A couple of years ago I was chatting with friends over a potluck supper at our synagogue, up on my soapbox about empowering folks to follow their passion.
“But what if you don’t have a passion?” one woman asked. “How do I even find one in order to follow it? How do I follow my bliss if I don’t even know what it is?”
[Cue sound of screeching brakes. Cue *cricket*cricket* sound inside my head.]
I confess I was stymied. I had certainly spent years of my own life devoid of a life passion, so I knew what that was like. After finding my bliss — dance — and then losing it to injury, it took almost a decade before I found another one, and for a long time I thought perhaps I never would — that I’d live out the rest of my life in shades of grey.
Many years later, sitting at this potluck table, I felt blessed to have multiple (new) life passions, and yet I had no idea what to say to the passionless woman.
I’ve been thinking lately about how I discovered my passions, and I now realize that part of the reason I had no answer for my seeking friend is that the rhetoric we typically use to talk about life passions is all wrong.
We speak of “finding” your passion, of “discovering” your passion, as if it’s hidden behind a closed door and all you have to do is open the handle, and *wham!* Passion!
When I reflect back at my own life, though, that’s not how it happened at all. I realized lately that the “eureka” stories I like to tell about finding my various blisses are actually lies.
Let’s take a look:
Lie #1: Dance
I often say that I discovered dance at age sixteen and fell instantly, madly in love with it.
It makes a great story, but it’s a lie.
In fact, I took a modern dance class with some friends in ninth grade, two or three years earlier, and when the class turned out to be classical modern dance, rather than the MTV, pop culture dance that I think we expected (commonly referred to by the misnomer “jazz dance”), the most enthusiastic movement I think I mustered for those six weeks was some eye-rolling.
That was followed by two years in high school P.E. dance class, though I use this title lightly. The heavyset teacher didn’t teach us any technique to speak of, but we did get to move to music, and it was a godsend alternative to the usual football/basketball/volleyball torture I’d had to suffer through since middle school.
It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year in high school, after two years of P.E. dance, that I finally took a “real” dance class at a local private dance school.
That was the moment when my passion started to blossom, my *wham!* passion! moment, but without my exposure to dance in the years prior, I doubt there would have been a “eureka” right then. I think my earlier experiences were what planted the seed, and repeated exposure over time — with practice and ongoing engagement — was what fertilized its growth.
Lie #2: Calligraphy
I’ve also been known to quip that I picked up a calligraphy pen at age 28 and fell in love.
Which also makes a nice story, but is also a lie.
In fact, my brother gave me a set of calligraphy fountain pens years before (high school? college?), which I’d maybe pulled out once or twice before I put the box on a shelf and forgot about it.
After college graduation, while casting about for what to do next with my life, I pulled that box of pens off the shelf and thought maybe I’d be a calligrapher.
Over the course of about a week, I tried my hand at a few letters at the kitchen table, and trotted down to the college career center to see what they had to say about Professional Calligrapher as a profession. Surprisingly enough, there was a file for “Calligrapher,” but from the handful of articles assembled inside it appeared that all calligraphers ever did was address envelopes and fill in certificates.
Bor-ing! This was not nearly an interesting enough end goal to keep me practicing at my kitchen table, so the pens got shelved once more.
It wasn’t until five years later that I pulled out my calligraphy pens again, after I’d started making art. Suddenly calligraphy seemed like a really useful skill for someone looking to somehow turn my art into some kind of a business.
What had previously seemed boring now had a very intriguing glow. I immersed myself in letter forms, pens, ink, books, classes and within a matter of months, another life passion was born.
Again, though I often think of it as a “eureka” moment, my passion for calligraphy grew gradually over a period of years.
Lie #3: Music
Here are the stories of my two big musical passions:
Singing: I discovered jazz at 38 when a friend gave me a home-burned CD with classic tracks by twenty different jazz vocalists. I signed up for a jazz singing class, and was instantly hooked.
Ukulele: Three summers ago, after never having the slightest interest in the ukulele, I took a uke class at music camp, and feel madly in love again.
Well, let me clarify — those things did happen. But my passion for making music didn’t spring fully-formed from either incident.
Of course I’d heard jazz throughout my life — I just didn’t realize that those great songs I’d heard somewhere were jazz. And it certainly never occurred to me that I might sing and perform them!
I also had seven years of piano lessons as a kid, and another seven years playing violin and viola. I sang in a choir in fifth and sixth grades, and in a couple of musicals in college, and oh, yeah — there was a summer school guitar class in first grade, too.
So making music was part of my life, but passion? Nope. Definitely not. I was one of those kids who had to be coaxed to practice.
