Why Following Your Passion Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead)

I’ve seen a quote somewhere that says, “we don’t choose our gifts, they choose us”. It caught my eye because just a couple of years ago I would strongly disagree. I always believed that anyone could do anything, it’s just a matter of priorities and effort. But since then, my opinion has shifted.

The Death of Meritocracy

I don’t know about you, but when I was a child and failed at something, I was told to “just try harder”. Sometimes it made perfect sense – throw the ball harder, jump higher, etc. But sometimes it just didn’t make sense to me. “Just study harder.” – harder how? Should I yell the text I’m trying to learn as loud as I can? Should I press my pencil harder on my paper? Should I just spend more hours doing what I already do? I was under the impression that if only I figure out how to “try harder” I will get anywhere. I believed that the fault was in me.

Turns out, it really wasn’t. Not only was the advice to try harder completely and utterly useless without the explanation of how to do it, but it also wouldn’t have helped even if I was given precise instructions. Because the world is unfair – or as I learned to put it more recently, we don’t live under meritocracy.

What do you get when you’re the hardest worker at your job? Usually, more work. Sometimes it’s accompanied by a raise or a bonus (or both if you’re in a great company), but usually the only thing one gets without asking for it is more responsibility. Only very specific vectors lead to success when enough hard work is applied. I would say that success is impossible *without* hard work, but that is also not true – nepotism is still alive and well.

That said, it is no excuse to ditch all efforts altogether. I just want to highlight the importance of understanding where you’re going (and how) before flooring the gas pedal.

Follow Your Passion

This is about the most cliche advice out there. It’s cliche because it’s true, but also because it’s useless as is. I’ve been trying to “find my passion” since I was 6, and I’m no closer now than I was then. Well, maybe a little bit closer. I have tried so many things that I figured are NOT my passions, that it probably counts for something. How did I find all these things to try?

Easy, the internet. I’m lucky to be part of the zillenials, basically meaning I have not known a world without the internet, but I did know a world without social media.

Spending hours on the computer I found a ton of games to play, ideas to try, things to read, and suffered a moderate amount of jump scares. The more content was uploaded, the more overwhelmed I got with ideas. Funnily enough, now that I think about it, none of my actual, long-term passions came from the internet. Not until very recently at least. I have mostly tried things and figured out this is not for me.

Discovery Over Search

I find it hard to differentiate between the person I wish I was and the person I am. Not in a “I’m not good enough” kind of way, but rather in a “that’s not what I actually want” kind of way.

I always wanted to be a software engineer. I have literally worked towards it my whole life. I am quite successful – not only do I have a stable job (and I’m saying this past-covid, mind you), I’m so deep in the field and have such a lucrative expertise that I’m not afraid to be out of a job in the next decade or two. However, I sometimes wonder if I became a software engineer because this is who I am and what I want, or did I do it because people I looked up to all my life were software engineers?

I’m slowly learning that there’s a real difference between what I want and what I feel like I should want. I want to be a person who sews, but I don’t want to do the sewing (except rare occasions, like yesterday). I want to be a runner, but I hate running. I want to be a software engineer, but I slowly realize that I don’t want to do what a software engineer does. At least, not on a daily basis.

One of my favorite productivity books is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear (how original, I know… well yeah, it’s really good!). One of the chapters is dedicated to how habits shape your identity:

Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are—either consciously or nonconsciously.

Clear, James. Atomic Habits (p. 34). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In particular, he provides examples such as “the goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader, not to run a marathon but to become a runner” etc. While this is great advice for reframing habits you’d like to develop, for me this state is a cage of self-loathing and disappointment. If I want to become a runner – it’s not because I want to develop the habit of running and have it become part of my true identity, it’s because I think that becoming a runner will make me a better person than I am now, regardless of what habits (or actions) it requires.

Maybe, instead of trying on for size some other identities that I see, I could try looking inwards and look at what I already am. I am a writer, because I write here pretty consistently (not to mention my daily journaling and writing for D&D). What would a writer do? Develop these habits. I am an… influencer, I guess – I enjoy posting about my life on social media and communicate with people. What habits would an influencer have? Pick one or two of these to work on. I paint often – what habits do artists usually have? Which ones might fit me? You get the drift.

From The Inside Out

I’ve been learning to listen to myself. To check that what I’m trying to become is not just the person I think I should be, but also the person I truly am on the inside. A quote from another book I liked, “Deep Work” by Cal Newport states:

As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (p.53)

I see myself as a craftsman, trying to perceive the meaning that is already inside me. It’s a lifelong journey, but it seems to be worth it – and it definitely sounds more enjoyable than chasing goals that I’m not even sure I picked for myself.

What about you?

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