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

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.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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28 Comments on "The Advice to Pursue Your Passion: What Does “Passion” Even Mean?"

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Linda Apple

This is an interesting article and very timely for me personally. I’m speaking at a conference and while preparing I used the word “passion” and stopped cold. I guess, without realizing it, I was asking myself the same thing. In meditating on “self-awareness” I will understand a better way to explain why we do what we do. Thanks Jane!

Delaney Green

Once again, you use sound reasoning, humor, and examples to make perfect sense. (“…the failure wasn’t as important as the next steps I took.”) I haven’t ever complimented you or your posts, although I have appreciated them. So now, finally, I am saying GOOD ON YA, thank you, and don’t stop now.

Rhonda Lane

Those self-awareness questions are great. They’re applicable to everyone and should be considered periodically throughout one’s life. So, thank you, Jane. Still, my greatest fear (aside from fire, terminal cancer, and Alzheimer’s) is that I’ve sequestered myself behind Door #1: The Self-Destructive Can’t Do Anything Else door. Yet, I see that my life, skill stack, and paths to Into The Zone have all led to me being a writer in these interesting times. Thanks again. Really. I’m sharing your post with my coaching group.

Walt Socha
Thanks for a great post. And one that jump-starts mental musings… I must recommend “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human 1st Edition” by Jonathan Gottschall. In it, the author theorizes that human being developed stories as a way of understanding the sensory input around them and thus as a way to survive (if one didn’t make up a story about that flash of tan in the African savanna, then one simply became the lion’s next meal. And didn’t propagate). The author stopped at stories being part of our evolution. I extrapolated: if stories are what we generate to… Read more »
jeff lyons
This is the only thing I think I’ve ever read of yours that I flatout disagree. 🙂 Passion (IMO) is a part of self-awareness. You can’t “find it” unless you are self-aware to some degree. Passion isn’t the dictionary definition sound-bite, or some fortune-cookie platitude, it is a complex set of components that when you see/feel them you are in it… i.e. you are passionate. I think your sentiment is a good one, but the conclusion to drop passion … not so much. Can you write without passion? Of course. Lots of writers do, and they are all pretty self-aware… Read more »
Deborah Lucas
Jane, I think you have a valid point about how one word can become so overused that it loses its meaning. I like your zen approach. Frantically finding passion doesn’t ring true to me. I think that’s a way to miss it. Using introspection to discover what we avoid and understanding why, then moving toward what brings us joy. It can be as simple as doing something we enjoy doing, and recognizing our enthusiasm for it. I’m developing a daily ritual that will center me, to prepare me for a productive day, approaching it not with fear but with enthusiasm,… Read more »
Barry Knister

Thanks for your useful debunking of an overused word. “What do you get lost in?” makes more sense. For me, this idea is associated with periods when awareness of time passing is suspended. I must be time-obsessed, because on those occasions when I “come to” and realize a good chunk of time has passed since I last noticed, the effect is exhilarating.

John Grabowski

GREAT article.

Anne R. Allen

I agree that the word is so overused it has no meaning. I’ve stopped following people on Twitter who use it, because it’s almost always followed by a stream of hashtagged meaningless business jargon. “Passionate about #growthhacks #tigerteam #paradigmshifts #corecompetency.”

I like your suggestion to ask instead “what do you get lost in?”

Shannon

This is an interesting article. I don’t see my writing career so much as a passion as I do my vocation. It’s my calling, the “thing” I absolutely have to do in some way, and finding a way to live financially doing it. Is that passion? Who knows, but I’d like to think that we all have some force of creative happiness doing this thing we have to do:)

Mathenge Maina

Someone today me that passion is real. I called him out. As a 20 year old guy there is this pressure to get to figure out my passion and then pursue it with all I have got. I am yet to be convinced about that. I believe in what I enjoy doing. Writing is one of those things. Every time i write it kind off seems like time somehow went faster than it should. Is writing my passion? I don’t even know.

Donna
Spot on Jane! Thank you for your post. I have also been asking myself the same question for many years – with a bit of a twist – where is my passion? Like it’s there but I can’t find it! Anyway, I have decided to get on the “road to nowhere” – where did I think I was going anyway? My book came to me, it unfolded right before my eyes in 2 weeks. I wrote what I saw, so I don’t even really consider myself a writer. My blog is about my own growth. I even noticed yesterday someone… Read more »
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[…] https://janefriedman.com/advice-to-pursue-your-passion/ Do you wonder if it’s passion that makes you pursue writing? For me, it’s the magic of creating something from nothing that keeps me going. Even if no one reads a word I write, I would still do it. It’s not a lost cause to me. I do hope to eventually have readers for my stories. That’s another reason I work at my craft: to make things better. […]

Dorit Sasson

I for one, am guilty of overusing the P word though I am still quite fond of it though I see your points. Our writing and publishing culture tends to push in favor of overused marketing jargon like “authenticity” (be authentic) and “vulnerability” and passion is another one. The takeaway from your post is for us is to stop, pause and reflect. Your self-reflection questions are excellent and in our already overstressed fast paced digital culture, I am glad to see you model the dialogue of self-reflection. Thank you Jane!

Lynne Spreen
My mother, who is 92 and still teaching me stuff, reminds me of a time before my own memory. “You were always writing,” she says. “You’d make little books, and stories about your toy horses.” So, it’s confirmed. I wanted to be a writer from my earliest days. Surely this is the root of passion. Passion or not, I had to feed my family. During my 30 year career in Not Writing, I had periods of grief over not living the writing life. To stay close to the dream, I subscribed to Writer’s Digest, took weekend classes, attended writers’ conferences,… Read more »
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[…] Rachel Thompson has 4 top tips to overcome your fear of writing, Jami Gold tells us how to reconnect to your storytelling passion, while Jane Friedman wonders if the advice to follow your passion is all it’s cracked up to be. […]

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