Passion – You Can’t Know You’ve Found it Until You Fail

What is your passion?

by Pamela Haag

It’s true that “passion” and “mission” get tossed around a lot these days. They sound like things that any college freshman can pick up at the salad bar.

How will you even recognize your passion when you encounter it? Perhaps unwisely, I’m going to propose a practical rather than a gauzy, ponderous answer to that question:  A passion is something that you love so much that you want to keep doing it even when you’re failing at it, you need to work hard to do it, and the doing of it occasionally is no fun at all.

That comes as close to a mission in life as I can imagine. I love writing in almost any genre or permutation, even when it’s a nightmare.

Too often, what we’re good at gets confused with love.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see in my own trajectory elements of lifelong continuity as well as unexpected career twists. The elements of continuity were my core passion. The tacks were my efforts to find a way to shape that passion into a job and financial solvency.

I always liked being in school.  I loved getting “lost,” in the flow the experts call it, of research and writing. My older sister recalls our mom asking her to drop me off at the library early on a Saturday morning when I was a 3rd grader, just so I could get a jump on an assignment.

In short, I’ve been a lifelong word nerd.

But there’s discontinuity in my story as well. After college, I got a Ph.D.  I adored graduate school. But I knew that I didn’t want to be an academic my whole life.

I knew this because each time I attended a professional conference or a place where the profession defined itself, I tried so hard to keep my distance and to put myself at a remove.

That’s a second, very practical clue to help you distinguish between what you’re good at and what you love: If you spend a lot of time trying to separate yourself from your profession, even if you’re brilliant at it, then you probably shouldn’t belong to that profession. A dose of cynicism is fine, and probably required, in life. But if you find that you have scorn for the profession that you’re seeking to join, and aren’t proud of it, then it’s really best not to join it. Don’t delude yourself that a life of snarky cynicism toward your own colleagues or profession will either be satisfying or possible. It will most likely turn you into a grump and a hypocrite.

So I didn’t join academe. In its own way, stepping off of the default path that my competency had laid down for me—from college to graduate school to the professorial academic job market—required a small (very small, in comparison to others) act of courage. I had to be honest with myself, that even if I was good at this thing, it wasn’t speaking to me.

From that moment, in the mid-1990s, I got on a better path that developed my most abiding interests, in writing, advocacy and research, but deployed them in a more satisfying way.

Today, there’s even more pressure for kids to do what they’re good at, and call it a passion.

This directive is paired with greater pressure toward pragmatism.  Find a passion that, conveniently, matches with what politicians vaguely call “21-st century jobs.” Both criteria subtly whittle down the available field of passions that you might imagine, or from which you can choose. Many people dislike tracking in public schools, but sometimes we do it to ourselves—we “self-track” according to our competencies and other people’s predictions about the economy.

This is a problem. Because it seems that the only sure thing about 21-st century jobs is uncertainty.  The jobs won’t be for life; they’ll require ongoing learning and re-invention; and they’re going to change on us in ways that we can’t predict, any more than the Internet’s gargantuan economic footprint was foretold in the 1970s.

Students might choose practically by 2012 standards and find those standards obsolete by 2016.

It concerns me that we aren’t allowed to be late bloomers anymore—even though our economy is going to require perpetual late blooming, in the sense of reinvention.

The admissions process is so front-loaded. Kids are asked to know, declare and prove themselves earlier, and to think strategically about college admissions in their freshman year of high school.

I was in high school in the early 1980s. This was right on the cusp of the admissions industry that sprouted up in the 1990s.

I had two friends from my public high school who were indifferent to school.  No matter.

They didn’t feel as if their lives were set in stone at 18. Then, when they went to local colleges, they mined the curricula for opportunities, great professors, and subjects of interest. It wasn’t too late for them to revise their opinion of themselves, to see themselves plausibly as scholars.  Their self-identity wasn’t brittle. Both of my friends went on to law school and are successful in their careers today.

My “late-blooming” friends are a good example of what careers might require of all of us today. If you’re lucky and persistent, you’ll find something to do and get paid for that you both ace and love. Then, you’re set…for the time being. Hold on to the core passion, when you find it. But be forewarned that the rest is likely to change.

Pamela Haag is the author, most recently, of Marriage Confidential (HarperCollins, 2011). Learn more about her at www.pamelahaag.com.

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Author: Brooke Allen

A social entrepreneur and retired Wall Street executive.

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