“Just follow your passion!” You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again from well-meaning family members, guidance counselors, Disney movies, and online motivational speakers with volume control issues. And yeah, sure, you’d love to follow this advice—if only you knew what your passion was.
If you’re feeling stuck, here are six steps to discover what you really want to do with your life. Take time to work through the process and know that, no matter what, you’ll be getting closer to where you want to be.
1. Start with the right perspective.
If you went into a restaurant thinking, “I’m not hungry. There’ll be nothing here I want to eat. I don’t want to be here,” the menu isn’t going to look appealing. You won’t give it your time or attention, and you’re unlikely to find food you’ll enjoy.
The same principle applies to passion-seeking. If you’re convinced that finding your passion is hard, or that it’s not going to happen for you, you’ll remain closed to possibilities. You’ll block the little nudges, pulls, and signals that guide us. After all, how can you expect to find fulfilling work if you don’t believe it exists?
Instead, choose to adopt the perspective that you can do what you love with your life and you will find your passion. One of the best ways to strengthen this point of view is to surround yourself with and talk to people who are living examples.
If you have friends and family who are following their passions, have a conversation with them about how they found what they loved and began to work toward making it their career or a significant part of their lives. It might also be a good time to expand your circle; associate with—and be inspired by—people who love their work. You can start on LinkedIn or with alumni groups—reach out to the people who seem to be following their passion and set up a few informational interviews.
2. Think about what you’ve already enjoyed doing.
Once you’ve decided that your passion is findable, it’s time to look for evidence of what you already love to do. If you scan the landscape of your life, you’ll notice certain experiences peak up above the horizon. It’s so valuable to delve into these “peak moments” and extract the key ingredients.
Consider yourself a beach-trawler, discerning between the gold and the cheap metal. For example, one of my favorite summer jobs involved teaching English to teenagers. I might assume the key ingredient was the English language, or young people. But when I paid attention to my metaphorical metal detector, it became clear that the bleep went off when I was being a leader within a community and teaching that community something of great value to them. That’s exactly what I do now in my work—but without the teenagers, present-perfect tense, or vocabulary tests!
So think of all the experiences you’ve had that you’ve loved most—without limiting yourself just to work experiences—and investigate what made them so fulfilling. If there was a job you loved, what were your tasks? What kind of work environment was it? What was the company working toward? Who did you get to interact with? What was most exciting and/or satisfying? Or maybe you still reminisce about the trip you took to Europe after college. Did you love it because you saw new things and learned about new cultures? Or because of the people you were with? Or maybe it was the problem-solving you had to do to make it from one country to the other on the small number of Euros you had budgeted?
Look for themes that come up a lot or that you feel strongly about. These are your key ingredients.
3. Explore ways to tie the things you like together.
When you look at all the ingredients that matter to you, they might at first seem entirely disconnected. Let’s say you love speaking French, playing with words, analyzing and categorizing, and being a leader within a community. How could you construct a career from these? It’d be like peering into your Chopped basket and seeing cocoa powder, tofu, and carrots and wondering: How could I possibly make something delicious that includes all of these?
This is the time to look beyond the ingredients and choose a meal; something that all of these ingredients can come together to make. For example, my colleague Abby—whose diverse passions are described above—helps business owners to find the right words to fit their brand. She analyzes and categorizes copy into what she calls “voice values.” She draws wisdom from previously running a funky French lifestyle boutique, and French words pepper her own copy, giving her brand that special je ne sais quoi.
What kind of career would allow you to incorporate as many of your ingredients as you can? Take into account not just job duties, but work environments, company goals and missions, and even how this career would fit into the life you want outside of work.
4. Discern between a hobby and a profitable passion.
It might be that, through this exploration, you fall head over heels in love with an activity that engrosses you—something that lights you up and makes your heart sing. But now you have to ask yourself the next question: Who would benefit from (and pay for) this?
Well, if you want to contribute your passion to society and make an income from it, you need to get realistic about whether this could actually turn into a career—and what you would need to do to make that happen.
For example, my client Lisa loves to draw. She makes art for the sheer joy of it. When she attempted to turn this profitable business, she realized that the market that was hungriest for her talents were business owners who needed illustrations for their blogs, websites, and products. This felt like play to Lisa, but in order to make her services marketable, she also needed to add tech skills to her toolkit, so that her design work could be usable online by her ideal clients.
So do your research. This is another step where networking and informational interviews are your friend. Talk to people who are following the same passion and find out if they’re making a living off of it, how, and what other skills and work go into making your passion profitable. There are also plenty of free online resources that can point you toward a plausible career that builds on particular interests. For example, if your passions involve writing and reading, you can check out our list of jobs for people who love words.
You should also think about whether you would enjoy doing these things for a living; for some people a passion is just fun, and turning it into work changes it from a “love to do” to a “have to do” they’re no longer excited about.
5. Break down your fears—so you can overcome them.
When you seek your passion, there’ll be parts of you that go into rebellion. I’d guess that this article itself might be provoking some of those resistant parts! We all have a huge number of fears—around failure, success, visibility, and vulnerability—that speak in sensible voices, instructing us that we mustn’t do what we love.
If you let these voices win, your passion will remain out of your grasp. Instead, look for the fear beneath each supposedly reasonable voice. Uncover the years of conditioning—from parents, school, partners, and colleagues—and reassure the mutinying parts that your ship is sailing in the right direction. In other words, figure out why you might be resisting following your passion and what you need to do to assuage your fears.
For example, if you’re afraid of not having enough money to get by, you might consider saving up before you make any big moves, or starting to pursue your passion on the side while working a full-time job. If you’re convinced you’re not good enough to succeed doing what you’re passionate about, break down why you think that and if these fears are ultimately unfounded or if they’re stemming from wanting to hone certain skills or learn more.
6. Find your right next step.
On my own journey, I’ve mostly lived by the motto: “Leap and the net will appear.” I’ve noticed I couldn’t find the new until I’d said farewell to the old. With each step into the unknown—for example, giving my notice at my part-time salaried job to go fully self-employed—my announcement to the universe has been: “I’m available. I’m serious about this.” But that doesn’t need to be your method.
Find your own version of brave. Discover what risks work for you. Maybe you don’t have the option to leave your job without a guaranteed income, but maybe you can enroll in a class connected to your passion or look for a new job that helps you gain a skill you’ll need to reach your goal. The path of passion is where you do things that scare you enough, without leaving you in a constant state of fear. Expand your comfort zone, rather than leaving it.
Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.