“Just do what makes you happy.”
This is the advice I get each time I admit that I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I have an identity crisis when I attempt to use this demanding suggestion, whether it’s if I’m asking myself how happy I am with my career or if I really want that Pumpkin Spice Latte. Will this Pumpkin Spice Latte make me happy? Yes, of course it will. So I buy it, sip on it, and let it temporarily ease my insufferably anxious nerves.
Not all questions regarding happiness are that easy to answer. This is especially true when it comes to finding your passion, but it is treated as though it were black and white. We see this polarity being practiced in nearly every element of our culture: opposing political parties, moral rights and wrongs, Pumpkin Spice Latte lovers and people with no taste buds. When it comes finding your passion, there exist even more binaries such as a career in the arts versus a career in business. While there are infinite possibilities that lie in between, we tend to gravitate toward the extremes because it provides boundaries and predictability. This can be inherently dissatisfying, however, when you are unable to function completely within those restrictions.
So why is it that, when given the option for predictability, we seek out passions that sit outside of our realm of control?
The instinct is a self-imposed pressure resulting from, I believe, the exclusivity and all-consuming nature of the word “passion.” Donella Meadow’s Thinking in Systems introduces the concept of leverage points which coincide quite well with our passion seeking obsessed society. Leverage points are pivotal parts of a system that cause significant change in the system when it is altered. So crucial are these points, that they are inherent in our culture. These are things like the “silver bullet, the trimtab, the miracle cure, the secret passage, the magic password, the single hero who turns the tide of history.” For my argument, let’s say the system is a human and leverage point is the human passion or calling. We are in constant search for our leverage points because it holds a promise for great change, that change being a direction and purpose in life.
Some people are lucky enough to easily identify their leverage points, while there are others who are still searching for theirs. The pressure to discover one’s leverage point manifests in a lot of confusion in which you must make all the right decisions based on things you don’t know so you can go down a path you haven’t decided. Since leverage points are modes of great change, identifying the point can be challenging. The glorification associated with “finding your passion” creates an unreasonable expectation to succeed which negates more traditional approaches to pursuing a career path or omits other interests altogether. This results in many declarations of identity, rescinding those declarations, and re-declaring them yet again until you have successfully sent yourself into cardiac arrest.
This urgency is due to our obsession with the word “passion.” It assumes singularity, it promises happiness, and induces incredible anxiety. It forces us to identify completely with one word, phrase, activity, or occupation. This fixation on the word “passion” brings to mind the works of Ferdinand de Saussure. In the Course in General Linguistics he discusses the function of language. He argues that a word and its associated meaning cannot be separated — in other words, ideas cannot exist outside of language. Thus, we are then restricted to identify according to the concepts that already exist within our language, bringing us back to the boundaries I discussed earlier. Realistically, however, the word that encompasses our passions may be a word that does not yet exist. So logically, when you are asked, “What’s your thing?” the only way to articulate your passion is by funneling your interests into a mold. However, many people may function at the center of a web of interconnected and supporting interests. For example, I love to both run and write, and have found that these seemingly unrelated interests support each other. Running is often a source of inspiration for a lot of my writing, and when I need the time to brainstorm content to write, then I am more motivated to run. Passions often do not stand alone, but the all-or-nothing culture assumes otherwise.
There is a miraculous — if not magical — promise associated with finding your passion. Given our misconstrued understanding of passion, however, the path to self-discovery is not simple and therefore happiness is not realized until that calling is discovered. A singular passion that lies within those boundaries seems enticing because it is discrete and predictable. In contrast, passions that are multifaceted appear abstract and fragmented. It therefore becomes challenging to identify our passions, when many of us already have a firm understanding; it’s simply a matter of breaking free of the illusion and accepting multiple passions versus narrowing it down to one.
Passions are difficult to identify simply because some of them don’t exist yet. We perceive our passions as if they are concrete and discrete, when they may be more accurately seen as a spectrum of interests and desires. We must step outside of the options that have been provided to us and think about the passions that don’t yet have a name. Someone out there is an expert painter-rock climber-pianist-vegetable gardener and is having a melt down because the binary nature of picking a passion has led him to believe he needs to be one, when in fact he is a nameless combination of all those things. Perhaps if we can remove the unreasonable expectation attached to the word passion and resonate with a more fluid understanding of our interests, the advice to “just do what makes you happy” will finally make sense. Even if doing what makes you happy is something that doesn’t have a name yet.