A Practical Process That’s Better Than “Follow Your Passion”
A step-by-step process for clarifying your most important aspirations & then doing the work
Nowadays, the phrase “follow your passion” is so overused it’s a cliche. Although great advice in principle, most people find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow, and it often does more harm than good.
If you’ve ever done even a little bit of research on goal setting you’ve almost certainly come across the SMART acronym which outlines the key components of a strong goal: specificity, measurability, achievability, relevance, and timeliness. Unless the goals you set meet these criteria, they remain an improbable dream, doomed to live out the rest of their time as a fantasy.
Herein lies the issue with trying to “follow your passion.” It’s too vague, too open-ended. There is no clear end goal you are trying to achieve. And because of this, it is an almost impossible task to accomplish. If you want to achieve something, you have to know exactly what success looks like, what it tastes like, sounds like, and feels like. You have to know exactly what you want to achieve and have a plan to get there.
Image credit: Isaac Smith
The goal of this article is to outline a more specific, step-by-step approach to find the right aspirations and provide you with some tools and advice to help you on your journey. However, before we get to the “How?” we must first address the “What?” and the “Why?” What does “finding your passion” really mean? And, why is it important?
When we talk about finding our passion, we’re typically talking about what it is that we love to do and how it transfers over into a career. We spend over 80,000 hours at work — we want to spend that time doing something that we love, something that makes us excited to get out of bed every morning.
I used to believe that finding your passion was akin to having a spiritual awakening. I believed that I would wake up one day and just know what it was I was meant to do. However, over the past several years, I’ve grown to realize that I’d been looking for “passion” all wrong.
The first mistake I made was believing that we are born with an innate passion that we have to discover. But, although we all have our natural talents and strengths, passion is developed over time. You don’t fall in love the first time you meet someone, no matter what the movies may say. Don’t be discouraged if there are no fireworks and explosions the first time you try out a new career path. You shouldn’t hate it, but you don’t have to fall head-over-heels in love immediately.
The second mistake I made was not understanding why I wanted to find my passion. Yes, I wanted to find a job that didn’t bore me to death. I wanted to have fun and be engaged every single day. But, more importantly, I wanted “meaning.” Humans crave purpose. We enjoy the feeling of working hard towards a goal, especially if that goal is important to us.
Sure, we may think that it would be great to have a job where all you have to do is show up to work, take a nap, eat pizza, watch your favorite show, and get paid millions of dollars. But, I’m willing to bet that after a couple of months of this we still wouldn’t be happy. A dream career encompasses more than just what you love to do. It’s about more than making lots of money, or being famous, or traveling the world.
In order for your job to infuse your life with purpose, you not only need to be doing something you love to do but be working towards a goal that’s bigger than ourselves and serves others in some way.
To be clear, the problem you choose doesn’t have to be world-changing, it just has to be something you’re passionate about. It can be as simple as creating a good online resource for people to learn the piano or making a productivity app that helps people manage their time more efficiently so that they can spend time on what matters to them.
Finding the perfect job is about finding that intersection between serving yourself and serving others. We’re not just searching for a passion, we’re searching for a calling.
Now that we’ve established a basic foundation, let’s dive deeper into the specifics of how to actually find your calling. I’m going to divide this process into three sections: searching, exploring, and committing.
Phase I: Searching
This first step is all about research and reflection, scoping out the playing field, and understanding what’s out there. Our goal will be to create a list of all possible industries, functions, and opportunities that you are interested in, then combine them to find a career you want to explore.
Before we begin, I would recommend keeping some sort of notebook (physical or digital) to record any thoughts, ideas, or reflections you may want to come back to. More specifically, I would recommend creating three separate lists that you can continue to revisit and update: wants, commitments & requirements, and questions.
- Wants: This list should contain all your career-related wants, hopes, or wishes. Ask yourself, what do I want out of my future career?
- Commitments & Requirements: This list is for everything you are definitely sure you want to be a part of your future career — your non-negotiables.
- Questions: This list is for any and all questions you have regarding your career. For example, how much does medical school cost? Would I rather work indoors or outdoors? And more.
I would also recommend leaving several open pages for brainstorming. Whenever you have any ideas for potential careers, write them down. Even if it seems like an impossible fantasy, write it down. Don’t overthink it, the goal is to get as many ideas on paper as possible.
