My parents led by example, starting their own business from our converted garage when I was just a kid.
But that home business was only one of many career paths my dad tried out. Along with hobbies ranging from playing guitar to painting he seemed to always be in the pursuit of something new.
For whatever reason, I picked up this tendency to try different paths, but not an acceptance of it.
Like so many of us, I’ve always rebelled against my desire to try new things because I was looking for that one thing I loved. I wanted to ‘follow my passion’. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
Why ‘do what you love’ is bad advice
Figuring out what you love to do, that can also make you a living, is really hard.
Case in point: I write a lot. I like having written and sharing my work with others. I like that I learn a lot from the things I write. But do I love it?
Lately, my focus has switched more to software development. I’ve even been tempted to say I love writing code. But yesterday I spent half my day frustrated by chasing bugs down endless rabbit holes. I definitely didn’t love that. But does that mean I can’t say I love developing software?
And what if down the road I decide I want to be an actor, illustrator, or lawyer?
‘Do what you love’ seems to come with the expectation that you’ll do it forever. At every bump in the road it makes you ask ‘is this something I see myself doing for the rest of my life?’
We’ve been told that when you love what you do you’ll do better work. Steve Jobs famously told the 2005 graduating class of Stanford university:
“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
Am I doing a disservice to you then, dear reader, for putting fingers to keyboard if I’m not head-over-heels in love with this process, this work, this career? I’m not sure I am.
By telling yourself (or others) you must find work you love to do you’re limiting your options. What if you could be an amazing pilot but you never try because you’re not sure you would absolutely love it?
Whether you’re doing what you love or not right now, let’s agree on this: it’s really hard to find what you love in life. It’s a big ask to tell anyone they need to find that to have a fulfilling career. And there’s a lot to be gained from ignoring this restrictive advice.
Here are examples from 3 different successful creatives on how to hack your passion and find meaningful work.
Forget talent, cultivate passion
Software developer Katrina Owen was prone to the same desire to try everything until she realized she wouldn’t find her passion that way. For years Katrina tried to find her innate talent by exploring different skills:
“I thought I wanted to be extraordinary, but what I really craved was passion, and that deep sense of satisfaction that comes with focus and accomplishment.”
For each new activity she was drawn to, the draw would last just long enough for it to get hard, at which point Katrina reasoned she wasn’t talented and would move on to something new.
“I believed in the genetic explanation of greatness. I thought you just needed to stumble across that accidental match, to find the lock for which you are the key.”
In a similar way, I’ve continued to look for the thing I love to do, imagining I’ll know it when I see it.
The governing idea is that you’ll feel passionate towards something right away. No one ever said that you have to work hard at what you ‘love’ or that passion is something that can grow with time. We assume it will hit you square in the face as soon as you start. The mythical ‘a-ha!’ moment.
In reality, passion is something that develops as you stick through the hard parts and improve your skill. As Katrina so eloquently puts it:
“Passion grows by giving something your full attention long enough to gain depth and understand nuances. Talent is bullshit. Skill is cultivated. Passion is curated.”
Through the right kind of practice—hard enough to challenge you but not so hard that you won’t improve—you can develop a skill, and your passion will grow alongside it. In Katrina’s mind, skills can be developed systematically, which she reasons is a much better outlook to have than assuming that you will ‘find’ your passion. Because systems can be understood. They can even be hacked.
Hating your work isn’t the worst thing
Realizing that passion doesn’t have to be there from the beginning is a liberating experience.
Understanding that you can grow passion as you develop skills gives you more freedom to try out different career options without discounting them at the first sign of trouble. You can try new projects and career paths confidently knowing that enjoying it enough to keep going when it gets hard can develop into a lifelong passion.
It can be hard to accept the idea of doing something you dislike (or worse, hate) in the hope that your growing talents will breed a passion for it. I think we all have a mixture of disgust and admiration for people who work jobs they don’t care about long enough to become passionate about them.
Basecamp CEO Jason Fried wrote about this exact issue, pointing out how for many people who start a new company or build new products, their inspiration comes from frustration with an existing situation, rather than an overwhelming love for what they’re doing:
“People tend to romanticize their own motivations and histories. They value what matters to them now, and forget what really mattered to them when they started. Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, the co-founders of Uber, didn’t start their ride-sharing service because they loved transportation or logistics. They started it because they were pissed off that they couldn’t get a cab in San Francisco. Kalanick may love running Uber today, but he really hated not having a way to get home.”
It can be hard to synthesize this idea with the desire to do something you’re passionate about, but as Fried points out, “hate for the existing options, along with strong opinions about how things could work… is a much better predictor of success” than love for the subject matter you’re working with.
It’s okay to not be sure, as long as you try
Lettering artist Sean McCabe has worked in many different areas, from repairing computers to logo designs, to podcasting and writing books. But his biggest jump in success came when, as a designer, he limited his work to focus almost solely on hand lettering.
Sean uses his experience to help others realize focusing on a single area of interest is the best way to build an audience and a name for yourself. But for a lot of us, that’s a scary prospect. After all, if you can only choose one niche to focus on, and you’re not sure which one you’re passionate about, how can you make that leap?
“Most people are afraid to niche down because they think ‘I’m more than that. I can do so much more. The world deserves to see everything that I’m good at.’” — Sean McCabe
Sean’s answer to the fear of choosing a single focus is to think of it as a season of work. Just because you’re focusing on honing your skills and increasing your output of one type of work right now doesn’t mean you can’t choose something else later on. But without giving yourself a solid chunk (or season) to really focus down on a single skill you’ll never know if you can develop a passion for it.
Doing what you love is one of those tricky areas where there are no clear answers.
My only hope is that through exploring different ideas about what passion is and how you can develop it you’ll give yourself the opportunity to find work that you love.