What The Hell Is Passion, Really

Steve Jobs or Cal Newport? An answer after years of searching

“This is the sign you've been looking for neon signage” by Austin Chan on Unsplash

There are two schools of thought around passion.

One says pursuing what you love, made famous by Steve Jobs.

The other says “Follow your passion is flawed and can be harmful — leading to frequent job/career changes and anxiety/angst,” said by Cal Newport.

I’m somewhere in between, and I will show you why.


While you can become really good at something you felt indifferent about, it’s safe to say that Einstein would probably have been a better scientist than a model; Lyndon Johnson would probably have been a better politician than a violinist (In fact, he refused to play as a child).

But there’s a flaw in this notion of “discovering” your passion. Because it gives the impression that your passion is hiding somewhere — waiting to be unearthed!
It perpetuates the myth that finding ones passion is like falling in love in the first sight.

This is not how passion works, either.

Passion = natural inclination + repeated exposure + deliberate practice.


First thing first — it’s just wrong that people expect this passion of theirs to be paired with a distinguished talent.

Passion is not necessarily something you’re good at.
You can totally suck at it.
Meanwhile, what you’re good at may not be your passion.

You’re good at data entry. But is it something you feel happy doing? Do you feel fulfilled doing it? Do you want to do it for the rest of your life?

You’re good at data entry because of years of training and experience. But it’s not your passion.

A lot of times passion starts out with a barely detectable interest in something. Then it grows.

This is a big one for me.

I had always thought that I was an introvert.

I enjoy reading so much, and I have to have some alone time every week.

But when I look at what I’m naturally drawn to — the books I read are all about marketing, influence and persuasion, negotiation, sales, etc.

That was the Aha moment.

I’m naturally drawn to interactions with people. I am energized when talking to people. I’m not an introvert.

Observe yourself. What are the things you’re doing, unconsciously?

Part of me always thought, “well, I’m not very good at persuasion. Actually, after people present their ideas that are against mine, I am often speechless.”

But you know what, I don’t have to be good at it either!

It’s the interest that will propel you to continuously learn about it, build on it, and eventually excel at it.

In fact, it was my fear holding me back. The moment I changed my belief, I suddenly have the confidence to present my ideas again, even if others don’t agree. Everything changed, all of a sudden, literally.


Let’s talk more about starting it off at the right place

More often than not, people find them trapped in a never-ending hunt for a light-bolt moment. They think there must be something wrong with them. They judge themselves for not having that one thing that clearly stands out as their ultimate passion.

They don’t love anything SO MUCH that they’d dedicate their lives to it.

But there is rarely a light-bolt moment.

Passion begins as an interest or a slight inclination. Like a willingness to explore for curiosity’s sake. Not for the reward of being good at it.

Passion starts with play, sometimes accidentally.

You may have an unintended experience that triggers interest — maybe a science fair in elementary school, maybe a guest speaker at your son’s high school, or an enthusiastic professor who made an otherwise uninteresting topic suddenly appealing to you.

Once this interest is triggered, you follow the impulse and you look into it. Sometimes interest quickly fades, but other times you continue to seek to learn more, and to experience this thing again.


How to develop the slight inclination into passion, then?

Follow your passion, be prepared to work hard and sacrifice, and, above all, don’t let anyone limit your dreams. — Donovan Bailey

Firstly, it takes repeated encouragement and exposure.

In most cases, the initial encounter with the object of interest isn’t enough to seal the deal to feel passionate about it. It takes multiple events to re-trigger that interest over time.

It is not a must, but having a mentor or a parent that encourages further exploration or future exposure is often a catalyst to anchor a stronger interest in a topic.

If you do not have a mentor or a parent like that, remember it takes multiple exposures to know whether you’re really passionate about something. Do not write it off for one unpleasant experience.

Secondly, you need to practice deliberately.

Passion isn’t always enjoyable — a big misunderstanding for a lot of people.

It begins by following an interest that you intrinsically find it to be enjoyable and fun. You continue to follow the interest because you enjoy what you’re doing. However, it also becomes more challenging as you get more involved.

For an interest to develop into a passion or knowledge, the interest has to become second nature or unconscious. A skill or expertise must be developed. This ability allows the activity to reach a higher level of enjoyment.

It then leads to a state of flow because you just get into it. In order to reach this level of mastery, it takes deliberate practice — not simply exposure or repetition, but commitment to improving it through hours or days of dedication.

There may also be aspects of it that you don’t like — it may even feel like a chore. But as the level of passion develops, the benefits far outweigh its costs. You will feel it.

Lastly, purpose amplifies passion.

When passion is directed towards the higher purpose, a higher level of meaning and fulfillment can be achieved.

Purpose is the conviction that what you’re doing matters, because it’s connecting to the well-being of others. When you can see the impact your passion makes, you feel even more strongly about what you do.


Now, let yourself off the hook.

Stop trying to force it. Most of us do not have a clearly identifiable passion. But it’s never too late to start to pursue your interest more deeply.

Meanwhile, don’t let passion development hold you back.

Allow yourself to explore and play. Be open to trial and error.

You will catch yourself enjoying something you weren’t aware of. It all starts there.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by + 381,508 people.

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