As we move forward, it’s important to remember that you will not find your dream job through research and introspection. There will be no “aha!” moment as you write in your journal or search the internet where the clouds will part, angels sing, and everything becomes clear. Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen. Remember, this phase is simply about exploring the possibilities and discovering insights that will help you on your journey of eventually finding your calling.
- Personality & Career Diagnostic Tests: Although many of these tests are far from accurate, some of them can be useful in getting your mental juices running and helping you overcome resistance. And, even if they don’t end up helping, they’re still fun. Here are a couple of links to potentially useful tests (both free and paid): Myer-Briggs, Enneagram, Big Five (free alternative), DISC, Holland Codes, Typefinder, Personal Strengths, Temperament, 300-Question, MAPP, Career Hunter, Clifton Strengths, Wingfinder, Six Seconds, and more.
- Natural Talents & Strengths: If you put a duck in a pond, regardless of its previous experiences, it will feel instantly at home. Most people tend to have a natural inclination towards certain activities over others, and although this isn’t always the case, we tend to enjoy the things we’re good at. The goal of this exercise is to dive deeper into your natural talents and abilities in order to help you decide on your future career.
- Make a list of everything that comes naturally to you. Include everything, whether it’s a school subject, sport, or musical instrument. You may be a natural public speaker or have great spatial reasoning.
- Next, send an email asking five to ten of the people who know you best for what they think are your biggest strengths and talents and what job they see you using them for. Ask them to be as specific as possible.
- Update your wants, commitments, and questions lists. For example, if you’re a talented musician, it may be important to you that music is a part of your career.
If you want to dive deeper into the idea of natural talents, I would recommend reading the Natural Talents and Strengths chapter in The Pathfinder, or Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg.
- Passions & Interests: What do you enjoy doing? What would you love to spend eight hours a day five days a week doing? For some people, these are easy questions. However, for most people, it’s a struggle. It’s important to remember that passion is not something that we’re born with. It can be developed over time. So, instead of searching for something you’re passionate about, just think about things you’re interested in. Did you always enjoy biology class? Do you like writing short stories for fun? Doing magic tricks?
Make a list of all the things you like to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean you want to spend the rest of your life doing these things, just that you would be excited to spend a couple of days (or weeks) on them. It may be helpful to think of activities you used to enjoy as a child or activities that make you lose track of time. Personally, I found this article by Mark Manson to be especially helpful.
- Injustices & Opportunities: Looking for injustices and opportunities you are passionate about is one of the most overlooked ways to find your calling. This is especially true if you’re having trouble identifying your passions.
Ask yourself: What are the biggest problems I see in today’s world? Lack of education? Climate change? Fake news? What are the next big opportunities? Space exploration? Renewable resources? Self-driving cars? Try to get as specific as possible.
- Personal Goals & Values: It’s important to make sure that you consider your personal goals and values when you’re choosing a career path. If starting a family is important to you and you want to get married and have kids, it might not be the best idea to have a career where you need to work eighty or ninety hours a week. If you want to constantly be traveling the world you might want to rethink spending 12 plus years in medical school and residency. That’s not to say you can’t make these situations work, but it’s important to consider. Besides your career, what else do you want to accomplish in life? How might they interfere with your pursuing your calling? What will you prioritize?
- Culture & Work Environment: This is often a seriously overlooked part in making career decisions, but the type of culture you work in will play a massive role in your happiness. A great culture can make even the most boring job bearable, if not enjoyable, and a toxic one can make the most incredible job suck. Take the time to think about what culture you fit into best. Do you thrive in competition? Or, do you want your workplace to feel more like a family? Should the culture be built around principles or excellence? Or, compassion? Furthermore, consider what you want your work environment to be like. Do you want to be constantly collaborating with others or working independently? Do you want to be constantly on your feet moving and traveling or do you want work to feel more peaceful?
Now that you have spent some time brainstorming the kinds of things that you might want to be a part of your future career, it’s time to start exploring the realm of possibilities. Start turning personality traits into potential functions and passions into potential industries.
It’s time to take everything that we’ve done so far and turn it into a giant, messy list of potential jobs, industries, and functions. Get everything onto paper. Anything you may even be slightly interested in pursuing, write it down. Make a list of at least 50 jobs, industries, and functions you may be interested in pursuing.
Now, take that list and start paring it down. Spend a couple of hours researching and narrowing your list down to your top 10 choices. I would recommend revisiting your wants, commitments, and questions lists as you reflect and spending at least a couple of hours researching the careers on your list.
