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.