There are many perfectly worthy ones — questions about family, relationships, work, love — but when it comes to charting our futures, one question rises above the rest.
What’s your passion?
Yes, it’s a cliche. But it also happens to be irrefutably true. Passion — that primal, unreasoning, uncontrollable enthusiasm that links our identities with a distant goal — forms the emotional foundation for all excellence, no matter who you are. Science shows that passion functions in our brains like rocket fuel; with it, progress is swift and exhilarating. Without it, progress is slow and tedious.
So the question before us is not whether passion is important. The big question is, how do we know when we’ve got it? Life is a series of crossroads and decisions: how do we choose what path to pursue? How do we tell the difference between our casual enjoyments and our true, lasting passions?
One logical way might be to look at case studies of successful, passionate people — since they located their passion; perhaps we can learn from their process and apply their insights.
Yet when we ask those successful, passionate people how they found their passion, we get a surprising result: most of them have no idea. In fact, the smarter and more successful they are, the dumber they sound when they talk about it.
For example, here’s Warren Buffett on how he discovered his passion for investing.
“From a young age, I always was interested in money, and how to make it.”
And here’s Wayne Gretzky on how he discovered his passion for hockey.
“I liked playing hockey. I’d play all the time.”
Not exactly insightful stuff, is it?
But I don’t think Gretzky and Buffett are being falsely modest or evasive. Rather, I think it’s because they genuinely don’t know. Passion occurs largely in our unconscious mind. It sneaks up on us. It isn’t like an inborn trait so much as it is like a virus — infecting us without us knowing, directing our primal thoughts and emotions, taking over our emotional lives. Asking a successful person how they got passionate is like asking someone how they caught the flu. They don’t know because they can’t know. One day they didn’t have it. The next day — wham! — they do.
What would be useful for most of us, I think, is some kind of passion-detector. Some tool that we can use to know when our fires are being lit; a thermometer that gives the early warning signs of a passion infection
So while we wait for neurologists to build such a device, I’d like to offer the following brief quiz. It’s a completely unscientific list of questions based on my experiences visiting talent hotbeds (where the passion virus tends to be epidemic) as well as ideas cribbed from motivational psychologists like Carol Dweck and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
It works like this: put your potential passion in the place of X. In each paired statement, choose whether you agree more with (A) or (B). (Of course, putting “sex” or “eating chocolate” in place of X will work fine, just as it should.)
A) X gives me a feeling of euphoric happiness
B) X gives me a feeling of euphoric happiness plus a deep fascination. I find myself wanting to look deeper. I want to figure out how it’s done.
A) I think about X a lot.
B) I cannot not think/talk/dream about X. My friends and family think I’m a bit nuts.
A) X provides me with enjoyable payoffs — like recognition and pride.
B) I would do X for free, even if nobody were watching.
A) When I’m doing X, I’m happy and engaged.
B) When I’m doing X, it’s as if I’m in a private world. Time flies.
Scoring: If you answered (A) to most questions, you have a mild case of passion for X. If you answered (B), on the other hand, then you might have a serious passion infection. Choose your path accordingly.
Big thanks to all you readers for your great comments and questions — I appreciate every bit of it. Here’s to a great 2011!