Next, you need to narrow down your list of 10 careers to your top three and then down to your final one. This is a long process that could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Don’t be discouraged if it’s taking you longer than others! The more research you do now the better off you’ll be in the long run. Here are some more useful tools.
- Journaling & Meditation: Taking time to sit with yourself is one of the best ways to find clarity in your future. Ask yourself, what would I do with my life if I had all the money I ever needed? What cause or opportunity am I willing to make sacrifices for? Where do I find myself in flow? What have I always dreamed of doing as a kid?
- Reading List: Make a list of articles, books, research papers, trade publications, blogs, etc. with information about the industries and jobs you’re exploring. Try to avoid short, click-bait articles, and instead try and find content that is well-thought-out and well-researched.
- Friends, Relatives, etc.: Oftentimes it’s helpful to talk through your decisions with people you are close with. Explain your struggles, ask for advice. It is especially useful to talk to those who know you best, as they often know you better than you know yourself and can point out blind spots that you wouldn’t be able to see on your own.
- Interviews: Try contacting people with experience in the industries and functions you’re interested in and ask them if they would be willing to go get a cup of coffee and give you whatever insight or advice that they might have. When you go into these interviews make sure that you remember that they are doing you a favor. Do plenty of research on the work they’ve done and prepare questions that are specific to them. Don’t go in and ask broad vague questions that you could find answers to on the internet. Focus the conversation around them, and be sure to send a thank-you note afterward.
- Conferences, conventions, trade shows, seminars, clubs, etc.: Attending events relating to the industries you are interested in is not only a great way to learn more about them but make valuable connections and network as well.
- Clearness Committees: Here is a link that explains what a clearness committee is and how it can be used. It’s essentially a gathering of the most trusted people in your life to ask you open and honest questions in order to help you find clarity. I would recommend trying this only once your list has been narrowed down to your top three and use the discussion to help decide your final choice.
- Volunteering/Shadowing: Find a couple of local organizations that do the kind of work that you’re interested in. If possible, try to shadow for a couple of days, sit in, observe, and ask questions. If you send a strong email, most local companies will be willing to help, especially if you are a student. A great way to do this is by leveraging a positive interview into a shadowing opportunity. A company is more likely to accommodate you if you have a personal connection.
As you go through this process, it’s important to remember that you are not making a final decision. What you end up choosing is simply a starting point. You’re not going to find your calling during this step (most likely), and you’re not meant to. It’s easy to get too wrapped up in this step and the paralyzing fear of getting started, but there is no right answer. The idea is to get through this phase as fast as possible. So set a deadline for making a decision. Depending on where you are in your life this deadline will vary, but I would suggest anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months (no more than four months). And, when you reach this deadline, no matter what happens, no matter how confident you are in your decision, you will move on to the next phase.
Phase II: Exploring
Now that you’ve explored the realm of possibilities and narrowed down your options, it’s time to take a deep dive and explore your chosen industry and function. Before I begin, I just want to make a disclaimer and say that although I’ve put these steps in order, this is not a linear process. You can (and should) continue to work on your reading list even as you start an apprenticeship. You should keep doing industry interviews even as you start a deliberate practice, and you can get a mentor guide before you start your deliberate practice, etc.
Step 1: Reading list
Photo by Aanika Dalal
The first step is to gain as much knowledge as you possibly can about your chosen industry and function, and the best way to do that is by reading. Read books, articles, trade publications, whatever you can get your hands on. Watch YouTube videos and online lecture series. Attend speaking events and conventions. Try to soak in as much as you can.
If you have a deep understanding of the industry, you can ask the right questions and identify the right opportunities. Say you want to be an author — you can read about the experiences of successful (and unsuccessful) authors to learn what worked and what didn’t. If you have a deep understanding of the publishing industry before trying to publish a book, you are far more likely to succeed than someone who is just playing it by ear. You can learn to identify what is useful and what is a waste of time.
As I mentioned above, try to avoid low-quality, click-bait articles (Use this one trick to write a book in a week!), and focus on the longer, well-researched content.
Step 2: Industry interviews
The next step is to conduct more industry-specific interviews. Now that you have a solid base of knowledge to work from, you should be able to ask much more in-depth and thoughtful questions. Furthermore, by conducting these interviews, you will not only learn more about the industry but forge valuable contacts as well.
Along with the tips I outlined in the previous section, I would recommend taking notes of both what you learn and personal facts about the interviewee to make it easier to stay in touch with them.
