Numerous speakers and writers talk about the importance of finding your passion and living a life on purpose. I couldn’t agree more. However, there is little guidance on actually how to do so. In my experience as a psychotherapist and peak performance coach, I have met few individuals who can initially tell you what they are passionate about.
Discovering one’s calling or purpose can be much more complex than all the coaches and speakers give it credit for. To begin with, much of our educational history has been about conformity, not finding your individual self-expression. On a positive note, I believe there are incremental changes taking place in this area.
Finding Your Element
Dr. Ken Robinson from England has been on the forefront of attempting to transform how we educate children to find their unique gifts and abilities. In his book, The Element, Dr. Robinson defines the element as the intersection of your aptitudes and interests. This book, as well as the following one, Finding Your Element, are great resources for beginning to identify what you are both good at and passionate about.
You can also view his lectures online on YouTube or Ted.com. He is a very entertaining speaker with a dry, witty British sense of humor. This leads me to my first suggestion when beginning to work towards identify your passion: use resources. I find so many people spend only a few minutes reflecting on what it could be. Then, if it nothing hits them, they stop at, “I don’t know.”
Fit Mindset Versus Developmental Mindset
This way of thinking is evidence of a fit mindset related to finding your passion. A fit mindset believes something should just jump out at me and be a perfect fit; it’s a bit like being struck by lightning. The reality is identifying your purpose is a developmental process: it occurs a little at a time.
Passion develops by exploring your curiosity and interests. One of the keys is to not dismiss things even though they do not trigger a strong emotional reaction initially. As you explore various curiosities, your brain is looking for patterns. When it recognizes a pattern, it releases dopamine, which is energizing and motivating. It then is even more motivated to look for more patterns. This has survival value: the more you can understand how things work and create order out of chaos, the greater your chances of survival.
Exercise For Identifying Your Passion
Author, and cofounder of The Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler has created an exercise for turning your curiosities into passion. Here are the instructions for the exercise:
- Make a list of twenty-five curiosities or interests. Again, the do not have to be things that induce a strong emotional reaction. They are something you would read an article about, watch a video on, or try out for an hour.
- After you have completed your list of curiosities, begin to look for intersections between them. This may come easily or you may have to get creative to find them. Remember, your brain loves to recognize patterns. As it does so, it will give you those dopamine hits. This process is what will begin to increase your level of emotion and motivation leading you beyond curiosity to passion.
- Finally, take fifteen to twenty minutes a day and begin to ‘play’ with your curiosities – read the article, watch the video, and experiment. This will result not only in increasing your level of emotion but in developing expertise, which is your unique way of combining pre-existing ideas.
Don’t rush this process or attempt to finish it in an afternoon. Take your time. It could take you months or the course of the year to thoroughly go through this process. But I can promise you the payoff will be well worth the effort. I can attest in my own life the difference between living on purpose and just surviving.
One of the complicating factors in finding your passion is associated with different emotional blocks to doing so. I have rarely seen authors or speakers address this area. These blocks are almost always going to come down to things related to fear and shame. Let me give you a few examples.
Perhaps, when you were young as you were exploring your interests, or expressing various parts of your talents or abilities, parents, teachers, or peers shamed or discouraged you for them. Nothing will stop us in our tracks like shame; we will do almost anything to avoid experiencing it, even suicide. It is a powerful force.
In order to prevent shame, you decided I won’t try that particular activity or express an idea that could cause others to shame me. Now, as an adult, you no longer need someone to shame you, it has become internalized. I observe this in my clients when we are exploring potential life directions or callings. They either cannot become energized about anything or they shut down quickly after beginning to. Comments like, “That’s a dumb idea,” or “It’s unrealistic or immature,” are evidence of an internalized negative voice attempting to protect them from shame.
Breaking Free From Shame & Overcoming Loss
Breaking free from this pattern requires connecting to the pain of being shamed or dismissed and processing these emotions in the context of a safe, supportive relationship in order to finally break free from the defensive patterns one has been using to protect oneself. There is value to identifying and disputing negative thinking. However, when there is a deeper emotional block, it needs to be removed for the new way of thinking you are attempting to develop to take hold.
Another emotional block to finding your passion I often find is unprocessed grief. Anyone who has succeeded in life has failed often. Perhaps, it was a business you started that didn’t succeed, an unsuccessful relationship, or a transition that needed to occur as a result of age or circumstances. Whatever the case, these losses need to be grieved.
I have worked with numerous clients who were stuck identifying and pursuing a new purpose as a result of this block. Comments like, “It is what it is,” are a clear signal to me an individual has unprocessed emotions related to their past. Furthermore, whenever someone informs me they have ‘dealt with it’ I tell them, “I have never heard someone who has ‘dealt with it’ say they have ‘dealt with it’. They give you a clear narrative of the way they addressed the issue and worked through it.
Identifying Passion Is A Developmental Process
To summarize, finding your passion is a developmental process. Let go of the view something is going to hit me like a ton of bricks. This can occur, but the probability is about the same as your chance of winning the lottery this weekend. Identifying your purpose requires putting in the work of looking for it. Anything that is valuable is going to have a cost associated with it. Move from making, “I don’t’ know,” from the finish line to the starting line.
Use resources to help find your way, such as the exercise outlined in this article, Ken Robinson’s books and videos, or Simon Sinek’s book, Find Your Why. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are individuals who have focused their whole career on helping others find their passion and purpose.
The Importance of Support
Lastly, obtain help for the more complex issues associated with emotional blocks, self-doubt, and fear. I believe every human being has a contribution to make to the world. This includes you! No one becomes great on their own. Start building a team of support, even if it can only be found in books, articles, and videos at this point.
Living out your passion and purpose will create a life filled with joy, fulfillment, and meaning. This can be a reality for you if you choose to put in the work. Don’t let fear and shame rob you of the life you could be living. The only thing holding you back is your mindset. Get the help you need to shift it. This is the key. I will be writing more about mindset in the future. Find individuals who inspire and encourage you and model their lives. Believe me when I say you have a unique gift to give to the rest of us. Get started today and find your ELEMENT!
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.