values

Following Your Passion When You're Not Quite Sure What Your Passion Is

IMG_2016.JPG

“Follow Your Passion!”

“Live Your Purpose!”

We’ve all, I’m sure, heard this advice way too many times to count.

While inspiring in some cases, it can feel like slightly unhelpful advice when we’re not sure what our purpose is, or where our passions actually lie.

Discovering these things is not, of course, an overnight process. For some of my clients, the desire to get more clarity in the above two areas is the reason they hire me as a coach. They’ve usually been wildly successful doing something other than their passion or what feels like their purpose, and together we work to discover what a new path forward might look like.

Hiring a coach is a great way to gain some powerful traction on the above questions. That said, there are some small things we can do on our own, as well, to kick start the process. Here are a few of my favorites.

Pay Attention to Curiosities.

“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” - Mary Oliver

I see many people put pressure on themselves to figure out the answers to these enormous questions about purpose and passion in one massive epiphany that comes with a bolt of lightening at 2 in the morning. While sometimes the answers come to us this way, often the answers are the result of paying better attention over a period of time.

The first thing we can begin to pay attention to is curiosities.

  • What are you curious about?

  • What are you interested in?

  • What do you find yourself reading about in your free time?

  • What types of books are you drawn to?

  • What do you find yourself researching online, just because you want to know more?

  • What are the themes of conversations you’re having with friends?

  • Who are the people you find yourself following or drawn to - through blogs, articles, or social media?

Pay attention. Write these things down. Make a list and continually add to it. Allow yourself to simply add to it over the course of several weeks. And then, look back to see what you notice.

Track Your Energy.

What are the things, throughout your days, that give you energy? What are the things that deplete your energy?

Pay attention. Write them down. I recommend making a good old fashioned T-Chart with a list of “+” and “-” and adding to this list throughout your days.

Do this exercise at work.

  • When do you feel engaged and energized?

  • What are the projects you feel excited to work on?

  • Which types of conversations energize you?

  • And, on the flip side, when do you feel that you’re drained or depleted?

  • Which projects or tasks do you dread tackling?

Write them all down on your list.

Do this exercise at home.

  • What are you doing when you feel totally energized at home or around the house? Are you working in the garage or tackling a craft project or cooking?

  • What are you doing when you feel depleted or drained at home?

Put all of these things on the list.

Do this process for a week or two and notice, without judging, what emerges. Are there any trends or patterns? Or perhaps any surprises?

This process is not only helpful for informing your passions and purpose, but also for making small tweaks that make everyday life more easeful and joyful. I’ve made several small but game changing tweaks to my everyday workflows and rhythms as a result of my findings from this process.

Go Back In Time.

Think back to when you were young.

  • What did you love to do when you were little?

  • What types of games did you play?

  • What were your favorite types of toys to play with?

  • What did you want to be when you grew up?

Think back to high school and college.

  • When were you happiest?

  • What activities were you part of?

  • When were you having the most fun?

  • When did you feel most engaged in what you were doing?

  • When did you feel the most fulfilled?

Make a list of everything that comes to mind. Dig up some old photos and notice what you were doing.

For most of us, there is at least some thread that relates to our passion and purpose. In my case, for example, I played school almost every day. I had an entire school set-up in my basement: blackboard, overhead projector (the old school kind with the plastic sheets and the wipe-off markers - yes, I was that into playing school), chairs, and supplies. All through high school and college I taught water aerobics to adults and swimming lessons and Spanish for kids. I absolutely loved the process of teaching and learning.

While for a long time I thought all of this meant that I wanted to be a teacher within our school systems, I realized in my adult life that I wanted to create spaces of learning and self discovery and transformation and personal growth - for adults - which is exactly what I’m doing today. Putting these pieces together was not an overnight realization - it came after much reflection, lots of additional education, and plenty of time in the corporate world doing something entirely different.

Do Stuff.

Perhaps most importantly, to discover our passion, we need to do stuff that we are passionate about. To uncover our purpose, we need to take purposeful action.

Generally speaking, we will not discover our purpose solely by sitting at home reading books about purpose. We will not uncover our passion solely by reading inspirational quotes about passion, even if they are written in perfect calligraphy (you know the ones I’m talking about).

