Finding your passion and living a life of fulfillment and success sounds great…but there’s a problem…

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How many people are told every day that if they just follow their passion, everything will work out?

You know, that if they somehow divine what they were fated to do, and do it, they will eventually live the dream of fulfilling work, great pay, autonomy, respect, and all the rest.

Well, in my experience, people that are highly engaged and successful in their work had no idea in advance what they were going to do with their lives. They weren’t smacking golf balls with perfect form at 2 years old or pursuing their childhood fantasies or even doing what they were always good at.

In most cases, their journeys to where they are today were haphazard. No brilliant masterplans or Churchillian notions of their destinies. Quite to the contrary, they more or less stumbled into their respective fields and just stuck around long enough to find an opportunity to capitalize on. And, in many cases, they wound up doing–and loving–things that they never thought they could enjoy.

Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, delivered a fantastic speech on this subject in his TED talk. I know, it’s 20 minutes long, but it’s worth it:

Pig farming? Making pottery from cow poop? Something tells me these people, who are very happy with their work, weren’t dreaming of doing these things as young boys.

You see, the problem with the advice of “finding your passion” lies in the word “finding.” You don’t find passions–you create them. (Click here to tweet this!)

And how do you create a passion? Well let’s turn to Mike Rowe again. A fan wrote him asking for some career advice and his reply strikes at the heart of the matter. Here’s the letter from the fan:

Hey Mike!

I’ve spent this last year trying to figure out the right career for myself and I still can’t figure out what to do.

I have always been a hands on kind of guy and a go-getter. I could never be an office worker. I need change, excitement, and adventure in my life, but where the pay is steady.

I grew up in construction and my first job was a restoration project. I love everything outdoors. I play music for extra money. I like trying pretty much everything, but get bored very easily. I want a career that will always keep me happy, but can allow me to have a family and get some time to travel.

I figure if anyone knows jobs its you so I was wondering your thoughts on this if you ever get the time! Thank you!

-Parker Hall

And here’s Mike’s reply:

Hi Parker,

My first thought is that you should learn to weld and move to North Dakota. The opportunities are enormous, and as a “hands-on go-getter,” you’re qualified for the work. But after reading your post a second time, it occurs to me that your qualifications are not the reason you can’t find the career you want.

I had drinks last night with a woman I know. Let’s call her Claire. Claire just turned 42. She’s cute, smart, and successful. She’s frustrated though, because she can’t find a man. I listened all evening about how difficult her search has been. About how all the “good ones” were taken. About how her other friends had found their soul-mates, and how it wasn’t fair that she had not.

“Look at me,” she said. “I take care of myself. I’ve put myself out there. Why is this so hard?”

“How about that guy at the end of the bar,” I said. “He keeps looking at you.”

“Not my type.”

“Really? How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“Have you tried a dating site?” I asked.”

“Are you kidding? I would never date someone I met online!”

“Alright. How about a change of scene? Your company has offices all over – maybe try living in another city?”

“What? Leave San Francisco? Never!”

“How about the other side of town? You know, mix it up a little. Visit different places. New museums, new bars, new theaters…?”

She looked at me like I had two heads. “Why the hell would I do that?”

Here’s the thing, Parker. Claire doesn’t really want a man. She wants the “right” man. She wants a soul-mate. Specifically, a soul-mate from her zip code. She assembled this guy in her mind years ago, and now, dammit, she’s tired of waiting!!

I didn’t tell her this, because Claire has the capacity for sudden violence. But it’s true. She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she’ll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations. Is it possible that you’ve built a similar wall?

Consider your own words. You don’t want a career – you want the “right” career. You need “excitement” and “adventure,” but not at the expense of stability. You want lots of “change” and the “freedom to travel,” but you need the certainty of “steady pay.” You talk about being “easily bored” as though boredom is out of your control. It isn’t. Boredom is a choice. Like tardiness. Or interrupting. It’s one thing to “love the outdoors,” but you take it a step further. You vow to “never” take an office job. You talk about the needs of your family, even though that family doesn’t exist. And finally, you say the career you describe must “always” make you “happy.”

These are my thoughts. You may choose to ignore them and I wouldn’t blame you – especially after being compared to a 42 year old woman who can’t find love. But since you asked…

Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

Many people today resent the suggestion that they’re in charge of the way the feel. But trust me, Parker. Those people are mistaken. That was a big lesson from Dirty Jobs, and I learned it several hundred times before it stuck. What you do, who you’re with, and how you feel about the world around you, is completely up to you.

Good luck –


PS. I’m serious about welding and North Dakota. Those guys are writing their own ticket.

PPS Think I should forward this to Claire?

I’ve probably read that letter 15 times and I still love it. It’s just so true.

You don’t discover passion and the will to work hard and persevere through meditation and meandering. (Click here to tweet this!) It’s an active process that demands sweat on your brow and dirt on your hands. It’s a hard-won reward for hard work, not a chance gift from the aether.

This process also requires the willingness to be interested in things–to cultivate, nurture, and follow curiosities–because you never know what might click. Again, remember the pig farmer and cow poop potter?

One of my passions is writing. I love the game of trying to turn ideas into just the right words. If I had to stop writing, however, I can think of ten other things that sound interesting to me and that, with enough work, could easily develop into passions:

Something in the visual arts…marketing or advertising work…developing apps (I have some cool ideas specifically for sports training) or software-as-a-service products…publishing other people’s books…creating t-shirts…creating board or card or dice games…learning magic tricks and creating products…and on and on.

Furthermore, Rowe hints at another piece of the “finding your passion” puzzle that I think is vitally important to grasp: you’ll never be passionate about something you suck at.

Competence breeds enthusiasm and enthusiasm breeds passion. The autonomy, impact, and respect that many people want are almost just byproducts of getting really damn good at something. It’s terribly simple. Cause and effect.

I think many people that complain about hating their work would enjoy it a lot more if they just got better at it. (Click here to tweet this!)

Sure, some jobs are so limited in scope and monotonous that the “competence ceiling” is very low, but if that’s not for you, why are you wasting your time with such work? Why not transition into something more challenging?

Either that or embrace the work’s simplicity and find something contenting about it. As Rowe said in his TED talk: roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work.


What are your thoughts on finding your passion? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!