Cold emailing industry experts are pretty hit-or-miss, but there are a few tricks to securing more meetings. First, after every interview, ask the person you are interviewing if they can connect you with anyone else in the industry that they think you could benefit from talking to (see six degrees.)
Another option is to write a paper on a relevant question in your industry. Going back to the author's example, you may write a paper on the shared traits of all successful novels. Or, if you’re exploring the medical industry you might try to write your paper on comparing the quality, cost, and access of the US healthcare system to other countries.
This paper will be your foot in the door for many interviews. Instead of asking for just an interview, ask to interview them for a paper that you are writing, as this is more likely to generate interest and garner a response. If you take this route, try to include a quote of every single person you interview in the final paper, then send it out. It’s great for networking.
Step 3: Deliberate practice
Once you’ve got a decent handle on the industry, your next move should be trying to develop the tools you need to succeed. Although networking and connections and knowledge will help you on your journey, they are not substitutes for good old fashioned skill.
In his book How to Be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport points out that most people think that they know how to get good at something, but very few people actually are good. To illustrate this point, he uses the example of studying. Most students believe that the key to getting better grades is to simply study more, to study harder. However, if you talk to top-scoring students, you will find that they actually study less. Instead of studying for long hours after dinner, top-scorers study in short bursts throughout the day; instead of passively reading their notes, they use active recall.
The problem with this is that the underlying assumptions we have of what we think we know blocks us from actually learning. Essentially, before you attempt to learn a new skill, forget everything that you think you know, and adopt a beginner’s mindset. Instead of assuming you have all the answers, ask people smarter than you — people who have already achieved mastery — for advice.
As you attempt to master a new skill, I would recommend using the method of deliberate practice. This essentially means having a purposeful and systematic way to learn a new skill. Set SMART goals, get a coach and don’t be afraid to be bored. Developing true skill isn’t about fancy tips and tricks, it’s about slow and steady progress. Remember, greatness is born when no one is watching.
Step 4: Mentor guide
This step is optional but recommended. Essentially, getting a mentor is the process of taking an industry interview and turning it into something more. The goal here is to create a mutually beneficial relationship with someone more experienced than you. Getting a mentor guide is a largely personal process that will vary from person to person, but the essential ideas are the same.
Once you manage to secure a mentor guide, you should try and agree on the goals of the relationship upfront. What are you trying to gain from the relationship? How often will you meet with each other? How long will the mentorship work? You get the idea.
From there, follow up — meet with your mentor, ask questions, ask for advice. Try to get the most out of this experience as possible, and always remember they are doing you a favor, so try to think of ways that you can serve them in return.
Step 5: Portfolio
As you work on your deliberate practice, it may be useful to start building up a portfolio of work that could help you land jobs, internships, and apprenticeships in the future. This step is pretty self-explanatory. If you want to be a journalist, write several high-quality articles you can use to prove excellence to future employers. If you’re a software engineer, try building an app or a website. While this step will be more important once you’ve committed to a calling, it is still very valuable.
Step 6: Apprenticeships
The final step in the exploring stage is to secure an apprenticeship (or multiple.) The idea here is to get an inside look at a job, company, or industry. Oftentimes, we will realize that although we like the idea of certain work, we don’t like it in reality.
Apprenticeships are different from internships because they don’t have to be a part of a set program; they are customizable and less formal. Essentially, instead of applying for an internship, you send an email directly to a person or company you want to work with.
Do plenty of research beforehand, and make sure you have detailed knowledge about the company, what they do, and what you can contribute. It is also useful to leverage a positive industry interview experience or mentor-guide relationship into an apprenticeship. Furthermore, because of your deliberate practice, you should have a skill that will allow you to make a valuable contribution to the company and you have a portfolio to prove it.
Here is a specific example of how you might go about doing this. Let’s say that you are interested in becoming a machine learning engineer. Your first step would be to use the internet to find several small to medium-sized businesses that have a machine learning department. Next, you would spend a couple of hours researching these companies and their cultures before choosing the one you would like to work at. I’ve noticed that the smaller the company, the more willing they are to accommodate you.
Then, craft an email describing why you admire the company and ask for a short five-minute phone call or in-person meeting. Don’t ask for an apprenticeship right away — start small. Then, use that five-minute phone call or in-person meeting to establish a connection and actually make the ask.
