You are Uniquely Passionate
“There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Nelson Mandela
Do you know what you are passionate about?
Most people I talk to cannot say without hesitation what they are most passionate about.
Put the kettle on and take five minutes now to try honestly answering these two questions using the statements below.
The thing I am most passionate about and get excited and animated, or even annoyed about when I am engaged with it is ………………………………………….
If you have answered this question, you’re in the minority. But, even if you have answered it I want to politely suggest that you may have given a clear and compelling answer but one that is not entirely true for you on a heart level.
The fact you are reading this means there is a good chance you have been doing the same thing for quite a long time. You may not even remember how you got to where you are. It is what it is. Maybe you cannot recall how you ended up doing what you are doing. Or maybe you remember the chronology of it all but you do not remember anyone ever having a ‘what makes you tick?’ conversation with you before you ended up on what now seems like a pre-destined train line taking you to a destination you never knowingly asked to go to. Does this sound familiar?
If such a conversation were to have taken place in your early years, your teacher may have asked you: What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? What makes you angry? What did you absolutely love doing as a child? Which problem in the world would you love to solve and are you willing to educate yourself in school and beyond to enable you to solve that problem?
These would have been great questions for us to have been asked in an ideal world and may have steered our life ships in different trajectories. I think part of the problem lies within our educational systems which are built around a standardised and not personalised approach to learning.
In his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Ken Robinson, eloquently describes the above problem.
“The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” And, “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”
The point is not that we want the future generations to look more like Peter Pan than Albert Einstein, rather we each flourish more when our own individual design is given room to shape our life paths.
By developing a deep understanding of your “what makes you tick?” I believe it is possible to avoid becoming yet another dissatisfied and emotionally disconnected statistic. This is not a good place to be and there is an alternative.
One of the problems is that we often manufacture compelling answers to important questions.
I was once representing someone in a court case and in assessing the evidence given, the judge said, ‘Reconstruction has replaced recollection. You do not appear to remember what happened, so you have reconstructed in your mind what you think happened”. I suggest we all do that more often than we care to admit.
The author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, (Riv) Sloman’s research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and reasoning. He describes it as “the illusion of explanatory depth.” And our tendency to over-estimate our understanding of how the world works.
“The decisions we make, the attitudes we form, the judgments we make, depend very much on what other people are thinking,” he said.
This explains why we like to fill in the gaps with ‘convenient preferred answers’ and therefore in this book we are taking a more forensic approach to answering these meaningful questions.
What are you uniquely passionate about?
“There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Nelson Mandela
Passion: Passion is caused by strong feelings or beliefs. Synonyms include: ardent, zealous, heartfelt, animated, energetic, raging, burning;
What burns inside you? I have heard it said until you have found a cause you would die for; you have yet to find something you will live for. What causes make you angry, happy, emotional and sad? None of these promises an answer, but they are a good place to start looking.
The famous writer Nicholas Sparks wrote:
“The saddest people I’ve ever met in life are the ones who do not care deeply about anything at all. Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there is nothing to make it last.”
And similarly Joseph Hill Whedon, the American screenwriter, director, producer, comic book writer, and composer writes:
“Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping... waiting... and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir... open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us... guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love... the clarity of hatred... the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1998) Joss Whedon
So above we see two interesting perspectives. I am especially drawn to the strong words of Joss Whedon because it undoes the notion that passion is just the feel-good factor and a feeling of delight linked to the release of serotonin in the brain. Passion can equally be birthed out of anger, pain, grief, and sorrow. It is, simply put, the bit about us that leans forward and says ‘this really matters’. It can matter for many reasons.
I cannot read Whedon’s words without thinking about some extraordinary humanitarian movements which were birthed not out of joy and delight but out of a place of grief and sorrow that came from witnessing injustice.
We have been privileged in getting to know a charity based in South Africa called Hands at Work, www.handsatwork.org, that works with orphans and widows. They have pioneered a sustainable community-based care model that empowers the carers in the community. The founders George and Carolyn describe how passion stirred and then howled to them, (to borrow the words of Joss Whedon).
George and Carolyn Snyman were a seemingly ordinary, white, middle-class couple who started their young married life in a leafy suburb of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, at the height of the Apartheid era. “We just wanted to live a normal life,” George says. Both George and Carolyn had what they describe as a conversion experience of God bursting into their lives and “Everything changed in our lives,” George remembers. “The way we viewed money, our friends, our time. Everything changed.” Carolyn testifies to George’s metamorphosis: “He couldn’t drive past people standing on the side of the road. He would often bring all sorts of people off the streets home with him. People he’d passed on his way home from work.”
At around this time, George met a black pastor named Hezekiah from Hillbrow, the inner city of Johannesburg. Together they visited black townships on weekends. George was exposed to a great deal of suffering amongst the poor. Faced with this reality, George and Carolyn started grappling with what it meant to be a Christian in an affluent, white suburb whilst simultaneously so much hardship was unfolding in South Africa’s marginalised townships. “I learned the names of the people dying and it became personal to me. They told me their stories and fears. All I could do was cry with them and pray for them. Of course, I also buried them all. There was a time when we had no money and I buried people in blankets”.
