My decades-long fascination with the pursuit of purpose and passion started when, over the span of a few years, I’d gone from being a severely depressed, burned out emergency medicine resident, to having my own little flamenco dance company in Mexico. I also became a coach, writer, and speaker in the process, while still practicing part-time medicine.
Out of the pain I’d experienced early on in my career, I’d resolved to live a more whole, healthy, fully alive life. I read study after study on happiness, resilience, and well-being. The more I learned, the more I wanted to tell the whole world. Connecting with and living out my artistic and professional passions was a huge part of my story (and my healing).
I was a little naïve at first. The transformation in my life and mood was so dramatic. Everything felt so much better. As a result, I became convinced that all anyone needed to do was connect with their passions, “follow their dreams,” be their “authentic self,” and live happily ever after.
A Revised Perspective on Passion and Purpose
Years passed. I experienced more of life and, through my work, gained insights into the lives of thousands of others. I started to question and shift my “passion and purpose” message. It really wasn’t practical or realistic for most busy people with normal lives, to focus excessively on creating a passion-filled life. I also came to appreciate that there were other things (contribution, service, quality relationships, character, etc.) that were even more important to living a deeply fulfilling life. I became so concerned about misguiding people, that I pretty much stopped talking about this topic altogether.
More recently in this journey, I enjoyed a long walk along a river’s edge with a friend who I deeply respect. She lives simply, thinks deeply, is generous, and so gifted at loving others. We talked about how I used to be so passionate about “passion,” but had changed my song (or stopped singing about it, really).
“I really think there’s a place for talking about how we can add passionate, joyful pursuits to our lives,” she said. As we continued to talk about it, I could see that she was right. This concept had added a lot to my life in a very difficult time. I had also seen many others’ lives light up when I encouraged them to connect with activities that they loved. I started to think about revisiting this beloved topic again, and hopefully in an even more meaningful, relevant way.
The day after that conversation, the national morning show Today with Hoda and Jenna contacted me. They wanted to interview me on the show about that very subject! It was quite extraordinary, and felt like a sign. You should have seen the emojis, when I texted my friend about the invitation! (You can watch the interview here – it felt so joyful)
After almost 20 years of reflecting on the pros (and pitfalls) or pursuing your passion and purpose, here is what I suggest:
1. Be curious, pay attention, and be open to new things
Open your eyes to your world around you. Watch for things that inspire or interest you. Are there any activities going on around you, that you’d love to get involved in? Is there anyone you know who is doing something really interesting? I often liken this process to a treasure hunt. It’s really fun to just play around with possible interests, especially in a season like this where our society is emerging from such a dark, difficult year.
2. Watch for needs and causes that you are passionate about
The passions that add the most to our lives and the lives of others are those that help to (literally) make the world a better place. I love flamenco dancing. It added so much joy to my life, at a time when I really needed that. But I did it mostly for me. By comparison, this passionate vocation that I have, which helps others to recover from burnout, improve their mental health, and boosts the overall quality of peoples’ lives, is a much more satisfying, purposeful pursuit.
3. Look back at your childhood for inspiration
During my season of burnout, I saw some Cuban salsa dancers performing. As I watched them joyfully spinning and swooping around the stage, I remembered that I’d once been a dance-obsessed little girl. The memory hit me like a lightning strike. Because of that memory, I signed up for dance lessons and eventually became a flamenco dancer.What did you love doing as a kid? What were you obsessed with? What did you want to “become”? Is there a way that as an adult you can reconnect with any of those activities?
4. Notice and pursue activities that make you lose track of time
Losing yourself in an activity (aka “flow”) is a big clue to something you should spend more time doing. Flow-producing activities can improve well-being and reduce stress, both of which are important for those of us who are recovering from the profound challenges of the last couple of years. For an extensive discussion of the benefits of flow, see the book Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose research famously recognized and defined the concept).
5. Start small and keep it fun
After what we’ve all been through, the last thing we need is more pressure. Pick something you really love to do, and make time for it in your life, whatever you can manage. Even just a small amount of time spent, regularly doing something you love, will make your whole life feel better.
6. Protect what matters by making it a priority
For many of us, the pandemic illuminated our true priorities. We discovered that we could, and wanted to, live differently. When I coach people (particularly if they’re feeling overwhelmed), I often suggest making a list of their top four priorities in life. Give this a try. It’s your list; you decide what goes on it.
As recover our lives and celebrate a return to a life that feels much more “normal” again, protect those key priorities (or passions). Keep that priority list top of mind. Create a note or reminder of your top four list on your phone, and refer to it every morning. This will make it far more likely that you prioritize and protect what really matters. I would hope (and anticipate) that there is at least one thing on that list that you are truly passionate about! If not, maybe it’s probably worth reworking that list…
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