With the explosion of TED talks and the crowning of Steve Jobs as the ultimate life coach, finding your passion has become some kind of national sport. On campuses around the country, ambitious undergraduates are tearing their hair out to define their own passion, trying to compress their aspirations in life into rigid labels that fit into an elevator pitch. While their efforts are, sadly, almost always fruitless, the rhetorical gymnastics give results that merit their own tumblr.
Here are a few of my favorites:
“I’m passionate about social innovation”
“I’m passionate about leveraging social media to drive systemic change.”
“I’m passionate about building a personal brand.”
I have no idea what those mean, and even less of an idea of what you do when socially innovating is on the calendar. But I do know that if one’s definition of ‘passion’ contains any words regularly on the cover of Fast Company, something needs to be reevaluated.
It was the founder of that magazine, Alan Webber, that launched my own misguided efforts to define my passion.
There were ten of us at the roundtable discussion, all college students in suits who still needed fake IDs. I can’t remember most of what he said — I spent the meeting planning my flight path around the conference table, trying to be the first to shake Alan’s hand and seize his business card. I wanted him as a life mentor.
Right before I was ready to pounce, he offered up a tidbit of wisdom that left my sophomore soul in awe. “I keep an index card by my bed. On one side, I write what gets me up in the morning. On the other side, I write what keeps me up at night. I look at it every day, and if I decide I disagree with it, I tear the thing up and write a new index card.”
With my mind blow and the keys to success, I spent two hours crafting a follow up email thanking him for his insights. Then I got a big marker (so my passion would be visible even if read from the other side of the bed) and poised it over the index card. Nothing came. Disappointed, I left the index card and marker on the side of my bed, so I could seize it when inspiration struck.
It lay there for six months, aggravating me more by the day. How was I going to achieve greatness with no clear mission and an empty notecard?
I have to admit I’m laughing at myself and the immense stress I felt with regards to that card. It was pointless self torture.
I think passion is much too strong of a word for what I was looking for. It has an implication of permanence, of dedication; it means commitment. There’s a notion that when you find it, all of life will become clear, and you have a duty to drop everything else and chase the dream. Undergrads should stay away from it with the same diligence as the phrase “I love you.” Once you say it, you’re held accountable.
Besides, trying to find your calling in life in college is a quixotic quest. Most college students are still dealing with the basics, like getting over their childhood insecurities and worrying about their last fight with their girlfriend. Sheltered campuses also make it difficult to experience the struggle that forges deep conviction.
You cannot will yourself into finding a passion. It doesn’t matter how many times you go to pitch sessions at incubators, social innovation conferences, or just stay up all night smoking weed and debating philosophy with your friends. It doesn’t matter how many meetings you schedule with life mentors at Starbucks. Your passion will not come in a flash of inspiration. If it’s there, it will float to the top when you experience real challenges.
So if you’re rich and privileged enough to actually worry about finding your calling in life, you can chill out now.
Until you do, I have a confession: It’s kind of fun to watch you struggle.