Think successful people were born to do what they do? Here’s something you’re overlooking about finding your passion.

We all know those people. The ones who seem born to do what  they do. The ones who can’t wait to get to work each day. Whether they’re musicians, actors or Wall Street stock brokers, they wouldn’t do anything else. This passion enables them to plow through life’s difficulties with raw, unbridled enthusiasm.

How did they land in these careers? And how can we follow in their footsteps?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: “Follow your passion” is misleading. Even if it seems like certain people were destined to write, play golf or study the stars, it isn’t because they were born with these interests.

The cultivation of passion

Consider Cal Newport’s arguments. Newport is a computer scientist and author of four books about passion. He doesn’t buy into the “follow your passion” mantra. In an interview with Joshua Fields Millburn, Newport says, “There is no special passion waiting for you to discover. Passion is something that is cultivated.”

So let’s examine an equation I’ve developed with this in mind:

(curiosity + engagement) x time = passion

We start by being curious. From a young age, we’re drawn towards the things that we’re curious about, and as we get older, we’re expected to hone in on one that particularly appeals to us.

This is where most of us get stuck, because we’re afraid to pick something “wrong.” But remember what Newport said: “There is no special passion waiting for you to discover.” In other words, there isn’t a “wrong” choice because there isn’t a “right” choice, either. Pick an interest and roll with it.

Once we’ve picked something, we acquire knowledge about that subject, which requires more curiosity. We pick up some books, read articles and watch videos about our interest. We choose majors in college that allow us to explore our interest more deeply. This gets us acquainted with its world, but we don’t stop there.

The importance of the company we keep

Besides acquiring knowledge the traditional way, we also need to meet other people engaged in our interest. This serves two purposes. First, it’s easier to gather detailed knowledge from people than from static media. Second, social engagement revolving around our interest reinforces our commitment and fuels that interest even further.

There’s a reason parents don’t want their kids hanging out with the bad crowd: we become like the people we hang around. “People’s lives,” says Anthony Robbins, a world-renowned life coach, “are often a direct reflection of the expectations of their peer group.”

What Robbins is saying is that we set the bar for our lives based on how those around us set theirs. If we’ve picked the violin as the passion to cultivate, but we don’t hang out with other musicians, there’s nobody to compare ourselves to or to share our thoughts and experiences with. On the other hand, when we join a music scene, we meet people who become our mentors and peers. They cheer us on and hold us accountable.

Engagement, engagement, engagement

But all this curiosity and social context would be worthless without consistent engagement.

This is where the passion equation really comes to life. Engaging with our interest regularly and repeatedly makes it more interesting, plain and simple. The more interesting it becomes, the more it evolves into a passion.

“Whatever we focus on actually wires our neurons,” says Kare Anderson in a Harvard Business Review article. “Whatever you pay attention to—or not—has a huge effect on how you see the world and feel about it.”

Cultivating our passions requires prolonged interaction over months and years. During that gestation period, the passion becomes more and more anchored in our minds. If we’re in design, we begin to see the interconnectedness between our art and the message we’re trying to convey. If we’re in accounting, we begin to internalize the relationship between the balance sheet and cash-flow statement.

Consistent engagement drives our curiosity and social engagement as well. We must be consistently curious about our chosen passion and the things surrounding it, going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. We must also meet new people often, comparing notes, inspiring one another and holding each other accountable.

What the passion equation tells us is profound: we’ve been stuck because “follow your passion” is wrong. Passion is nothing more than curiosity and engagement over time. The truth is, we’re the leader, and passion is the follower.

Now, go “discover” your passion!

How did you discover yours?

Ryan Chatterton is involved in many community projects, writing, reading and cultivating his various passions every day. He is currently showing college students and recent graduates how to hack their way into first-time jobs at Get Any Job.


  1. Alison Elissa Coaching

    I agree that ‘follow your passion’ can be vague and difficult advice, and I like the alternate formula that you present here.

    In my opinion, the ‘curiosity’ component is really critical. Mastery of any subject matter definitely makes it more fun, but mastery of a subject where you find yourself leaning forward in your chair to learn more about it is even cooler.

