computers he had in the nineteen-seventies. Conversely, if someone has a job or two jobs and a family to care for, they’re not likely to be able to have the time to practice for 10,000 hours.
Gladwell intended for the 10,000 hour rule to make his point about the importance of environment and other factors on success. The correlation between people who have achieved success and practice for 10,000 hours does not necessarily mean that practicing for 10,000 hours caused the success.
I’m sure you’ve also heard at least a couple stories about people who have credited their success on finding their passion. If you haven’t heard such stories, just browse Medium for about five minutes and I’m sure you’ll find one.
The problem with such stories — and observations like the 10,000 hour rule — is that they can lead us to believe that correlation is causation. However in reality, just because two things are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. Just because successful people are passionate about their field does not necessarily mean it was the cause of their success.
Despite being politically incorrect to speak about, there are factors outside of passion that influence success. Three broad factors include environment, innate abilities and chance. Let’s break down each.
Innate abilities refers to genetic factors like your intelligence, ability to focus, and unique skillets. There are a few factors that can increase abilities, such as good parenting, study and practice, however studies show that there is an upper band.
By environment, I refer to things like how your were raised, whether or not you were born into money, and the people and events that have influenced you throughout your life. For example, being raised by ambitious and successful parents who value hard work and discipline is likely to make you more ambitious. Or, if you’re like Bill gates, born surrounded by computers and fellow techies, you may be more tech savvy.
The last of the three broad factors I’ve included is chance. The failure rate of entrepreneurship is probably the best illustration of the importance of this factor.
Many of entrepreneurs are passionate about their business ideas. Some of these entrepreneurs work in sexy markets like travel. Others work in unsexy markets, like security, but still manage to be passionate.
Some entrepreneur succeed. In some cases (the ones you read about in TechCrunch) they succeed bigly. But most do not succeed. The harsh reality is that most entrepreneurs fail.
Do they fail due to lack of ability? I can say with confidence that the answer is no. I’ve seen dozens of incredibly intelligent, hard working and talented people fail.
Did they fail for lack of passion? I doubt it. I had a friend that was oh so passionate about food blogging. He could talk about all the great restaurants he’d been to for hours on end with eyes wide and glowing with excitement. But his food blog never took off. However I’m sure he learned a lot along the way and I know has many more opportunities ahead of him. Certainly he could not have succeeded if he never took the chance.
So why do businesses fail? Studies have shown there are many reasons, ranging from lack of customer demand to poor marketing to inability to get funding.
While passion may play a small role, there is a large degree of chance in the success or failure of a business.
To conclude this section, I’d like to put forward the hypothesis that it may be that people become passionate about what they’re good at. And that being good at something is what makes them successful. Furthermore, “success” is a subjective term. It’s defined by our own minds and achieving it doesn’t actually require being world class at anything.
4. Stay alive.
Answering the question “what is my passion?” provides a definitive next step for people who aren’t sure what to do next. It’s something we’ve heard over and over again. And becoming successful while doing something you love sounds like a lot of fun. However while the message that you need to find your passion may help sell ebooks and video courses, that does not necessarily mean that it’s wise advice.
Don’t get me wrong — when I’m passionate about something, I have boundless energy and can work for hours on end without wanting to take a break.
However, “success” must be defined by you and can be achieved regardless of if you find your passion.
I love writing. But it’s hard to make a lot of money as a writer. So I started writing on the side while working full-time. I woke up early. I worked on weekends.
It wasn’t always pleasant, and I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, but I was grateful for each hour of the process.
Some people do find their passion early in life — and for some people, it overlaps with something they can make a lot of money doing. Other people don’t even have the time or money to try to find it let alone pursue it.
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to pursue your passion, instead of just having to pay the bills, give yourself a big pat on the back. If you’re not, that’s cool too — you’ll get used to it. Getting depressed about not knowing what your passionis certainly won’t help.
Your biology doesn’t care about your passion. It cares about staying alive and reproducing. So just stay alive, keep experimenting, keep making progress and be grateful for the small things along the way.