Looking for your passion? You’ve got it backwards

As an athlete, people often say things like ‘you are so lucky to have found your passion’. Like passion is as elusive as the golden snitch and only a few seekers are skilled and lucky enough to find it.

This term – finding your passion (or if you’ve already found it then follow your passion) – is now so prevalent in our society. Around the world people are quitting their day jobs, enlisting sceptical friends in risky business endeavours, getting on airplanes with no return tickets and investing their life savings in what seems like a great idea at the time. In other words, they are running around following their passion. But how much actually comes of this?

Within a few months the employee that quit is doing the rounds of job interviews again, friends leave the room when you start talking about your great business idea, the traveller has run out of money and is waiting tables far from home, and an individual’s life savings are gone with no hope of return.

We are inundated with stories of successful people who made it because they had passion for what they were doing. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – passion is certainly important – just that it should be the last thing.

Basically we have it all backwards – there are many things that need to come before we quit our day jobs. Passion is the last ingredient for success.


First comes values.

Values are the landscape upon which everything else is built. Our values are typically so deeply engrained that it is rare to step back and spend any time thinking about them. Deep down values are what we each believe is important in life. They also become the way in which we measure the success of our lives.

Someone who values family, relationships, connection and being a provider will have a very different landscape to someone who values achievement, recognition and being right. Neither one is better than the other, but they are the foundation for each person’s life.

When you start to think about values make sure they are authentic – true to your self – not something that you think you should hold in esteem because society / your parents / your spouse / the voices in your head have told you so. Consider your moments of intense joy and satisfaction to find your values. Also consider your biggest regrets. Ask yourself what feelings you constantly seek out.

If that seems too hard there are lists of values all over the internet. Go through them all with a highlighter until you find your top 5 or so values.


Second comes purpose.

Passion is about something. It is tied to the process. People say things like ‘I am passionate about dancing’. Or sport, or travelling, or golf, or some other specific thing. Passion is linked to the thing that you are doing, and the process of doing it.

Purpose is about direction. It is tied to the outcome. As an athlete my purpose could be anything from ‘being the best in the world’ to ‘inspiring a generation of young women to be active and appreciate their bodies’. Either way people will look at me and say ‘you are passionate about sport’.

Most importantly purpose liberates you to creatively come up with ways to reach your outcome, without being tied to the process of your current passion. Elon Musk has a purpose seeing the world’s energy needs met in a sustainable way. Because he has purpose, not just passion, he is free to pursue different methods of achieving it. He started with Tesla, and is now creating solar cell roofing.

Purpose is about pursuing something larger than yourself. People with purpose say things such as ‘I must do this’ and ‘I was put here to change this in the world’ or ‘I will achieve this’. What is your purpose?


Third comes rationality.

Rationality is not sexy and fun like following your passion. But it is far more important. If values are the landscape and purpose is the direction, then rationality is the map.

What steps are required? What do you do first? What is the strategy? How will you overcome obstacles? What is the timeline? Is this even a worthwhile pursuit? Your purpose will be much better served with a rational respect for the magnitude of the task ahead, rather than the blithe naivety of someone with nothing but passion to fuel their journey.

Who do you think is more likely to succeed – someone who understands that achieving their goal will take 10 years of training and giving up most of their social life, and still wants to go for it? Or someone who seems a lot more fired up initially but doesn’t really understand what it takes?

Rational questions are often overlooked in the enthusiasm of passion. Other people who ask them of you can be seen as trying to drag you down. But a purpose, and a passion, that has passed the test of rationality will be far stronger and more durable for it.


Fourth comes work.

Although even less fun than rationality there is at least a little recognition in work. People can see your exertions and respect your efforts. Society at least acknowledges that hard work is required for success.

Nobody successful ever said it didn’t take work. If your purpose is large enough then it will likely take a lot of work. Late nights, early mornings, missed social engagements, hurried lunches and constant stress. Where passion alone will fizzle out once you figure out how much work it actually requires, purpose will sustain you through the tough times.

What is an amazing phenomenon is that people often accidentally discover their passion in the midst of work. This occurs in two ways. First, what you invest time in you come to value. It is only a short step from valuing something to it becoming a passion. Second, what you work at you become good at. And humans tend to like, and want to spend more time doing, what they are good at. And valuing something, enjoying it, and wanting to spend time doing it – isn’t that the very definition of having a passion?

If you have no idea what your values, purpose or passion are then the very best thing you can do is go out and work at different things. Your passion will likely become clearer through the sweat of your labours.


Last comes passion.

Passion. The fire. The sexiness. The fun. The adventure. The joy.

Passion is the emotion that makes it a joyful experience to put in the work required. It is the summer breeze that lifts your step as you trudge up the mountain of your purpose. It brings a smile to your face and inspires others to come along for the ride.

If you get the first four things aligned passion will flood through you as naturally as a river flows downhill.

Passion is about enjoying the moment. Loving the thing it is you are doing. Revelling in the successes along the journey. Celebrating winning moments. Because it is at it’s heart simply an emotion it can ebb and flow. Your passion for something often burns brightest at the beginning of an endeavour and then fades. However, if your values, purpose and rationality are all in place, and you are putting in the work, then passion will always follow. That is why it comes last.


We had it backwards.

In our rush to mimic successful people we listened to their words and watched their actions. We attributed their success to passion but missed all the un-sexy steps that come before that.

Values are the landscape. Purpose is the direction. Rationality is the map to your destination. Work is the effort it will take to get there. And passion is the joy you find in the journey.

Without all the other things passion becomes temporary. It may as well be the equivalent of downing a few energy drinks – it makes you excited and happy for a while, but then you crash and burn with little to show for it.

So go back to the beginning. Stop searching for your passion. Your passion will be there waiting for you once you get the other things right. Passion is the easy part.

Go backwards, in order that you can go on and do great things.


December 15, 2016