How to Develop Passion

Tony Tonev
Oct 4, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Josiah Weiss on Unsplash

My friend recently confided in me that he was depressed because he has no passion. What I told him was well, yea not yet. You have to develop one. It will take some work up front, but it’s well worth it in the end.

A lot of people have this idea that a passion is something you’re born with or is like a spirit that possesses your body and magically makes you love painting. I don’t think that’s a healthy or accurate way to look at it. Passion is more like an apple tree you cultivate over time. You have to plant the seed, water it, protect it from pests, and have realistic expectations about when you can harvest the fruit. The most important thing to realize in this analogy is that to get started you have to do some work up front with no immediate reward. This is where a lot of people give up.

Photo by Marina Khrapova on Unsplash

Imagine you’re craving apples, so go to your yard, dig a hole, plant a seed, sprinkle some water on it. By this point you’re sweaty, tired, and maybe a little sunburned. “Where’s my apple?” you think? Disappointed, you say to yourself, “I’m bad at this, I’ll just go to the store and buy a snickers.” Ridiculous, right? But, that’s what a lot of people do with new hobbies. They buy a guitar, excitedly go to their first lesson, then their fingers hurt, the sounds they make are dissonant, and memorizing chords is boring so they decide they have no talent and they quit to go browse Facebook.

It’s easy to forget in our instant gratification society the simple truth that whenever you start something new you’re by definition going to be bad at it at first. We’re much more tolerant of children being bad at things than adults. Have you ever seen a toddler trying to walk for the first time and their parents encouraging their every try? I mean, this kid really sucks at walking. Walking is so basic, almost everyone can do it without thinking. So why are they getting so much credit despite repeated failure? Because the parents instinctively know that they need to encourage their little one to keep trying, and that eventually they will get it. The toddler is getting no intrinsic reward from the activity because they can’t do it yet, so the parents provide external reward in the form of praise to keep them motivated to try again. The parent can stop praising them after they’ve mastered walking, because the activity then becomes inherently rewarding. It allows the freedom to move from here to there and cause all kinds of mischief. Then the parents might prefer to praise sitting still 😉.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

As an adult, people expect you to already be good at things, and if you’re not no one has time to sit there and praise your failures until you get good. So, you should take on that role for yourself. Practice guitar for 15 minutes, and then give yourself way more credit than you deserve. Imagine you’re a parent talking to a small child when you talk to yourself. Would you ever tell a kid, “That was terrible. You suck at this. You should probably quit.” No? So why do you say it to yourself? You would say, “Good job. You made some progress. If you practice like that every day, you’ll be shredding one day.” Focus on progress, rather than comparing yourself to others.

Passion is when reward outweighs effort

Any activity that requires skill is going to have a hump of unrewarded effort you have to get over. The key is realistic expectations. Your first time surfing, you’re probably not going to stand up. You won’t win your first game of chess (unless they let you). You won’t play like Van Halen the first time you pick up guitar. That’s normal. Grit means you keep trying even though you don’t want to until you want to. Also know that this thankless effort is not forever. There will be a point where it reverses, and the reward outweighs the work you put in. For some tasks it may take longer than others, but if you keep trying you’ll eventually get there, and that’s what we call having a passion.

I wish I had learned this sooner. My two passions at the moment are guitar and chess. There were times when I quit both of them for years because I didn’t think it was worth the effort. Then in a moment of boredom, I would try it again, and of course it was a little bit easier than being a total beginner because I already had some experience to build on. Now, I’m past the tipping point, where I sometimes even have to set limits on my chess playing, because otherwise I will literally play all day and not get any work done. I don’t have to force myself to practice guitar because I leave my lesson incredibly inspired and excited to try out all of the new things I learned and master them. When I play a cool lick, I feel this burning in my chest and my soul yearns to hear the next note. In other words, it’s intrinsically rewarding. It took discipline to get there, but it no longer requires any discipline because I want to do it.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Passion just means you’ve gotten to the point that reward outweighs effort. That’s really where you should strive to get to, with a new hobby. Not to be better than your best friend, but to be good enough that you enjoy doing it. Then it’s easy, fun, and rewarding. Of course you’ll continue.

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