    However, as I think your article implies, passion is really a choice we make. I watched an interesting documentary recently, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro, the father, had a passion for sushi and devoted his life to it. His sons followed in his footsteps not because they were particularly curious about sushi, but because they had so much engagement with it from being their father’s apprentices. So the sons chose to be care about sushi, rather than following what they may have been more intrinsically drawn to. Seemed to work out ok for them.

    • Ryan R B Chatterton

      That is a great example, Alison. I also love that movie!

      It’s true, curiosity is a critical component. Though I think you bring up a touchy subject when you say, ” Mastery of any subject matter definitely makes it more fun, but mastery of a subject where you find yourself leaning forward in your chair to learn more about it is even cooler.”

      I don’t think most people, especially students, actually know what it is that makes them lean forward in their chairs. Sometimes we like multiple things, which makes picking a passion a very difficult choice.

      So I advocate picking now, and switching a few years down the road if we find something better.

    • Alison Elissa Coaching

      I agree with you that picking something to try out is better than eternally waffling between choices.

      However, I’ll note that from my experience people do generally know what makes them lean forward in their chairs. (Or at least they can easily make a few hypotheses to then test out.)

      The actual issue many people face resides in the murkier water of wondering if what they want to do is okay or possible or noble enough or capable of generating income.

    • Ryan R B Chatterton

      That makes a lot of sense.

      Sometimes pursuing something really is a question of possibility. None of us want to fail, so we tend to balance the realistic with what we’re interested in. Totally agree there.

      Though what you describe as “leaning forward in the chair,” I label as “interest” instead of “passion”. I think passion carries a lot of unnecessary weight with it.

      Everybody has interests and we must start with those, which evolve into passions as we engage with them over time.

      Passion has a resilient quality to it that only comes from getting our ass kicked a few times.

    • Stanislav Sereda

      Ryan R B Chatterton, passion, then, is the interest tested by time. It does not necessarily mean that passion is interest multiplied by time only. I have to take into cinsideration my character and personality. Once in my life I really liked the sound of violine (quite a coincidence), I’ve played it for six years and then I understood that I’m not loving it. I mean I like it, but it’s not something I want to dedicate so much time. Moreover I never really did.
      Did I practice a lot? Yes. Did I get passionate about it? Not really.
      My conclusion then is that I can never know whether I love something until I try it. Time is something that I will definitely need, because trying and doing takes time. But the reason why not every musician becomes Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky is because we’re all different.
      So if to put what I said into a little oversimplified formula, I’d say
      Passion = interest * time * You

    • Ryan R B Chatterton

      @stanislav I actually argued to make the equation (curiosity + engagement) / time = passion. Because time doesn’t multiply our efforts, it in fact, diminishes them. That is why we need consistent engagement. The results we get aren’t permanent, they need to be tested as you say.

      I like your point about adding “you” as part of the equation. Ultimately, we agree. When it comes down to it, passion is a choice. Your choice. Either way, it isn’t something you’re born with.

  2. Colton Matheson

    In my opinion, making a decision is the most important part of this. Find something you really are curious about and make the decision to engage with it, learn about it, and become passionate about it.

    A lot of people are worried that in a few months or years they won’t be passionate about it anymore, but in my mind that is exactly the point! Losing your passion about something doesn’t change the satisfaction you got from pursuing it, and from that experience you learn one thing you know isn’t your lifelong passion and you had a great time doing it.

    You can always make the decision to become passionate about something new. If you keep repeating the process you may eventually find a lifelong passion, but even if you don’t, at least you spent your time pursuing things you were passionate about. It really doesn’t matter whether or not those things are the same for your entire life.

    • Ryan R B Chatterton

      Very interesting insight. The reward is the time we spend on something, not what comes out at the end.

      Reminds me of something Steven Pressfield always quotes, “We have a right only our labor, not to the fruits of our labor.”

      Thanks for sharing Colton.

  3. Cara Christine

    I found my passion by trying out several different internships I thought I would like, and then finally ended up finding one I loved.

  4. Benjamin Kubilus

    Eye-straining layout. DNR.

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    […] talking about her Super Bowl performance. She said, “This is what I was born to do.” Brazen Careerist is asking a very simple question, though…was anyone born to do anything? Or is it possible that our skills and our passions […]

  7. Qiaomu Lai

    I need more engagement.

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