I've been a passion junkie since I was 16 years old. It all started in high school, when one of my teachers showed our class a video about a scientist named Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was doing research on learning, and his theories have had a major impact on the field of psychology.
After watching the video, I asked my teacher, "What is that guy's job? How does he make a living doing research?" My teacher told me that Pavlov was a psychology professor.
And so my first passion was born.
I decided I was going to be a psychology professor so that I could get paid to ask interesting questions about the human mind and use science to uncover the answers.
(As an aside, I later learned that Pavlov wasn't a psychology professor. He was a physiologist. I'm not sure if I would have enjoyed physiology, so perhaps it's good that my teacher was wrong!).
After figuring out my passion, I spent 10 years in university so that I could get my PhD in psychology. When my friends waited tables in the summer, I worked as a research assistant. When my friends stayed out late and slept in, I spent evenings and mornings in the library studying.
I ended up at the top of my class academically. I applied for (and won) almost every scholarship that I could. On the outside I was highly successful.
On the inside I was falling apart.
I was overworked, burnt out and insecure despite my accomplishments. I ended up spending six years on antidepressants. I eventually got off the antidepressants through the help of therapy, naturopathy, and mind-body practices like yoga and meditation. I even ended up leaving academia after I finished my PhD because I felt like the "publish or perish" mentality of the ivory tower just wasn't for me.
I ended up in the corporate world working as an IT research analyst. But two years after starting that job I realized that spending eight hours per day in a cubicle wasn't for me, either. I decided that I needed to strike out on my own as an entrepreneur so that I could bring a sense of passion back into my life.
So I quit my corporate job and committed myself to finding and following my passion. I wrote a book, taught yoga, gave workshops and seminars, and offered some life coaching. I even developed a pretty successful online course called "Creating A Life You Love: Find Your Passion, Live Your Purpose and Create Financial Freedom."
At around this time, a job opportunity came up at Harvard Medical School, where a lab was looking for someone to help run a research study on yoga for children. I felt as if I had finally found my dream job, especially given that the job combined two of my passions: psychology and yoga.
So I sold most of what I owned and moved to Boston with my husband and our cat. Then I spent the next two and a half years overworking and burning out again. I ended up quitting my job at Harvard and moving to a cabin in the woods so that I could re-calibrate.
I needed to ask myself why I kept burning out and feeling unfulfilled in my noble quest to find and follow my passion. I thought that once I found my passion, I was supposed to feel alive and inspired, no matter what the working conditions were like.
But I was wrong.
I later learned about Dr. Robert Vallerand’s Dualistic Model of Passion (DMP). According to DMP, there are two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive. Harmonious passion involves being intrinsically motivated to freely engage in an activity that is an important, but not overpowering, part of our self-concept. Obsessive passion, on the other hand, happens when our passion for an activity begins to control us, and we engage in the activity with rigid persistence (i.e. we try too hard).
I realized that for most of my life, I've been engaging in obsessive passion. My passions, whether they involved psychology, mind-body practices, or even writing, had become such an overpowering part of my self-concept that I didn't know who I was without them. And I made myself miserable overworking to become "the best" at whatever I was doing. I was trying to force myself to find and live my passion because I felt like my life was meaningless if I wasn't doing something "important" and "useful."
I ended up moving to Europe after living in the woods, and I've spent the past three years on what I like to call a deep descent into the unknown. I've shed many identities and it's a process that's still ongoing today.
Have I discovered my passion? Yes and no.
There are things that I do in my day-to-day life that I'm passionate about. And there are other things that I'm not passionate about at all. Some of these activities are related to my career. Some are not.
Many of us feel like a failure if we haven't identified our passion by a certain age, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Here are four key lessons that I've learned from my non-linear pursuit of passion:
My Passion Does Not Have To = My Career
There's so much talk these days about finding a job that you're passionate about. And while this is great, and it does happen for some people, it doesn't happen for everyone. Nor does it need to. You might not be passionate about your job at all, but you might derive immense passion and meaning from activities that you do after work, like spending time with your family or reading.
Similarly, you might be passionate about some aspects of your work, but not passionate about others. And that's ok. Trying to force yourself to love everything that you do, all the time, is an unrealistic expectation that leads to frustration and disappointment.
My Passion Does Not Have To Be Monetized
There's also a lot of talk these days about how to make money by following your passion. Everyone and their mother seems to be offering online courses about how to manifest your dream job and make a six-figure income within four weeks. If this happens for you, fantastic.
But what I've realized is that my passion doesn't necessarily have to be the thing that helps me pay my bills. For example, I'm passionate about being in nature, and I try to go for a walk every day. These walks might end up indirectly paying my bills if, for example, I get a really creative idea while I'm sitting under a tree. But that's not the reason I go for walks. I go for walks so that I can feel the grass under my feet and connect with Mother Earth.
We need to let go of the idea that our passion has to result in a specific income (or outcome).
My Passion Does Not Have To Be a Grand Gesture
Many of us have been led to believe that our passion needs to help us serve others on some grand scale. In other words, our passion should help us save the environment or end world hunger. We've been deluded into believing that bigger is always better.
But here's what I believe. I believe that all gestures of authenticity and love, no matter how small, help us serve (and save) the world. In fact, your expression of love or authenticity might even make you (or someone else) uncomfortable. But the simple act of sharing from a loving and authentic place helps heal our humanity and our planet.
Your passion doesn't have to lead to a Nobel prize. You don't have to share your passion with millions of people. You can share of yourself, authentically, with one or two others and still have a tremendous impact.
Sometimes The Best Way To Find Your Passion is to Stop Trying So Hard to Find It
As a culture, most of us are obsessed with doing. We push ourselves to achieve endless goals and we feel unsatisfied if we aren't continually doing something. Like I said earlier, I've been a passion junkie since I was 16 years old. I've been obsessively searching for my passion, hoping that once I found it I would finally be happy.
When I moved to Europe and stopped trying so hard to find my passion, I went into what some might refer to as a depression. But I saw it more as an unraveling. I was letting go of the effort to find and follow my passion. It was disorienting, difficult, and disheartening, and I'm not out of the woods yet.
But it was all necessary.
Because passion is not a goal that we achieve. Passion is a process that we dance with throughout our entire lives.
Your passion might shift and change over time, and you need to give it permission to do so. You need to give yourself permission to not have a passion. Or to switch gears entirely from one passion to another. Or to have multiple passions. It's all appropriate and it's all ok. It's your journey, no one else's.
Howard Thurman wrote:
"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Focus on what makes you come alive, whether you can make money from it or not. Stop trying to force yourself to find some grand passion and just start living your life instead. Find small moments of joy in your child's smile or the blue sky or the many things you have to be grateful for. Allow yourself to gently gravitate toward what brings you joy.
Your passion will find you, with its own divine timing. And then it might leave for awhile. Or it might change.
Let it all be as it is. Give up the idea that you have to find your passion by a certain age, and just let yourself be who you are, right now, in this moment. Everything else is secondary.
This blog is based on a talk that I gave at the Truth Series. The Truth Series is a creative platform on which women can share stories about their lives and empower each other along the way.
Photo by Jeff Pang.