“What are you passionate about?”
Now I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels really uncomfortable being asked that question. Not because I don’t have passions. But—I don’t know about you—most of my true passions are deeply held and can be deeply personal, and not always easy to explain. Indeed, the definition of passion is a “powerful or compelling emotion or feeling; or a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire.” Now call me crazy, but that’s not the first thing I generally want to explain when meeting someone at a dinner party.
Passion: any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.
2. strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor.
3. strong sexual desire; lust.
4. an instance or experience of strong love or sexual desire.
5. a person toward whom one feels strong love or sexual desire.
6. a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire
This question has evolved as a move away from the exhausting, and otherwise problematic typical opener of “what do you do?”, which leads to a different set of issues. Yet in many ways they are variations on a theme, ways of gauging how much you matter, how relevant you are, what drives you. And as soon as a question or a value becomes a convention for measuring those things, the answer no longer serves as a true or authentic way of communicating one’s self.
Moreover, passions change. Are you passionate about the same things now as you were back in high school? Do you work toward the same ends you did back then? In high school I was passionate about making mix tapes. Ok so maybe that hasn’t changed, but were I to try to make that into a career path as so many teens are encouraged to do with their passions, I would have had a lot of trouble, and also been led down a road that wasn’t right for me.
There’s a difference between being passionate and having a passion. I may have a hard time saying what my passion is, but I’ve worked passionately on many projects, because my passion — my vision, attention, engagement, my “strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire” is not just driven by my attachment to an idea or a subject, rather it’s linked to feelings of competency at a task, or my desire to accomplish a goal, or my hope to please those I’m working with or for.
It’s dangerous to set up the expectation that in order to do good work, to be happy and satisfied, to find meaning and purpose (another problematic iconic concept I’ll tackle on another day), you must “follow your passion.” Not only does passion often not lead to success, but many would-be success stories are deterred by the idea that they must first identify this elusive passion before knowing their course. I can’t count the number of bright, motivated individuals I’ve met who are stymied on their path because they “can’t figure out what they’re passionate about.”
So here’s what I want you to think about: Passion is in the doing. You can bring your passionate work to the task or the problem at hand, perhaps not regardless of the task but certainly without it being at the heart of your own vision. Passion can be sparked by the people in the room, by the fun of problem-solving, by the beauty being created, by the efficacy of the solution. By keeping clear on what you do know about yourself — what motivates you, what kind of people you like to be around, what kind of tasks you like to work on — you are more likely to find yourself in situations that draw out your passion. If you don’t, if passion remains elusive, take heart. You’re not alone, and there’s still good work to be done. But if you do, you’ll have the gift of taking that “powerful, compelling feeling” with you wherever you go.