The Advice to Pursue Your Passion: What Does “Passion” Even Mean?

advice to pursue your passion
Photo credit: pirate_renee via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

Here’s a word I have eliminated as fully as possible from my information and advice lexicon for writers: passion.

Endless books and courses advise people on how to turn their passion into a full-time career, and I meet many writers who say they are (finally) returning to their “passion for writing” after long careers in business, finance, real estate, law, and other occupations commonly chosen for financial stability. Yet, at the same time, such writers ask for an evaluation on whether it’s worthwhile for them to continue pursuing this passion. They seek some external validation that they’re not wasting their time.

Is that properly termed passion?

I’ve also met many who seemed unable to do anything but write, to the detriment of their health, families, and/or long-term financial stability. They make bad decisions for little in return, in the name of becoming a writer or being recognized as one. Such people I can’t discourage.

Is that properly termed passion?

There are also people who show up at the desk every day and treat their writing like a profession, who are willing to bend their work to the market, to be entrepreneurial and ensure that they earn a certain dollar amount per hour.

Is that properly termed passion?

In Zen, students are given koans—a puzzle or a problem to solve—that’s meant to bring awareness, or literally wake you up to the true nature of life. You’ve probably heard a koan even if you don’t recognize the word. A popular koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

A koan of my own, that’s been on my mind for the last decade: “What is passion?” And also: “What is my passion?”

I’ve come to the conclusion I don’t have a passion. As someone who has probably listened to too much Alan Watts, I wasn’t surprised by the answer, maybe because Watts encourages you to peel back every layer you have to find yourself, to help you realize that there’s no “there” there—the Buddhist belief that there is no self to find.

This is partly why I avoid the word “passion.” It is an excellent way to stoke someone’s anxiety: What if I’m not pursuing my passion? Shouldn’t I be? But is this really my passion? What if I fail at my passion?

And in the current cultural moment, the word has become ever more fraught—it’s tinged with a value judgment, that there’s something wrong if you haven’t discovered your passion and found the way to make it into your career. The capitalist pursuit of passion is the new horrible form of enlightenment we’re told to chase.

You don’t have to be Buddhist to take a page out of its book and set this particular anxiety aside. If you don’t have a passion, you may be closer to the truth of who and what you are than anyone else.

Yet I have always felt rather boring when faced with the quintessential questions from an interviewer that look for the origin story, e.g.: When did you know you were a writer? Or did you always want to work in publishing?

The truth is: I have no idea. Patterns emerged. Circumstances and serendipity dictated a lot of early life. I recognized and built on my strengths. When I failed, the failure wasn’t as important as the next steps I took.

Forget about passion; go for self-awareness instead. Ask:

  • What are you avoiding? (There’s a reason, and don’t feel guilty about it.)
  • What activities or interactions do you most look forward to, anticipate, and hope for more of?
  • What activities or interactions do you value or prioritize on a daily basis?
  • What activities can you get lost in? (Time stops; you’re in the flow.)

These questions have paved my way to a happier or more satisfying life.

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