Like any good, self-deprecating college student, I carried some habitual burdens through my undergraduate years. Two of the heaviest, my guilt and anxiety, clouded my thoughts as I considered what my purpose in college really was. Even after transferring schools and changing my major, I somehow couldn’t shake the feeling that my uncertainties kept me from making the most of my education. Every day closer to graduation reminded me of my failure to discern what I wanted to do, say, or even just be in the world, and to make matters worse, I felt I had no space to express that anxiety. The time I spent self-searching was time I didn’t use studying, networking, or applying for the next opportunity. If I could just silence the voice inside, I could focus on becoming that one thing I really should have decided on as a freshman.
Well-meaning family members, friends, and mentors encouraged me to “just follow my passions.” This advice sounded freeing but rang hollow when the real pressures of post-graduation life began to settle in. Today, as I approach my fourth year out of college, I’m realizing that voice I tried so hard to ignore in my frantic years as an undergrad was the very thing most in need of my attention. In hindsight, I can have a little more grace for my 18-year-old self. How was I supposed to commit to being something for the rest of my life when I had only lived a fraction of it?
American society, in particular, idolizes the hustle: a lifestyle where busyness is sexiness, our mantra is “no days off,” and we hail “the grind” as if our feverish lives depended on it — because they do. If we don’t know what our passions are by 25, we’re lazy and unimaginative. We celebrate those who have foregone the ghastly 9-5 in favor of chasing their dreams head-on. We stand in awe of the dreamers believing for the impossible and scratch our heads at those who don’t have a bulletproof pitch to cover the rest of their career.
Conflating your passion with how you earn a living puts an unrealistic amount of pressure on your evolving interests to sustain your lifelong career. This can drive you to lurch from one direction to another armed with little strategy to inform what you’re actually looking for.
Your passion and your way of earning a living do not necessarily have to be one and the same. If you’re only doing what you love in order to see profit, you’re putting limits on your exploration and making it less likely that you’ll find moments of genuine inspiration. In order to be useful, passion must be allowed to take root, grow with us, and take different forms as we walk into and out of various seasons.
In her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” celebrated author Elizabeth Gilbert defines creativity as the process of choosing curiosity over fear. She encourages us to focus on the ways in which our curiosities show up gently, unexpectedly and possibly with more frequency than the elusive, overemphasized passions we spend our lifetimes searching for. She argues that no person is left out of the process of creativity. In her words, it is our shared human inheritance.
Telling someone to follow their passion dangerously reduces the development of a meaningful career into a simple formula that sounds easy to adhere to, but in reality, it is anything but. Narrowing your focus on what you think you’re supposed to be good at means you’re less likely to stumble upon something you have a genuine interest in. Reclaim the creativity that came naturally to you as a child. Make the goal of exploration to find out new truths about yourself. Cast your net wide and venture deeper into what ignites you. Rejecting the idea that creativity for its own sake is a waste of time might be the most important career decision you ever make.
Understanding the legacy you want to leave in the world requires you to accept that your interests and passions are constantly unfolding and your life will almost certainly look vastly different than your 18-year-old college self would have ever imagined. By leaning into your curiosities, you give others permission to do the same. So whether you are still looking for your passion, trying to regain the one you once had, or are finding a way to tie all the things you love together, consider what your curiosities have been asking of you. Maybe it’s time to listen to them instead.
Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood
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