Rather, we will discover our purpose and our passion by taking action, with purpose and with passion.

Sign up for a class. Take the workshop. Reach out to that person you worked with 10 years ago who is now doing something super interesting and reconnect. Subscribe to the industry magazine. Volunteer with an organization that sparks your interest.

Try stuff. Dabble. Tinker. Allow yourself to be curious, and unattached to the outcome.

Do stuff just for fun.

In Summary.

To discover our purpose, we need to take purposeful action. Purposeful action does not need to mean quitting your job on a whim and moving into a Westfalia van for the next 3 years (though it certainly could if you feel called to do so) or going on a year-long spirit quest in Bali (though it certainly could if you feel called to do so). Purposeful action can mean making a list; starting your day with intention; paying attention to your curiosities; doing things that bring you joy; and noticing what you discover along the way.

Escaping the Endless Cycle of Yes

Escaping the Endless Cycle of Yes

Saying yes too much. Difficulty saying no. Overcommitting. Prioritizing other people’s priorities over your own. Becoming stretched too thin. Taking on the project because other people dropped the ball. Over-serving the committee because none of the other volunteers follow through. Expressing interest in something and then suddenly finding yourself in charge of it. Saying yes to an opportunity because it’s amazing, but then wondering when the heck you’re going to fit it in.

Anyone else struggle with one or more of these things?

If you do, I hear you. I see you. I get you. My natural tendency is to do these things too. I quickly see possibility and potential in any given situation, which means that in my mind I quickly jump from where we are right now to where we could be in the future. It also means that sometimes, in the moment when the opportunity presents itself, I overlook the steps in between - for example, how long it might take to get there or what else I have on my plate. As you can imagine, this has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion.

It is a constant, daily (sometimes hourly) practice for me to work with my natural tendency (seeing possibility, potential, what’s possible, allowing myself to be excited and enthusiastic about all of this) while also incorporating everyday realities such as time, capacity, and scheduling.

This is not a post about saying no more, or saying yes less. Rather, it is a post about moving from, as Greg McKeown says, the trivial many to the essential few. It is a post about saying yes in a way that aligns with your values and your priorities. And it is a post about remembering that we are the creators of our own life, versus allowing others - or our inboxes or our friends or other on the committee - to control it for us.

Here are some strategies I use in this ongoing pursuit to align my time with my values; my priorities with my calendar; and my decisions with my core purpose in this world.

Wait at least 24 hours before responding to any new opportunities.

First, this provides time to check this opportunity against my values and reflect on the following questions:

  • Is it in line with my values?

  • Would this opportunity be moving me toward my vision?

  • Is it in line with my priorities for the year?

It also allows me time to think about my capacity and bandwidth, and also the tradeoff costs.

  • Do I have time to take this on?

  • If I say yes to this, what will I need to say no to?

  • When will I have time to do this? And is it in line with the timing of the opportunity or event?

  • Do I actually have time, or would I be trying to squeeze it in?


Ask Myself: If this opportunity wouldn’t have come to me from elsewhere, would I have actively pursued it on my own?

This, of course, can be a particularly challenging question as a business owner, and especially for new business owners who are working to build their businesses.

“No but…..it’s a good opportunity….” But is it a great opportunity? Is it aligned with the work you most want to do in the world and the people you most want to serve?

In the beginning, as new business owners and entrepreneurs, as long as the opportunities are aligned, I tend to recommend being more generous with what you say yes to. This provides an opportunity to try out various things, work with several different types of clients, and learn more about what you like (and what you don’t). And then, as your business grows, you can use these early experiences to shape future decisions and areas of focus.

That said, if the only reason you are saying yes is “to get more business” or “to generate referrals” or something gross like that, I suggest revisiting. It should also be fun, or interesting, or an opportunity to work with fabulous people.

If you are approached about joining a board or a committee, ask the same question. While flattering to receive the invite, is this the cause you care deeply about? Is this the way you want to invest your time and energy? Are the people on the board ‘stunning colleagues’ who you will be excited to gather with each month or each quarter?

Is the opportunity a Hell Yeah?

Is the opportunity a Hell Yeah on its own? If not, what would make it a Hell Yeah? And if you can’t think of anything that would make it a Hell Yeah, is it really worth saying yes to?

