My oldest son Aidan is sixteen, and last weekend he did something that gives me great hope for his life.
Actually, he did several things. They had nothing to do with his GPA, nor his SAT scores, nor his college resume. They probably won’t have anything to do with his ultimate career. And they didn’t give me hope because he was succeeding at something; they gave me hope because he was trying something and working at something. In other words, he was doing what it takes to fumble and stumble and bumble his way toward a meaningful life.
You don’t find your passion and then start living; you start living and then, eventually, on some distant day, you get a glimpse of your passion in the rearview mirror.
There is a paralyzing, debilitating myth going around amongst our young people that you can’t really get started on your journey until you have “found your passion” and you know exactly where that journey will take you. There’s an entire industry—books and conferences and summits and master classes—built around selling the formula for finding your passion so you can get on with living your best life. This industry sees a need and tries to meet it. That’s a good thing. I have no problem with its existence. I have a problem with its premise.
I have a problem with the idea that the finding comes before the living.
When I was Aidan’s age, I wanted to be a lawyer, like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. In hindsight, this interest reflected some passion for ideas and persuasion. However, after a psychology course introduced me to the wonder and mysteries of the mind, I abandoned law and declared my major at the University of Illinois to be psychology. While at Illinois, though, my interest shifted from our brains to our relationships. I joined a marriage research lab, where I was surprised by a passion for science. So, I applied to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. I thought I wanted to stay at Illinois for graduate school. The Fates sent me to Penn State.
Life will close doors on you. It’s not a failure; it’s an opportunity to find out what else you are here to do.
I met my wife on day one at Penn State and, for a year or two, my passion for relationships was focused entirely on her. Within two years we were married, and within two more years we were parents. That was sixteen years ago. For sixteen years, becoming a better dad has been a passion of mine.
In graduate school, my passion for science proved temporary—it helped me find my wife but it wasn’t going to help me find a career—and it was replaced with a passion for therapy. I decided all I wanted to do, for the rest of my life, was sit in a room with one or two people and talk about how to improve their lives. I did this for more than a decade, and it remains a passion of mine, but there are always other passions lurking neglected in the wings.
The finding of our passions doesn’t happen once. It’s an ongoing event.
For years, I repeatedly pushed my passion for creating things back into the depths. A few years ago, I stopped pushing and started a blog. My passion for writing grew. I became passionate about publishing a book. It was grueling. I didn’t love every moment of it. But that’s okay. A passion isn’t bliss; it’s something you’re so extravagantly fond of doing you’d be willing to suffer for it if necessary. After publishing the book, I started to get invitations to speak to groups, and I discovered a passion for that, as well. The kid who once wanted to be a prosecuting attorney now speaks about how to live loveable and love your life.
Finding your passion is not about having an epiphany; it’s about having experiences.
It’s about trying the next most obvious thing, even when that thing isn’t very obvious at all. It’s about getting into the game and learning from the wins and losses. It’s not about shaping the future; it’s about discerning the shape of your past. These days, when I look back at my journey, I have more clarity than ever about my core passion—my life’s mission statement, if you will. I’m passionate about speaking in the tender voice of a father so that the people who hear me know they are worthy.
In the rearview mirror, you see that your passion is less about what you do and more about how you were made to be.
I get to practice this passion for tenderness as a husband and as a father and a practice owner and a therapist and a writer and a speaker and a youth soccer coach and a customer in the checkout line. It is terribly ordinary and yet totally meaningful to me. It is something I can be in everything I do. And it is not static. It too is always evolving, every time I try something new, work at it, and learn from it.
Last weekend, Aidan played one of the leads in his sophomore fall play and, afterward, his cast mates honored him with the best actor award. It wasn’t the success of it that gave me hope for him. The odds that Aidan makes a career of acting are not high. But he’s trying. He’s noticing what he wants to do, and he’s working at it. And in the work, he’s learning about himself—where he finds meaning and where he doesn’t.
The morning after Aidan’s opening night, he awoke to more good news. This fall, he and five friends have, with no financial or logistical help from anyone else, launched their own streetwear company called Javach. It went live on Friday afternoon, hours before Aidan went on stage, and within 24 hours the company was already in the black. I’m not hopeful for Aidan because of the numbers. I’m hopeful because he’s trying the next best thing he can think of, he’s working at it, and he’s learning from it.
We don’t find our passions in reflection; they find us in action.
What is the next most obvious thing you’d like to try with your one ordinary, fleeting, and precious life? What do you want to work at? What do you want to learn from? What are you waiting for? If it’s guarantees or certainty or a destination, you’ll wait forever. Get started. Do the next best thing. Then, eventually, some day, you’ll find your passion.
When you glimpse it in the rearview mirror.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.