It took me over forty years to find my very own passion. All the clues were there, right from the start of my early childhood. But I never put the pieces together, and it took the wisdom of four decades of life to finally figure everything out.
Like most things in life, the answer is actually very simple once you’ve figured it all out.
To find your own passion, all you need to do is walk through the following four steps, and honestly answer all the questions. I’ll take you through each step and show you my answers.
Here is your first question.
What are you really good at?
The first question you need to answer is – what are you really good at? What can you do effortlessly with your eyes closed, while other people struggle and need to rehearse a hundred times to get it right?
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success. His surprising conclusion was that natural talent played almost no role in determining success. Instead, he found a clear relationship between hours of practice and achievement. Anyone who spends roughly ten thousand hours of practice at something will achieve mastery in that field.
Is there anything you’ve spent at least 10,000 hours in your life doing? Maybe you’re an expert at playing a musical instrument?Or maybe you’re an expert at diagnosing medical conditions? Perhaps I can show you a company balance sheet, and you can tell me in seconds if the company is hiding something?
If you’re in your thirties, or (like me) in your forties, your top skills will overlap with your career. Whatever you’ve been doing for the last few decades you’ve mastered by now. The skills that are required for you to do your job have become innate.
Homework: write down all skills that you’ve spent at least 10,000 hours of your life practicing. Which fields have you mastered?
I myself have achieved mastery in Computer Programming. I started programming when I was 10 years old, on my dad’s old MZ-80K computer.
I worked my way through several programming languages, and in 2001 I specialized in C#. I have 36 years of programming experience, and 16 years of experience with C# and .NET. More than enough to claim my 10,000 hours.
Okay, next question.
What do you love to do?
This is where it gets hard – what do you actually love to do?
Let’s say you’re a successful doctor with 20 years of experience under your belt. I’m sure you like your job, but do you really love it? And why did you go into medicine in the first place?
Was it because you love to save people? Are you passionate about eliminating disease? Or is it because your dad was also a doctor, and it would have been unthinkable for you to study anything else?
Discovering that your entire career was based on parental pressure can be quite traumatic, so this is a difficult question to work through. You may be in denial, having convinced yourself for decades that you love the field you’re in. Sorting through your feelings to find your true passion can be a very difficult process.
Here’s a trick – the thing you love to do is what doesn’t feel like work. So if you bounce out of bed every day, thinking “wow, I can’t wait to get to work again!”, then you’re probably doing something that you really love. But if the days all blend together until you wonder where the year has gone, then perhaps it’s time to do some self-reflection.
Another thing you can try is to think back to your childhood. What did you enjoy doing back then, before everybody started telling you about education, careers, and income opportunities? As children, we tend to naturally gravitate to activities we really enjoy doing.
Homework: are you really happy doing what you do? If not, try to think of an activity or line of work that would make you happy. What doesn’t feel like work to you? What did you enjoy doing as a child? Write down anything that comes to mind.
This process can easily take a couple of months, so don’t try to rush it. Write the question down on a piece of paper, look at it every day, and try to think for a few minutes about it. See how your feelings evolve over time.
In all honesty, I had no idea what to do with my life. I grew up with hyper-critical parents who left no room for self-discovery. My dad was a Chemist, so pursuing a technical career was the path of least friction. In middle school I was really good at Physics, so I decided to enroll in a University Physics program. But I was never very passionate about it.
Six years later I graduated and still didn’t know what to do. I applied for jobs in IT and the Space Industry for six months. Finally, an IT company hired me and the rest is history.
If I look back at my childhood, what I really loved is telling and reading stories. I devoured the local library, reading every single book they had. I told stories all the time, weaving my daily experiences into arcane narratives. My parents, who are very literally-minded people, didn’t appreciate that at all.
Later in life, I ended up in front of a classroom by chance and discovered I had a talent for teaching.
And if you think about it, this sort of makes sense. You could say that teaching is just another form of storytelling.
So here are the things I love to do, that don’t feel like work at all:
- Reading and telling stories
- Making a lasting impact on the world
Are you being responsible?
Now it’s time for a reality check. We have our list of things we love, but are they realistic?
After 20 years of being a lawyer, I totally get it if your passion is to drop everything, learn to play the guitar, trek through the desert, and find yourself. But if you have young children this is a really bad idea. You have responsibilities now, you need to earn enough money to put your kids through college. Not everything you love is going to be compatible with those responsibilities. The mature thing to do is let go of anything that is no longer compatible with your lifestyle.
Maybe your big dream is to join a circus and become an acrobat? Well, if you’re over forty, better let that dream go. Your body cannot take that kind of beating anymore, and you’d never be able to compete with younger acrobats.
And quite often we find ourselves falling in love with the end point of a career, and not with the actual process of getting there. Being a famous guitarist is awesome, but becoming a famous guitarist is a long hard uncomfortable slog. You’d better enjoy playing for hours in cramped bars for little or no money because that’s what it takes to reach the goal.
So what you need to do in this step is be totally honest with yourself, and eliminate any things you love that are no longer realistic.
Homework: go through your list of things you love. Be totally honest and realistic with yourself. How many are no longer attainable? How many are in conflict with your current responsibilities? Cross those off your list.
Here’s my list of things I crossed off my list:
- Become a Pilot
- Be a Digital Nomad and launch a Drop-Shipping Store
- Take a one-year sabbatical and work on self-development
I’m 46, I can no longer be a pilot because of my eyesight. I don’t want to become a digital nomad anymore because I’ve seen the nomad scene and it ain’t pretty. And taking a year off is not a good idea in today’s volatile business- and political climate. I’m married, and I now have a responsibility to my wife to bring home a good income.
Combine your skills with your passions
Now it’s time to put everything together. You have a curated list of things you love, and another list of everything you’re good at. It’s time to put these two together.
People will be interested in the things you’re really good at. But you actually want to do the things you really love. Is there a way to combine these two? If you succeed at that, you’ve struck gold.
Are you a really good lawyer but tired of the job? Would you rather support people instead? You could give career advice to legal students.
Or maybe you’re a famous concert musician? Have you played hundreds of concerts in impossible circumstances? Use your experience to teach risk management classes.
The trick is to find a way to share your experience with others, but in a way that you love.
Homework: look at both lists. How can you combine the items on both lists? Is there a way for you to share your experience with others, but in a way you really love? Write down everything that comes to mind.
I have decades of programming experience, and I love teaching and making an impact on the world. So for me, the obvious solution is to teach young programmers how to become much better at their job.
This is a very fulfilling job because I strongly believe that easy access to high-quality education is going to revolutionize the world. Economies and democracies can only function well when everyone is educated, and to achieve that we need to remove all barriers to higher education.
And that’s why I’m not in front of a traditional classroom. I teach online, all my courses are on the Internet. I can easily educate thousands of students by myself, without needing an expensive university building, or require my students to travel and sit with me in the same physical classroom.
So in summary, I kind of rolled into IT by accident. It wasn’t really a field I was passionate about at the time, but I stuck with it and clocked up my 10,000 hours and more. Then, by chance, I discovered I love teaching, and this resonated with my childhood passion for storytelling. By combining my programming skills with my love for teaching, I created a career in online education.
I’m trying to change the world. How about you?
Now it’s your turn. What are you really good at, and what do you love doing? Try to combine these two, and let me know where that leads you.
Also published on Medium.