Why Advice on “Finding your Passion” is Misguided and How to Tackle Indecision
I like the word ‘interest’. It suggests curiosity, a desire for knowledge, something you enjoy or would happily do without anyone paying you. It avoids the clichè and extremity, the commitment even, of the word ‘passion’, which gets bandied around so much in motivational quotes these days, and which can actually have a rather negative effect on someone who can’t identify any particular burning, aching, all-consuming passion. ‘Interest’ is a much better word. What really, truly interests you? Is it current affairs, sport, experimenting with new recipes, reading good novels, learning about a particular subject? It’s not a question I ask myself all that often.
But how many times a day am I confronted on social media with the challenge to choose and follow my ‘passion’? The problem with the word ‘passion’ is that, a bit like love, it connotes just one true passion. If you confessed to having more than one passion, it would almost feel like cheating. But how can you possibly sift through all of the things you enjoy in your life to pick just one passion? We are not mono-focused robots, we’re multi-layered people, with completely different things appealing to us at different times and in different contexts. You should be allowed to have lots of interests without them competing for your undivided attention.
But why on earth am I dedicating a whole blog post to such a random topic? Well, in my case, if I’m forced to choose a ‘passion’, it would have to be travel obviously. But travel is far from the only thing I enjoy, and my decision to study a 2-year Master’s degree that doesn’t have ‘travel’ in its title is a perfect demonstration of that. I am clearly interested in the subject of my Master’s, but I wouldn’t identify it as my one true passion.
How it all started – choosing a research topic for my Master’s…
The whole trigger behind this blog post about ‘interest’ vs ‘passion’ was a seminar I had in October on selecting a research question. In January I had to submit a 6,000-word research paper on a historical aspect of Europe, and we were given completely free reign to choose our own topics. In my Bachelor’s I never had to choose my own topic, as I studied languages and opted out of writing a dissertation. Sitting in that seminar I literally had no idea what to write a 6,000-word research paper on! Zero clue! Even when prompted with a helpful list of suggestions, I still felt frozen in indecision, with no clue of where to start. It soon spiralled and prompted the bigger question of: what do I want to write my 35,000-word Master’s thesis about? Should I try to build up to my Master’s thesis by writing all my shorter papers on a similar theme? And why don’t I yet know what I want to write my Master’s thesis on? Given that I didn’t have a single clue, I felt like a fraud – classic imposter syndrome. I started questioning why I’d even started the Master’s in the first place if I didn’t have a clear topic (or ‘passion’) in mind that I wanted to study in detail. (Disclaimer: It was the end of a long busy day, and I definitely let my mind spiral a little too far!)
This absence of any ideas was common among many others in my class too (thank goodness – safety in numbers), and we started questioning our lecturer on how we should choose a topic. It struck me as remarkably similar to the many times I’ve tried to ask the question: ‘What is my passion?’. Just like so many of us turn in droves to Google and the innumerable articles purporting to help us identify our ‘passion’, we hoped that our lecturer would answer our question with a golden nugget. His answer was this: “Try to find something you’re interested in, and wouldn’t mind spending weeks and weeks researching. It doesn’t have to be your passion, it just has to be something you’re actually interested in right now”.
Mulling on his answer, I realised that I can actually identify quite a lot of things that I’d be interested in learning more about, maybe even just because they sound ‘interesting’. Not heart-stopping, not crucial. And they don’t have to be ‘the one’ (‘the one’ in this case being the topic of my Master’s thesis next year!), they simply need to be enough to keep me interested.
And I think this rings true in other parts of life as well.
The world of work – why you don’t need to know yet what you’re passionate about…
There’s a common misconception among millennials and twenty-somethings that to be happy in life there’s one simple formula: find out what you’re passionate about, find a way to make money from doing that every day, and hey presto all your dreams will come true. We’re told from a young age to dream, that the world is our oyster and that we can be whatever we want to be! Sounds amazing! But what if you don’t know exactly what you want to be? There are so many other ways to be happy too, which is important for those of us who don’t know what our one true passion is.
The whole point of your twenties is to experiment, to test the waters in lots of different fields and to figure out what you do like. To jump from job to job and find out quickly which aspects you do like, and discard the ones you don’t. You don’t have to know the answer from age 8 and stick with that forever – but you do need to be brave enough to try things out, accept that it might not suit you, and have the courage to quit without wasting too much time. Our twenties are the perfect time to try out all our options, before we get saddled with financial responsibilities or family commitments in our thirties.
When I resigned from my job last summer to start my Master’s, my colleagues (all 30s-40s) were overwhelmingly positive about my decision. Almost all of them said they’d love to do something similar and have a change of scenery, but that it’s just not an option for them, as they have young children in schools and mortgages to pay. And it struck me that I am hugely lucky to be in my twenties and so commitment free. I am of course very impressed by people who can knuckle down and dedicate all the energy of their twenties into a specific career ladder and not deviate from that choice. But I also feel very happy at the realisation that in my twenties I have a carte blanche to experiment and try out all sorts of different fields and careers, to try out different continents, countries and lifestyles and see which suits me best.
I get the impression that there are lots of others in a similar position, worrying over their one true passion. It hit me around the clichè ‘quarter-life’ stage at 26-years-old, and I worried that jumping off the ladder would be career suicide. But when I did jump off, I didn’t fall to the ground. I simply jumped onto a different ladder. Maybe onto a parallel rung, maybe one rung up, or maybe one rung down, but simply a different ladder. Maybe even a better, snazzier, faster, better-paid ladder – who knows! Sheryl Sandberg famously called careers a jungle gym, rather than a linear ladder, and I like her analogy.
