I talked on Wednesday about why skills and talents aren’t enough to get you to your calling. Today, I want to talk about why passion is important — and how you can start to engage with it to figure out what would be fulfilling to you.
But first, a point
A career is not synonymous with a calling. Now, you may have no need for a calling, and that is all fine and good.
When we get to the point of looking for our calling, we’re usually focused on the fact that we’re dissatisfied with our careers. But a career is not a calling — no matter how virtuous it might appear to be.
Really, a career is a series of jobs. They may be related to one another, and they may be related to your calling, but a career is fundamentally focused on job titles, promotions, and how well positions build on one another to “add up to something” — usually the corner office or the full-professor position or whatever else counts as the pinnacle.
A calling, on the other hand, will certainly find an expression in jobs and careers, but it goes beyond that. A calling is a felt expression of our deepest selves, and that means it can’t fundamentally be restricted to the workplace. Rather, a calling is about who we are in the world and how we want to live. That’s why it’s important to focus on our passions.
Entertainment is not passion
Talking about passion is often precarious, because the word has lost some of its precision. But just as we distinguish deep joy from pleasure, I want to distinguish passion from interest.
That is, in common language these days, we talk about having “a passion for” all kinds of things. Shoes. Mad Men. Travel. A rousing conversation. But these aren’t likely to lead you to your calling.
Don’t get me wrong — they’re all wonderful things. And the things that catch our interest and give us pleasure are sometimes expressions of our callings. But our calling is something deeper and less concrete than a simple interest.
Rather, your passion is the thread that runs underneath the things that interest you, the things that catch your attention, and the things that you find compelling.
A framework for thinking about your passion
Laurence G. Boldt suggests, in Zen and the Art of Making a Living, that to start getting at our passion, we ask ourselves what question (probably existential) our life is the answer to.
Who am I? What is the nature of beauty? What is evil? What does it mean to be good? How can humans truly communicate with one another?
The big questions of our lives are, well, big. They’re the kind of questions we probably won’t ever completely work out the answers to. But when we tune into them, when they’re at the center, they speak to every part of our lives, and they do so with power and grace.
This is indeed practical
I bet some of you, right now, are thinking that’s not practical, that it won’t get you another job or help you figure out what the hell to do next.
But it is and it will.
If your passion is the thing that moves you, that compels you, that, on some important level, obsesses you, then building your career out of your passion makes it far more likely that you’ll find that career fulfilling. It’s far more likely that you’ll be happy, that you’ll be motivated, and that you won’t find yourself, two years down the road, asking “what next?” again.
In other words, starting with what seems esoteric may be the shortest way to get from here to where you want to go, however impractical it looks on the outside.
Identifying your question
That doesn’t mean figuring our question out is easy or straightforward. It’s going to take some time and some dedication. But here are three ways to get started.
Journal. Write about the concept of the question, write about the questions that fascinated you as a child, write about the funny family story about that question you asked the minister at dinner that one time, write about the things that are important to you now. Ask your subconscious what the question is and keep writing.
Gather a few of your favorite things. Just because it hasn’t been conscious doesn’t mean your question and your passion haven’t been guiding your life. Write down your favorite novels, your favorite movies, or your favorite music — what do they all have in common aesthetically, thematically, emotionally? There’s a clue. Write down all the hobbies you love, all the dreams you’ve ever dreamed, all the things you’ve ever been passingly in love with. What are the common threads? How do all of these things fit together? There’s another clue.
Ask your friends. Just your close ones, of course, but they might be able to see and point to the themes of your life more easily than you, being in the middle of them, can. And if some of the answers feel off, be curious about what’s off — and what might be more right.
It’s a step
Identifying your passion or your question isn’t, of course, the end of the journey. But it’s an important foundational step towards aligning your life with the things that matter most to you.