How do you find what you love to do?  And what does that even mean?  I think there are probably very few people who’d rather be at the office than at the beach, or hiking in the mountains, or clubbing at Rain in Las Vegas. The activities may be different for any one individual, but the end result is the same. We’d rather be somewhere else. Maybe a lot of us would rather be anywhere else, but because of commitments we’ve made or the money we earn or whatever, we’re not.

How does this happen? I think most kids start out optimistic about their prospects for a life of fulfilling work (even if we don’t phrase it like that). However, somewhere along the line, we get stuck doing something we moderately dislike (or even actively hate). I think in order to answer this question, and to fix the situation, we need to examine a few tendencies we as humans have.

The first is that we’re liars. We lie to others all the time, so it shouldn’t surprise us that we would lie to ourselves, as well. Oh sure, it’s not nice to say we lie to other people, so we couch it in euphemisms like “white lies” or even just keeping our mouths shut and not “raining on someone’s parade”.  (Incidentally, I’m not suggesting you tell your wife she, in fact, DOES look fat in those pants. Some things really are better left unsaid.)  However, this particular consequence of living in close proximity to other people and wanting to get along makes it that much easier to lie to ourselves, and that’s where we run into trouble.

I would say that the reason why we lie (either to ourselves or to others) is that we don’t want to disappoint.  People on trial for crimes that they committed don’t want to disappoint society for having done something wrong, so they typically plead “not guilty”.  Certainly, the reason they don’t want to disappoint society is because they’ll be punished for breaking the laws we’ve set.  Regardless of their motivation, the bottom line is the same.  So, while it may not be a good practice, this lying to not disappoint, it’s at least understandable, right?  We can see why someone would not want to disappoint society’s expectations of proper behavior because they don’t want to get in trouble.

This rationale doesn’t hold true for lying to yourself, though.  If you lie to yourself, the only person you’re worried about disappointing is you.  You lie because you had personal expectations to do something (lose weight, learn French, make the Dean’s List), and you didn’t do it.  Now, the reasons we give to ourselves for missing these expectations are many, varied, and not necessarily important (“I didn’t lose the weight because I don’t have time to exercise” or “I’m not really that into French” or “Grades aren’t everything”).  What is important is that the real reason and the reason we give ourselves don’t match up.  The real reason you didn’t lose weight (assuming no underlying medical issues) is because you don’t have the discipline to eat fewer calories than you burn.  The real reason you quit studying French is it was hard; same with making the Dean’s List.  We don’t like telling ourselves we’re quitters, though, so we make up external impediments that were out of our control that kept us from doing what we said we wanted to do.

Why do we do this?  If these decisions were truly for us and us alone (so, no one else was relying on us to learn French, or whatever), then there’s no need to hide what happened from ourselves.  We already know it, deep down inside.  The bottom line is we need to quit lying to ourselves.  

This may boil down to a low self-esteem, or laziness, or whatever.  If you ask people if they’d like to be able to have some skill or be able to perform some task (like painting, or playing piano), and you were willing to provide them with the means to achieve that goal (pay for their lessons with skilled teachers, etc.), most people, I would guess, would just say “Oh, I’m not artistic” or “I’ve never been able to play music”.  That’s not the question, though, and it reveals something of their motivations.  You asked them if they’d like to be able to do something, and were willing to provide them the means with which to do it.  They defaulted to reasons why they can’t already do it, which totally misses the point.  What they really mean is they don’t want to fail and are afraid that they will, or they don’t want to put in the time and immense amount of effort required to be really good at something.  They’re either afraid they can’t, or they simply won’t.  But, they put it in terms like “I’ve never been good at music” or “I’m not artistic”.  You see?  That implies they weren’t given the “gift” and they can waive responsibility; it’s not their fault.

I think that this reaction, although probably always part of human nature, has become more prevalent in recent years.  People of my age (early 30’s) and younger in this country are especially susceptible to this way of thinking.  In life, we’ve been given many things and have rarely had to work for something.  When we get to something really hard, like a job, we’re not used to paying our dues.  We don’t want to spend 10 years getting to a position where we feel some type of fulfillment from our work, so we check out.  We either do the bare minimum where we are, or we hop from job to job, never really developing any skills that will allow us to advance into positions of more responsibility where it’s more interesting.  Much like school work, for example.  For a mathematician, the interesting parts of math (whatever those may be) are based on memorizing multiplication tables and learning how to simplify polynomials, which isn’t really fun at the time.

I’m not saying how long you’ve been doing something should be more important than how well you do something, or that seniority should play a huge part in career advancement.  I’m simply saying that there’s more to life than everything being easy, and that something you enjoy, love, or even have a passion for doing isn’t necessarily fun all the time.  This is the second issue we need to address to achieve satisfaction in our work.

The difference between fun and joy isn’t often articulated, but I think it’s key to finding a true passion.  Fun is fleeting and passive.  Joy is much more complex than fun.  Doing something you enjoy, I believe, always involves an element of struggle, of pain in getting to become proficient at it.  Learning to ski involves countless bruises and maybe even some broken bones, but people work through those momentary setbacks in order to achieve their goal of proficiency and it’s beyond satisfying when you first ski a double diamond run (I would imagine).  Joy and love are the same in this sense.  Love is a verb, it’s active.  As anyone in a long-term, committed relationship can tell you, it takes work to maintain it, and it’s not always fun.

So, having a passion for what you do, for enjoying it, implies that it’s worthwhile over the long haul.  It might not be fun right now, but you like the process.  If your hatred of the incremental steps involved in becoming good at something isn’t outweighed by your desire to achieve proficiency at it, then you’ll quit.  In reality, you probably should quit, because life’s too short to be miserable.