I feel like in our twenties we are often too focussed on finding our ‘passion’ and setting ourselves up for our thirties and beyond, without remembering that our twenties are for experimenting. We need to remind ourselves of the freedom we have and not stress over it too much.
Here’s a good example I like to remind myself of: On the eve of my 20th birthday, I was mourning leaving my teens behind me, when a wise woman, who I respect immensely, told me that her twenties were the most fun decade of her life. With that thought in my head I turned 20 and embraced the next decade of my life wholeheartedly, and sure enough – she was right! Here I am over 7 years later, doing my best to seize every opportunity to travel, experiment, find out what kind of career and life I want to have, and to what ‘thing’ I want to dedicate my working hours. And I’ve come to terms with not yet knowing what that one thing or ‘passion’ is. But I’m having a huge amount of fun trying to find out, instead of just sitting at my desk in London cursing myself for not knowing!
Finding a blogging niche – and failing to stick to it…
All bloggers know that to really carve out a distinct corner of the internet and keep an engaged and loyal readership, you need to choose and stick to a niche. And ‘travel’ in itself is not a niche – that’s just a category. There are endless niches within the category of travel: luxury / budget / weekend / short-term / long-term / city / adventure / solo / family-friendly / male / female / couples / sports / beach / mountains / snowsports / spa / long-haul / short-haul / etc. And none of that even scratches the surface of the myriad blogs on working abroad, studying abroad or expat life. But despite knowing that we bloggers should stick to one niche and really become the authority on that subject, it’s so hard to limit yourself to just that one subject.
I fail at it constantly… In the 4.5 years since I started this blog I have changed lifestyle and location so many times that there’s no defined thread visible throughout all my blog posts. I constantly switch from blogging about expat life, to luxury travel, to backpacking, to training for a marathon, to studying for a Master’s, to using annual leave wisely, to volunteering in rural Nepal, and by this point no doubt most of my readers are plain confused about what on earth my blog is actually about. While my first year or two of blogging was very strictly travel-only, since then I’ve deviated and lost the thread, preferring to selfishly write about what interests me, rather than putting first what actually interests my readers.
And that’s all because I’m a multi-faceted person with lots of different interests, instead of one true passion. And while that might not be great blogging form, no one’s perfect and I can live with that.
How to handle indecision
One of the worst parts of not knowing what your true passion is, is the limbo it leaves you in. Until I made a decision to take a sabbatical or to apply for the Master’s, I felt paralysed by indecision. Scared to make any decision in case it was the wrong one. Waiting for the correct answer to come round the corner and present itself to me through an unequivocal sign of some sort. Well I can tell you that waiting gets your absolutely nowhere, and no one is going to make the decision for you, so it’s time to take a risk and bite the bullet.
But in all seriousness, taking the actual decision in the first place is the hardest past. Once the decision to make a change is out of the way, then you have a cause to work towards (even if it’s only a short-term cause) and you can focus your energy on making something happen, rather than wasting your time and energy on your worries and woes of indecision instead.
There are lots of ways to handle indecision. Some of the ways I handled the tricky decisions I had to make regarding my sabbatical and my Master’s included:
- Speaking to people who I admire and who inspire me. Interviewing them, questioning them, asking their opinion.
- Talking about it with people I trust in my support network – with people who have some knowledge on the matter. (I even called my university careers service from 4 years beforehand to ask a question about which Master’s offer to accept).
- Writing an honest list of pros and cons for each of my options (and even grading them against a set of criteria).
- Writing a vague list of my life priorities (and strictly not in chronological order).
- Ranking my top 10 values, eg. forcing myself to choose whether to prioritise money over variety, or travel over stability, etc.
- Doing a ‘Wheel of Life’ exercise (which sounds cheesy, but my mentor once told me to do it and it’s great procrastination material, trust me, and also really helpful. Google it).
- Coming up with a plan B for a worst-case-scenario (and realising that nothing is ever really as catastrophic as you think).
- Setting myself a deadline for my decision.
- And finally, remembering this classic Mark Twain quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do, than by the ones you did do.”
In essence, what I’m trying to say is: it’s perfectly okay to not know what your ‘passion’ is, nor which path to take to find that mythical passion. If you, like the majority of us, do not know, then see it as an excuse to experiment and try out the different things that interest you. Focus on the multiple things that interest you, rather than excluding them in order to identify just one passion. And remember: Mark Twain never lies.
What’s your opinion on the ‘find your passion’ concept? Do you agree with me or disagree entirely? Have you managed to find your one passion or have you combined lots of your different interests? How do you handle indecision?
The photos in this post are all from a long weekend hiking with friends in Snowdonia (Wales) back in August 2015. In three days we reached 15 peaks over 3,000 feet, hence why it’s called the Welsh 3000s Challenge. It was one of those trips that gives you a lot of perspective, inspiration and involves a lot of DMCs about life and the universe, while walking for hours on end. At that point I already knew I wanted to get out of London but I didn’t know where or how, and that weekend in Wales was a pivotal trip in many ways, thanks to those conversations and that fresh perspective. The following weekend back in London, I sat down in a sunny park with notepad and pen, and first plotted out my plan for a sabbatical. I remember that day very clearly, as it’s the day I made the decision to chase that sabbatical, and the sheer relief I felt immediately after taking the decision was like a weight lifted off me. I told my parents that same day, so that they’d hold me accountable to my plan, and thus my escape came into shape!