For the past few years, I have taught a course on the psychology of passion. The primary goals of the course have essentially been twofold: (1) to help students become familiar with the scientific research on the topic of passion and (2) to help students use what is known about the topic to find and pursue their own passions.
Goal #1: Easy
I have found that Goal #1 is relatively easy to achieve. Over the course of the semester, students learn that being passionate entails spending time on, valuing, and loving an activity. They also learn that there are actually two types of passion: (1) harmonious passion, which produces a feeling of being in control and which is associated with a variety of positive outcomes; and (2) obsessive passion, which produces a feeling of being controlled and which is associated with a variety of negative outcomes.
Ultimately, by the end of the semester, my students have a solid grasp of the concept of passion. They understand that, for many reasons, harmonious passion is better than obsessive passion, and they start to recognize whether they have some harmonious or obsessive tendencies of their own. They even can articulate why it’s so important to pursue activities they are harmoniously passionate about.
Goal #2: Not So Easy
And yet, even with all of this newfound knowledge about the importance of passion, we have a hard time achieving Goal #2.
In my experience, many students have trouble identifying what they are passionate about. When I ask them to tell me things they like to do, the answer is often, “I don’t know.” Or if they have an answer, it frequently involves relatively unimportant activities like playing video games or watching TV or Netflix or YouTube videos (etc.).
So, in an attempt to help students identify things they might love and value, I have them complete a number of activities designed to get them to reflect on their own lives. For example, I have them track what they do each week and then think about what they enjoyed. I have them think about when they feel most “alive.” I have them identify when they are in “flow” (which is associated with harmonious passion). I ask them what they would do for free. I ask them to consider what they would spend their time doing if they found out they only had 6 months to live. I ask them to think of things they can’t not do.
These are all useful activities. But even after completing them, many of my students still conclude that they are not overly passionate about many of the things they do on a daily basis. (Surprisingly, watching endless YouTube videos doesn’t seem to do the trick.)
Ultimately, what I’ve found while teaching students about passion is that pursuing our passions often isn’t the hardest part of the equation. Rather, it seems to be finding what we’re passionate about that frequently presents the first, big hurdle.
So, how might we go about finding things we’re passionate about?
Well, there’s no shortage of advice on the topic. An Amazon.com search for “finding your passion” results in over 1,500 book titles. A quick Google search for the same phrase produces just under 34 million hits (and that number will most likely continue to grow). And more often than not, these books and websites provide suggestions like:
Follow your excitement.
Make a vision board.
Be curious about the things you do each day.
Think about what you’re good at.
Think about successful people you know and what you admire about them.
And so on…
None of these is necessarily bad advice, but they’re each missing an important component—an important first step that must be in place for passion to develop.
And unfortunately, this first step is often overlooked.
So what is this important first step that so many tend to overlook as they go about finding their passions?
Actually, the first step is rather simple:
YOU HAVE TO TRY NEW THINGS.
According to Vallerand and colleagues (2003), here’s how passion develops:
First, you try different things (check out this cool TEDx talk on the topic of trying new things). Eventually, you find some of those things to be more interesting than others. Not surprisingly, once you identify those activities that are most interesting to you, you end up spending more time on them. And if you find those activities to be valuable or important in some way, they can (under the right conditions) become your passions.
The notion of trying things seems so obvious, but yet it’s a step that many of my students (and others) tend to overlook.
Instead, people somehow believe that they will identify things they are passionate about by sitting in their bedrooms engaging in some specialized thought exercise. This, however, isn’t typically how it happens. As entrepreneur Marie Forleo is fond of saying, “Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.”
So, let me say this once again: To become passionate about something, you first have to try new things.
If you’re not passionate about something right now, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to become passionate about it if you keep on doing the very same things! As the famous saying goes (and which is often misattributed to Albert Einstein), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Trying New Things and the Importance of Mindset
Now, with that being said, it may take a shift in your mindset if you’re going to follow this advice and try new things in hopes of identifying something you’re passionate about.
For example, with students, it might mean going to college and NOT declaring a major right away. Rather, you may want to take some classes (with an open mind, of course) and see what interests you first. Granted, this approach might initially make you feel like you’re behind everyone else (which, in fact, won’t be the case), but that’s okay.
It might also mean “failing” on your way to finding what you love to do. As you try things, you may not—and most likely WILL not—like all of them. Moreoever, as you try things, you may not be good at all of them. But you know what? That’s life! We’re not going to be good at everything we do. In fact, we’re going to be merely average at most things we try. And that’s okay.
It’s also going to require you to step outside your comfort zone. I think this is where many college students (and others) have trouble. We like to be comfortable. For so long, we’ve listened to trusted authorities (parents, teachers, and others) who have helped us along the way. They tell us what to do next, and we frequently follow their advice (because doing so has allowed us to stay relatively comfortable). But trying new things often requires us to go against the grain, to move in a direction that runs counter to what others are telling us to do. Only when we step outside our comfort zone and try new things do we have a greater chance of identifying what excites us and what’s most important to us.
Ultimately, if we’re truly interested in pursuing things we are passionate about, we first have to identify what those things are. And quite often, the first step to making that happen is to try new things.
So take a chance and step outside your comfort zone. Say “yes” to things that scare you. Go ahead and try something new every once in awhile. Heck, aim a little higher and try to do it every day for the next 30 days.
If you take the time to try a few new things—and if you have the courage to listen to your own heart—you might just be surprised at what you find.
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