As Derek Sivers famously said, “if it’s not a Hell Yeah," it’s a no.”

The way I like to look at this is a Big Yes or a Little Yes. The Big Yes is aligned with our values, our vision, our priorities. The little yes comes from a place of ‘should’ or obligation.

As new opportunities come your way, ask yourself if it’s a Hell Yeah. If you can’t think of any conditions under which it would be a Hell Yeah, if it isn’t already, then you likely have your answer.

What are the conditions/terms under which I would love to say yes?

Related to the above, if it isn’t a Hell Yeah, is there anything that would make it worth it?

For example, for new entrepreneurs or business owners, the truth is that every single project might not be a Hell Yeah. And, at the same time, one must eat.

So, for my clients who are navigating this situation (“It isn’t a Hell Yeah, but I need to eat…”) we often come up with a set of criteria that will make the opportunity worth it. This could involve the structure, the timing, the price, or perhaps a combination of the above. It might mean, for example, proposing a fall versus spring timeline to allow more time to prep. Or, it might involve asking for travel reimbursement to cover the cost of driving to another state.

Will my future self (in 1 month, 6 Months, a year) be happy that I said yes to this? What would my future self want me to say?

This can be one of the most game changing questions for me to ask myself. While my current self will enthusiastically say yes, what about my 6-Month-Future self? Will she still be thrilled about the opportunity?

There's a quote that goes something like, “an elephant looks small in the distance.”

This is also the case with things we say yes to. It might not seem like a lot of time at the moment. But will that still be the case in a month, in 6 months, in a year? Carefully consider the thoughts, the energy, the capacity, and the bandwidth of your future self before your present self says yes to anything.

What would my (actual, or metaphorical) board of directors tell me to do?

Do you have a board of directors? If not, I invite you to create one!

This might be an actual, living board of directors. I have a few different informal boards in my life - some girlfriends and soul sisters, some coaches, some strategic advisors and mentors.

Or, it might be a metaphorical board of directors. The idea is to identify a few people who you respect, put them on your metaphorical board of directors, and then ‘consult’ them when thinking about decisions or opportunities.

Sometimes, during a monthly meet-up with my real-life board of directors, I’ll review opportunities and get feedback. For example, a few months back, I was struggling with a decision not to submit a proposal to speak at a certain conference. They helped me see that while it was a great conference, it was not in line with my vision for the future, and my time and energy would be much better spent elsewhere.

I also have a metaphorical board of directors. These are people who I follow, and whose approach to business I deeply respect. For example, Seth Godin is one of the members of my metaphorical board of directors. He just doesn’t know it! Seth is ruthlessly committed to focusing on his most important work in the world. In his case, that means writing and publishing a blog post every single day. He doesn’t take meetings, he’s very mindful about the amount of travel he takes on, and he is committed to delivering value to his community every single day. If ever I am struggling with what to focus on or whether to take on a new project, I’ll consider what advice he might give me if I were to ask him his opinion. This whole process might sound a little weird but is incredibly helpful for me when I use it.

In the End

At the end of the day, this practice isn’t about saying no more, or saying yes less. Ultimately, it’s about making sure we say yes to the things that are aligned with our values and priorities, and no to the things that aren’t.

Sometimes, of course, we need to do things that aren’t aligned as part of our work, or our job responsibilities, or even basic duties we take on at home. But often, we have more opportunity than we think to shift, tweak, or restructure things to create the alignment that we desire.

Resources and Recommended Reading

  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown - the book I read again and again for inspiration on this subject.

  • The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan - I especially like their focusing question: “what is the one thing that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

  • Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin - it was in this book that I first learned about the Four Tendencies. As an obliger, the above practices are essential for me, because my natural tendency is to say yes to external requests and no to requests that I make of myself. Obligers make up the largest percentage of the population; if you find yourself struggling with this topic, you may enjoy checking out her work, or at least her free quiz which only takes a couple minutes.

  • The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin - more information on the four tendencies and how to work with each of them. I’ve found that this framework can be transformative not only for how we operate as individuals, but also how we operate in relationships. Fun fact: Gretchen found that obligers and rebels are often in romantic relationships together, and I’ve found her theory to be correct. Many of my rebel clients are married to obligers; many of my obliger clients are either dating or married to rebels.