You have a passion (even if you think you don’t)

Passion has meant a lot of things over the years, here’s what I think it means now.

The word “passion” entered English some time around 1200 to mean the suffering of Jesus on the cross. It came from a French version of a Latin word. Its meaning was broadened to include the suffering of any martyr. Then, oddly, it shifted by around 1500 to mean “being acted upon.” It actually has the same root as the word “passive.”  

As far as etymologists can tell, the word took an interesting turn in Middle English. It went, naturally enough, from suffering to any affliction or illness. This came to include sin, especially carnal sin. Thus, over the years, it morphed into something like lust. By the late 1500s, it means sexual love. By the mid-1600s it comes to mean any sort of strong desire. By the 1700s, dictionary writers differentiate  
“passion” from the more mild “affection.” Affection means you like something. Passion means that liking consumes you utterly.  

In the way I use it, I like that the word has echoes of suffering, all-consuming lust, and the positive feeling of being drawn to something. That is how I experience my passions. They are more positive than negative—I learned English long after the Middle Ages!--but they don’t feel entirely controlled or controllable, and they can keep me up at night with worry and distract me from other things I’d like to be doing.  

I’d like to more narrowly define this word as I use it.  

Passion can be amorphous and can take time

When I speak to younger people, I often hear a worry. They say they don’t know what their passion is and fear that they’ll miss out on economic opportunity. Passion is not a thing that either exists or doesn’t exist. It is something that develops and changes over time, can expand and contract, be refined, and can—most horribly—be ignored.

You do, from time to time, meet someone who says they have wanted to do one thing their whole life and never wavered. That is rare. Most people in their 20s have no friggin’ idea what they want to do, other than some general hunches. That is not only OK, it’s great. Following those hunches, trying things out, paying attention to what delights you and what you find boring is precisely how you end up identifying your true passion.  

Passion may not be the “what” but the “how”

Passion may not be the thing you do but the way you do it. In the book and podcast, I talk with many people who are living rich, thrilling lives, but the specific work they do is not at all their passion.  

I think of Jason Blumer, the accounting hero of the Passion Economy. Jason doesn’t particularly love accounting. He loves helping creative people better run their businesses. Accounting happens to be the profession through which he does this. But he’d be just as happy (maybe more?) if he had never been an accountant and had gone into consulting or business coaching or some other field.  

Similarly, Lance Cheney, who runs Braun Brush, loves artistic creation and thoughtful problem-solving. He has—sort of miraculously—learned to fulfill these needs through the brush industry. (You’ve got to read the chapter to see how. It’s a great story.) I feel pretty certain he could have had an equally passionate life in any number of other industries, so long as he got to be creative and to solve problems.  

For many older people, rethinking their careers and recognizing that much of what they do all day isn’t all that fun or remunerative, I don’t suggest immediately quitting and starting all over in some other industry. It’s often best to use your existing experience, knowledge, and network to find ways to reimagine your current job so that it can be more passion-filled. If that’s impossible, can you find another job in the same industry or one nearby?  

Passion needs friends

Passion is an internal thing, but it often takes other people to help you see it.  

A passion that can animate a business, a career, a job, is typically a combination of a lot of different things: your natural abilities, your particular experience and education, and the things that make your heart leap and your brain focus.

We are not always the best judges of our own abilities and, even, our own passions. Those close to you can often point out those things that you happen to be unusually good at. Often, we can’t notice what we’re best at because it’s the stuff that comes so easily we don’t think of it as an unusual ability. You surely have friends who are remarkably funny or particularly good at leading a group or able to come up with creative solutions to your problems. Many of them, I’d wager, don’t know they’re good at whatever it is they’re good at.  

It’s an awkward thing to do, but I think it’s a great idea to ask people you trust to tell you about your strengths. Are you unusually funny, helpful, clear, visionary? Are you amazing at learning languages or naturally good at math? Do you have an ability to make stuff, quickly and effectively?  

It would be great if friends, co-workers, and bosses made a point of sharing this kind of information. (I try to, but usually forget.) This is especially valuable for young people early in their careers.  

The Passion business is the matchmaking business

Passion may start from the inside, but a Passion business requires a matching of your passion with someone else’s.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing, solely, on your passion and ignoring how others think of it. I grew up in all-artist housing in Greenwich Village, New York, where nearly all the grown-ups I knew were artists who had chosen a passionate, creative life over economic success. There is something admirable about the unforgiving artist or other sort of perfectionist who refuses to adjust their internal vision for others. Every now and then, such a person finds that their passion happens to meet a market need, and they become financially successful. This is the exception. It’s very rare and unlikely.  

And there is also nothing wrong with deciding that you would like to live a passion-filled life and also have some degree of economic comfort. That requires looking inward, yes, to see what your unique passions are. But it also requires looking outward, understanding the marketplace, and finding ways to match your internal passions to those of people who would be willing to pay for the product of your passion.  

This, essentially, is the central idea of the Passion Economy. At no previous period in history has it been possible for you to match your passions to others spread around the world.  

A bit of true excitement is better than a ton of mild interest

When figuring out your passion business, your passion career, pay a lot of attention to those things that generate enormous levels of excitement, even if only a small number of people express that joy.  

Coss Marte, the ex-con gym entrepreneur, started, truly, with nothing.  Less than nothing. He was an ex-con, sleeping on his mom’s couch, and going to a nearby park to offer free exercise classes to passersby. There has, perhaps, never been anybody with less to build a business on. There were very few people who would stop and let this intense man who talked about prison teach them how to work out in a park on the side of a road at 6 a.m. But the ones who did stop were obsessed with him.  

This country is overrun with perfectly adequate but unexciting gyms and trainers. Coss Marte is something else altogether. He has a fanatic following, is growing quickly, and has attracted serious investment. It was all there, in those early morning workouts on the side of FDR Drive. He trusted that passion, and it worked. 

It is possible, of course, that you’ll find a super-enthusiastic group that doesn’t represent some larger trend and you’ll be misled. Also, enthusiasm, alone, isn’t enough. You need to do the hard work of actually building a business properly. But if you are starting with a core product or service that nobody finds exciting, then you are almost certainly not going to build a passion business.