As you go through this process, there are a couple of things I think it’s important to point out. First, how do you know when you’re ready to move on to the next phase? I would recommend creating a why statement (Simon Sinek has an awesome TED talk on the power of why that I would recommend watching). Essentially, your why statement will follow this general structure: I will use my superpower of (insert skill you’re working to master) to change the world by (insert injustice or opportunity you want to tackle.) Feel free to edit the specific word choice to make it sound better and personalize it for you.
Here are two examples of why statements:
I will use my superpower of contemporary dance to change the world by evoking deep emotion that inspires people to follow their hearts.
I will use my superpower of machine learning and software development to change the world by creating software that brings quality education to places that lack the resources and infrastructure to build traditional schools.
When you have a specific why statement you feel passionately about, it’s a good sign that you’re ready to move forward. However, as an added checkpoint, I would recommend that you spend at least a couple hundred hours in this stage. No matter what, the projects you work on and the skills you develop in this stage will serve you well, and the extra time will help you make sure that you truly enjoy the work itself and not just the idea of it.
If at some point during this phase you realize that this particular career path is not for you, you have two options: pivot or return to Phase I. If you realize that you’re on the wrong path completely, I would recommend starting over. Don’t worry about wasting time; better to realize that you’re wrong at this stage than a year or two or ten down the line.
However, if you realize that you’re kind of on the right path but not completely, that’s when you pivot. Here is what that looked like for me. I started off knowing that I liked biology. That interest turned into a more specific desire to pursue cognitive neuroscience. After working in a lab, I realized that artificial intelligence has fascinating and useful applications in the world of neuroscience, so I pivoted to computational neuroscience. From there, I pivoted to using artificial intelligence to improve medical processes and systems in general and then pivoted again to pursue a career as a doctor. But, that’s just my example; your pivots may turn out to be smaller or more radical.
This journey of finding your calling is a very personal one. And, in this article, I’m outlining a general framework of what’s worked for me and several others. It’s important that you adjust it and customize it to your own needs.
Making the decision to commit can be difficult; by choosing one we feel that we’re losing out on many other potential adventures. Personally, I found it helpful to remember that we can have more than one calling. You don’t have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life, just what adventure you want to go on next. You might spend the next 15 years working as a software engineer at small, innovative startups.
Then, you might decide to spend the next several years traveling the world and writing a book about your experiences — or, maybe you decide to start working as a teacher, educating the next generation on the marvel that is technology. The point is, our callings will change and grow and morph over time; we can’t perfectly plan for the future, and we shouldn’t try to.
Phase III: Committing
Welcome to the final part of a long article and an even longer journey. While I don’t have much specific advice to give when it comes to this part of your journey, as it will vary greatly from person to person, I can give it my best shot.
At this point, you will not only continue to use the tools already described above, but you will start working toward achieving your calling and why statement.
First things first, establish a clear vision of what you want to achieve. Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? 10? 25? Once you do that, work towards figuring out the best path to getting there; create a path of goals and milestones you need to complete in order to reach that final vision.
For example, this might include attending medical school or getting a job as an editor for a short film, or writing your first novel. The step after medical school would be residency; or, after your first editing job you can use the final project as proof of your skill to get a job editing an even bigger project; or, you might get an agent and start contacting publishers. You can’t achieve success in a day; it takes time and effort, but careful planning helps speed up the process.
And that’s it — the ultimate guide to following your passion.
But before you click away, there is one last idea I want to share. It’s a bit counterintuitive, given that I’ve just spent the last several thousand words convincing you of the importance of finding a calling, but I would like to stress that it’s not only through our careers and accomplishments that we will find meaning in our lives.
Often, we sacrifice health, relationships, and values to pursue a vision, reassuring ourselves that once we get there it will all be worth it. But, even if we do manage to reach that holy grail, we still feel empty inside, and we assume that means there is still more we have to accomplish.
To avoid this, it’s important to remember that it’s not about what we do, but how we do it.
When we act with intention and the goal to do the best we can, to be the best we can, we live meaningful lives regardless of what we do.
When we fail and we fall — as we most certainly will — it doesn’t define us. It’s how we deal with that failure that shows who we truly are — our attitude in which we meet life and all the hardships and challenges that it has to offer.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for a career you’re passionate about and attempt to make a meaningful impact on the world. You should. Just recognize that simply doing more isn’t the path to fulfillment — it’s the path you take, the people you meet, and the memories you make. That’s what makes life worth living.