The above is the real story around the birth of Hands at Work. I encourage you to visit their website and find out more.
So many of our well known charitable organisations on this planet trace their origins to people who stumbled upon something that required a response and then eventually an entirely new trajectory in life. What is clear to me from this story, is that George and Carolyn did not sit at home talking about their ‘what ifs?’ but they left their comfort zone and connected with other people who could help them turn that initial spark into something more.
The big question for me has been whether some people are passionate and have an innate capacity to live passionately and care deeply about things but sadly others are not born passionate and need to live a more mediocre and emotionally disconnected life. Passion in this context is not to be confused with different extrovert personality types; still waters can run very deep. I know several people who are rather quiet but have a fire in their eyes.
There are clearly people who have always known what burned within them. Take, for example, the stereotypical ice sculptor who proclaims “I saw the block of ice and just knew that I had to turn it into a horse or other complex mammal and that is what I will spend the next thirty years of my life doing”.
There are musicians, athletes, and engineers who just knew from an early age that they were drawn to a particular path.
The best example I can think of is the famous artist and comic who always loved doodling in class and created ironic cartoons for his own amusement. It was always there and sure enough, his name is Matt Groening the man behind ‘The Simpsons’.
But, I suggest for most of us passions are in fact something we usually discover in seed form, and then we nurture, water, mix with other things until it grows into a tree, or even an orchard. The seeds probably begin as no more than a curiosity or an interest or even an annoyance but over time and with our collaboration, grow into something far bigger.
Perhaps we can become passionate in a similar way to falling in love with someone. There might be an initial interest birthed out of a mutual hobby and physical attraction, and that then leads to a cup of coffee and then over time it can grow into a lifelong loving commitment based on knowing and being known.
Passions can therefore begin as something as cold as a sense of duty but develop into curiosity and then dedication and over time a full-blown fascination.
I draw your attention to this if you are someone who cannot point to an all-encompassing passion in the here and now but you can probably, with the help of friends, identify the seeds of passion in your life.
We were recently in London at the steps to the National Gallery overlooking Trafalgar Square and there were some street performers. We listened to a classically trained violinist playing Coldplay and we were transfixed. The thing that caught my attention even more than the music was the way different people responded. We were there for at least forty-five minutes and I observed the way people behaved.
There were pedestrians who from the other side of the road paused and listened even though their view was blocked by the passing red double-decker buses. Then there were people who took the next step and crossed over to take a photo or short video to no doubt post on Instagram. Then there were those who moved even closer and put their phones away and bags down and wanted to just listen up close. This inner circle was engaging differently. Some were tapping a foot, some rocking side to side and then there was one gentleman I will never forget who had his eyes closed, head bowed and his arms were waving. He was dancing like a child, as if no one was even watching.
I share this story because it mirrors how the seeds of passion probably work in real life. Something gets your attention and you feel an urge to move closer.
Is not this more the case rather than the individuals who were born Mozarts or Roger Federers? I think this is how George and Carolyn candidly describe their journey. Without a doubt, something or in their case someone, grabbed their attention but then the next leg of their journey involved tiny steps in one direction.
It is possible that your true passions have been hidden and out of sight for a long time. I found the question, what am I passionate about, hard to answer. I listed things I thought I was passionate about in my moleskin notebook, and there was a lengthy list (everything from travel, supporting friends, to horticulture and creating entrepreneurial solutions to problems) but so many of the items were things I thought I ought to be passionate about or seemed logical based on my journey rather than things that really moved me on a heart level. This is a process of moving away from being an echo to finding your own voice.
There are two steps I have found to be useful in uncovering passion. The first is to look for the obvious ‘trees’ (to use the seed analogy) because for some people it may lie waiting in plain sight. The second step is to look for the ‘seeds’ of passion which can grow into something bigger.
At this point I would like to invite you to engage with a short but profound exercise:
Gather together a small group, or as I did send a WhatsApp message to four to five people whom you trust and know you and have observed you up close.
Ask them: What do you think I am passionate about?
Caution. Please insist they ignore what you say you are passionate about and ask them to just share their honest view based on the way you live your life and the themes that seem to come up again and again. When have they seen a sparkle in your eye whilst you are talking? When have they seen you animated, leaning forward in a conversation and behaving like it meant more to you than to other people?
Second, dig deeper on your own. Here are some great questions to spur you on:
1. What subject could I read one hundred books about without getting bored?
2. What could I do for three years even if I were not paid?
3. If I won £100m on the lottery how would I spend my time (and that money)?
4. Who do I most envy for the work/stuff they get to do, and what about it inspires me?
5. What did I love doing as a child? (Before the pressure to pass exams took over)
6. Which things have made me angry and motivated me to do something for someone else?
Finally, with the help of your friends and/or mentor try to complete this sentence:
I have felt most alive and animated on the inside when I ……………..