The hour I knew with unshakeable certainty I would leave my job in a neuroscience laboratory, I began a mad dash.
Everyone has passion, I had been told. Go off, live the life you’ve imagined! What a charmingly simple notion.
With the lucid daylight eyes and confronting honesty of hindsight, I recognized I was passionate about neuroscience because I was good at it and I liked the awestruck deference it elicited. What I selectively ignored was that the work made unhappy and wasn’t tapping into a skillset that lit me on fire. I was passionate about neuroscience from an armchair perspective – I loved sinking my teeth into a heady neuroscience book or conversation about the brain – but wasn’t passionate about the research process, the lab, or other parts of the job description.
I began to identify an essential difference between my passions and a livelihood I could be passionate about – I found this analogous to the dichotomy of being in lust versus falling in love.
Much like a lusted after a romantic partner, passions, as they are classically defined, tend to be things we’re good at, easily enjoy, and fit seamlessly into our idealized self-concept. They are more often than not pleasurable, sexy, and effortlessly pass a self and peer-judgment test. There’s a reason many are passionate about fashion and few are passionate about cleaning toilets.
Over the past few years, my yoga practice has been a source of intense passion. During this transition, not a day passed I didn’t think, “This feels good, this makes me happy – is this my path?” All of my pre-existing passions like yoga, food and drink, writing, and traveling were fun and desirable, but was an immediate jump into a passion-driven trajectory the right move? I hesitate to write off pre-existing passions, but the world would have a surplus of yoga teachers, sommeliers, and travel writers if everyone followed their most obvious and appealing passion.
I began to observe, to talk, to listen, to people who stumbled upon professional bliss, or at least a deep level of contentment, pursuing something they learned to love instead of a pre-existing passion. From white-collar professionals like my father who manufactures floors to Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe’s example of “road kill picker-uppers who whistle while they work,” their descriptions of happiness are not lustful, but are rather akin to being in love.
These careers didn’t stem from pre-existing passions. There was no romance novel moment, no stolen glance, no catching the gleaming eye of a beautiful stranger from across the room. Instead, these are cultivated passions, relationships that grew from deliberate effort, time, growing pains, and compromises. Not every day in these jobs is perfect, not every day should be perfect. Every working hour might not be pure bliss and they may not like their job day in and day out. But they love their work – it makes them whole, it makes them content. Like the elderly couple steadfastly in love, long after the excitement and looks fade, they develop a fundamental respect for the process, the evolution, the time and energy committed. They respect the importance in the intangible benefits afforded by their path, like personal growth, security, integrity, and meaning.
One of the most brilliant illustrations of this is Cal Newport’s recount of the intensely satisfied pig farmer, “You could replace pig farming with any number of pursuits, but so long as they yielded these same traits, he’d love his work.” Indeed, in his study of professionally satisfied individuals, he found “contentment grew over time as they got better at what they did, and then leveraged this skill to gain traits like competence, autonomy, and impact.” If we compare this to a romantic analog, like an arranged marriage that gives rise to the love of a lifetime, one could argue that given time, dedication, and a series of rewarding interactions, you might learn to love almost anyone or anything.
Cultivating a passion, like falling in love, may be a more tedious and challenging process than pursuing a passion, or following your lust, but can ultimately yield the most rewarding fruit. As Mark Cuban advises, “follow your effort” not your passion.
As a caveat, follow a pre-existing passion if you’ll remain in love when the make up comes off and the first-month excitement diminishes. If it doesn’t look as sexy when it’s not easy and glamorous, then re-evaluate. We hear the example of the blissful entrepreneur who translated a love of wine into a winery, but we also see the foodie turned disheartened restaurant owner who hasn’t seen his family in weeks. By all means, become a yoga teacher if it speaks to you. But don’t allow a romanticized notion to overshadow an honest appraisal of a full-time, devoted lifetime to this work.
From these realizations, I learned not to focus impatiently on identifying a pre-existing passion, but instead to commit the effort and energy into building a love of work that can translate across professions. I smile when I hear about the professionally content friends who created successful businesses crafting ice luges and home aquariums, as it’s proof that cultivated passions (unless fish tanks are your pre-existing passion) may be the best kept secret to success.
The trick to loving your work, like remaining in love, is shaking the preconceived ideal of what it should look like. Perfection is overrated. Dig deeper than what’s pleasurable and attractive. Uncover the less obvious, but scalable and sustainable, benefits of a cultivated passion. Whatever you’re doing, do it zest and dedication – and the love will come.
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” – Martin Luther King, JR