But, what if you want to write novels, and no one will pay you to do that?  What then?  You’ve got to do it on your own time.  You have to have a passion in your life somewhere.  Initially it may not be what earns you money.  You might have to sacrifice some “down time” to do it.  However, if it’s really a passion, it’ll be something you were probably going to do, anyway.  Working on your passion in addition to working a job is how many businesses and solo careers are launched.  Einstein was a patent clerk, Kurt Warner was a grocery stocker.  There are countless more examples of this, from both well-known folks and people down the street.

So, two key issues need to be dealt with prior to being able to isolate what truly matters in one’s life, what one’s passion is.  The first is to quit lying to yourself.  Examine your true motivation for what you do or don’t do, not what’s socially acceptable to say or what you’d really prefer to be the case.  Secondly, understand that realizing your passion won’t always be fun, but it should bring you joy.

Reflective Thinking

I’ve been keeping a journal for a long time now.  I’m not sure how long, really.  I have a journal from when I was in the fourth grade; perhaps I journaled even farther back than that.  Fourth grade, though; that’s what, 9 years old?  That’s pushing 22 years now.  Granted, it’s not something that I do every day (never has been), but I’ve been semi-consistently writing down my thoughts and ideas for over two decades.

Semi-consistent, until 6 years ago.  That’s when I joined the Army and quit thinking about what I was doing.  It’s interesting to note that this really is true.  All the stuff you hear about the military beating the independent thought out of you is correct, even in my case.  I’m about the most independent person I know, and I don’t take orders well.  I don’t know that I quit thinking about my life because the Army taught me not to question; I think it’s more of an issue of continuing to ask the questions, and for the first time, not really liking the answers.

After all, that’s what journaling is all about (or should be, anyway).  It’s the search for answers to the questions that come up in your life every day.  The necessity for reflection is one that I used to find so necessary that I filled tons of spiral bound notebooks and professionally bound journals for just that reason.  It’s a habit that pays big dividends, for a few big reasons.

1- Journaling allows you to track your progress.

Progress of what, you ask?  Anything, really.  I look back at some of my old journals and am almost embarrassed by the depth (or lack thereof) of thought expressed there.  However, on the other hand, it’s refreshing to see how far I’ve progressed; how much more of a “grown up” I am at 30 than I was at 20.  But, that’s not the only progress journaling allows you to track.  It can be much more concrete than that.  You can develop ideas for almost anything (school projects, proposals at work, ideas for the Great American Novel, etc.) and track how they get fleshed out as you record your thoughts on them.  The questions you have about aspects of the plan, the objections you foresee being raised and your responses to them, the next steps that bring the idea closer to fruition.  All of this is located in one, easy to maintain location, allowing you to focus your thoughts.

2- Journaling can help you discover what you’re thinking.

It’s not just for recording your thoughts.  I’ve found so many times, especially as I’ve gotten older and realized I don’t really know as much as I thought I did in the past, that I sometimes don’t even know what I’m thinking about a particular issue.  Putting it all down on paper in a stream-of-consciousness dump allows me to see it all there.  The thoughts in my head (and, maybe yours, too) tend to swirl around in a sort of fog that I can’t quite seem to pin down.  Writing has the effect of pulling all these thoughts out of the spinning vortex and pinning them down to the paper so that I can examine them more closely and see what they’re really saying about the issue in  question.  I know that, honestly, there have been times when I’ve looked at something I’ve written after I’ve been going for awhile and I’ve surprised myself that I think the way I do.  I never would have crystallized my views the way I did if it weren’t for my journaling.

3- Journaling can provide a great source of ideas for the future

Not creative, you say?  I used to think the same thing.  I quit using my imagination a long time ago and I wish I had it back now the way I did when I was 5.  I found a great technique for using my journal to unleash my inner 5 year old.  Leonardo di Vinci used the same technique in a lot of his journals, actually (and if it was good enough for him, I’m confident it’s okay for me).

What you need to do is write the question you want to answer at the top of your page (or type it, if you journal on your computer).  Make sure you specify exactly the question you want to answer; be as precise and definite as possible.  Then, put your pen on the paper and start writing (or, fingers on the keys, as the case may be).  Don’t stop for at least ten minutes.  Your hand will cramp up, and you’ll probably have to write “I have no idea what to write” a few times, especially in the beginning.  What you’re doing is cutting through the conscious mind that filters our thoughts for us.  Normally, this is a good thing (as anyone who’s had a young son or daughter ask an embarrassing question in a public place at high volume can attest).  However, when you’re trying to discover creative answers to questions, it doesn’t help at all.  You need to cut through the conventional thinking, the clutter and the extraneous, in order to allow the thoughts in your subconscious mind to bubble to the surface.  This is when the thoughts truly get good.

The actual action of writing whatever comes into your mind, free-association style, allows you to dig (metaphorically speaking) a hole through your conscious thought to the subconscious stream underneath.  Once you’ve been going for a few minutes (with no stopping!), you’ll be amazed at the stuff that starts coming out of your pen onto the paper.  Truly, it may not be “great” stuff.  However, you will notice that it’s original stuff, not conventional thinking, and probably thoughts that you don’t even recognize as your own.  This means it’s working!  Now, all you have to do is practice, practice, practice.  The thoughts get better the more you get them out.

Anyway, those are just three reasons I journal.  There are others, but this post is long enough.  Reflection (like what I’ve done here) is so important to developing a true understanding of yourself; if you’re not currently routinely engaging in self-assessment of some sort, start today.