As my pen lingered over the blank sheet of paper, a momentary sense of paralysis gripped my body and I wondered whether this was what Swarthmore had in store for me. Just five minutes into the first college class of my life and already I had been confronted with a question I didn’t know how to answer. The icebreaking activity had begun innocently enough, as I jotted down my name, hometown, and favorite literary work with little difficulty. Easy enough, I thought, relieved to find that even in college, the first day of school always began in the same way. “Write down what your passion is”, my professor had said. And there wasn’t an answer I could give.
At Swarthmore, and indeed many liberal arts colleges across the United States, passion has become a universally admired quality. “Follow your passion!” our brochures cry out, and even if we don’t know what it is just yet, Swarthmore will surely help us find it. According to this dogma, to pursue passion is to fulfill our deepest desires, leaving us with the idea that if we can just find a job or endeavor that aligns with our passion, then life will become fulfilling and good. But what happens if we don’t find a passion while we’re here? How should we go about trying to pursue passion? What does the word ‘passion’ even mean in the context of Swarthmore?
Passion, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “a strong and barely controllable emotion”, an “intense desire or enthusiasm for something.” This definition, however, falls short when one tries to apply it to our everyday lives. Sure, I may enjoy playing video games, but can I honestly say that my video game experiences are characterized by a strong and barely controllable desire? It is precisely this concern that makes the pursuit of passion so problematic: the implication that we should know about what we’re looking for when we begin. To ‘pursue’ something implies that you begin by designating an objective as worthwhile. But how can we know if something is worthwhile if we haven’t fully experienced it? It’s the passion Catch-22. The only way to experience passion is to find something worthwhile. And, supposedly, the only way to find something worthwhile is to follow your passion.
One of the foremost advocates for ‘following your passion’ has been Steve Jobs, the American entrepreneur and founder of Apple, who famously said in his 2005 commencement address to Stanford , “[T]he only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” Yet as Cal Newport points out in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Steve Jobs himself didn’t follow his own life advice. Just months before founding Apple, Jobs was a “conflicted young man. . .dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.” In fact, the origins of Apple Computer weren’t the result of people following their passion but rather a “lucky break involving a small-time scheme.” The key to passion, concludes Newport, is to stop searching for that magical activity you were destined to pursue and to instead focus on mastering something you’re interested in. As appealing as the idea of finding love at first sight is, reality is often much more mundane. Even a superficial interest, like computers, can become a passion when you develop your skills and learn to master your chosen subject. This won’t always be enjoyable. The intrinsic joy or passion may not be evident right away. But only after we go through that process can we reach the state of fulfillment that we’re looking for.
Passion isn’t something we ‘find’ and then ‘follow’. It’s an end state we strive for and endure pain and struggle in order to obtain: an activity which when done again and again will continue to demonstrate its benefits. If all we do is leap from activity to activity, trying to discover what our ‘true calling’ is, we’ll never find it. Instead, cultivate your ability to do. Develop your skills at something you’re interested in, even if you don’t yet have any passion for it yet. Sometimes, the right answer to a question is nothing at all, right now.