It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that the music bug bit me hard. When I picked up the guitar at 32, it was ever so much more interesting than it had been in first grade. In my 20s and 30s I enjoyed singing and leading services at my synagogue, and started taking voice lessons because I kept going hoarse, and wanted to learn how to not do that. Which eventually led to the jazz singing class at 38.
In other words, little by little, I gradually wandered into love with music (kinda the way I did with my life partner, actually), until eventually it evolved into a true passion, but that was a loooooong time in coming.
Lie #4: Writing
Okay, this one doesn’t really fit in my “4 truths and a lie” structure, but I wanted to include it because it’s just especially ironic.
The truth is that the bulk of what I do “professionally” nowadays is write, and expressing myself in words is one of my core creative pursuits.
Writing definitely qualifies as one of my life passions!
But although I’ve been writing my entire life, it was never something I felt passionate about until just a couple of years ago — after starting my blog, in fact.
Way back in 1995, I started making art in order to procrastinate from writing. I thought I wanted to be a writer, but kinda hated, um, actually writing. As I became more passionate about art, writing dropped completely off my radar (and boy was I relieved at the time!)
For fifteen years the only writing I really did was in my journal. Utilitarian note-taking. Jotting down my thoughts. Brain-dumps. It was a pragmatic endeavor, not a passionate one.
Only when I discovered a larger purpose for my writing (to make a difference! to figure out my thinking on a given subject! to spread my ideas!) did it start to take on the glow of passion.
The Truth About Finding Passion
I actually have a lot more stories than that.
I’m passionate about yoga, even went through teacher training and taught for a bit, but I really disliked it when I first started, over twenty years ago (!) For some reason I kept at it in bits and snatches over the years, until eventually it grew into a passion.
For a number of years I was passionate about Judaism, had an adult bat mitzvah at 31, was on the board of my synagogue, edited the newsletter, chaired the Shalom Committee, and taught myself to read Hebrew. I still help lead High Holy Days services every year. As a kid, though, I was utterly disdainful of organized religion, saw Judaism as “just another patriarchal religion” which had nothing to say to me as a woman. I had less than zero interest — I wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I discovered Judaism and Feminism were not necessarily mutually exclusive, and got interested in learning more. Another case of “wandering into love.”
What all of these stories have in common is that each life passion was not inborn, nor was it a eureka moment, but rather my passion developed gradually, over time. Because the intensity of passion burns so fiercely, it’s easy to forget that it started off as an ember, not spontaneous combustion.
Serendipitously, right as I was struggling to put words to all of my thoughts around the finding of passions, Jonathan Fields published an article on his blog by Barrie Davenport, a certified life passion coach who has broken life passion down into an equation that resonates powerfully with my own recent conclusions.
Let’s look at life passion as an equation for a moment . . .
Strong interest + practice + engagement + purpose = life passion
- You have a strong interest in something.
- You begin to practice it to gain proficiency, and either you do or do not become increasingly engaged in it.
- If you do become engaged, you continue to practice and pursue it more fervently.
- It takes on a meaning in your life and fulfills you in ways that support your values.
- It then has a larger purpose for you.
One day you wake up and realize you are passionate about this something. You love it. It’s part of you, and you will find a way to make it happen come hell or high water.
More often than not, the above-described scenario takes a long time — maybe years.
Hot damn! That is exactly what happened for me, with each of the passions I describe above!
I wish I could go back in time to that potluck dinner at my synagogue. I know what I would say to the woman who wanted to know how to find her passion.
Go try things, I’d say. Follow the tiniest interests that appear on your radar. Do stuff. Work at it for a bit. If it doesn’t engage you, allow yourself to follow your nose to something else. Wash, rinse, repeat, until something tugs at you more powerfully (this may take awhile!)
Davenport has a wonderful point about life passion, which I’d also share:
The process of transformation from investigating a strong interest to waking up and recognizing it as your passion is a passionate experience itself.
What this Means for the Passionless
You don’t have a passion and wish to find one? Great! Here’s your first opportunity to start bringing passion into your life!
Allow your quest for a passion to be a passionate experience. Take pleasure in the journey. You never know — that pursuit that you dropped years ago because it was boring, or too hard, or god-knows-what, may re-emerge later as an honest to goodness life passion.
If you give it a chance.
The prescription to follow your bliss can seem ridiculous when you don’t have one. I understand. I’ve been there. But even if you don’t have a bliss, you can follow something.
Do that enough, and you may find yourself gradually wandering into love with one of those somethings, until *wham!* passion!
But watch out — you may also find yourself forgetting that your relationship with your passion was ever less than passionate.
Then you’ll have your own eureka
story lie to tell.
I’m curious, if you have a (or more than one) life passion, was yours also an experience of gradually wandering into love?
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!