On being ... without passion

By Ingrid Sapona

No, this column isn’t about the fact that the only reason I had a candlelight dinner last night was because we had a power outage, or the fact that the only thing in my mailbox yesterday was a bunch of bills. Honestly, today’s topic has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

The passion I’m referring to is that elusive thing that so many career and life coaches advise that, if pursued, will lead to true happiness, fulfillment, and – of course – maximum earning. You know what I’m talking about – the pop mantra about following your passion…

The topic came up the other day in a webinar I tuned into that featured an interview with Jane Pauley – the one-time anchor of NBC’s Today Show. She has a new book out called "YourLife Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life". To promote the book Pauley is doing some public speaking and one of the alumni associations I belong to put together a webinar hosted by Carol Ross, a career coach and fellow alum.

For this webinar, folks who tuned in could participate by typing questions and comments that were passed on to the speakers, as appropriate. After signing in I began doing a few other things as I sort of half-listened. My ears pricked up when Pauley uttered the phrase “… just follow your passion”. Actually, it wasn’t just my ears that reacted – I’m sure my eyes rolled as I congratulated myself on the accuracy of my prediction that that phrase would come up during the webinar.

Because her book is a series of stories about other peoples’ experiences, she began relaying a story of a guy who thought his passion was X but one day, in almost a flash, he realized his passion was Y and – you guessed it – he dropped X in pursuit of Y. It was kind of the classic story of the wonders of someone following their passion.

But, as she was relaying the story she casually mentioned (and yes, this is a direct quote – I’ve gone back and listened to the archived audio of the webinar), “I don’t personally have a passion that I could fill in the blank.    I think the wisdom of ‘just follow your passion’ is a little overrated and I have to say that because I didn’t have one.” 

I was so shocked when I heard her say that, I honestly thought I mis-heard her. Luckily I noticed that one of my fellow listeners had typed: “What an astonishing comment about not having a passion! I thought everyone but me had one.” And just as I finished reading that comment, someone else typed: “I thought the same!” At which point I too confessed to my fellow participants that I felt the same way.

I always squirm when the discussion turns to peoples’ passion. And, I’ve always known that the topic makes me uncomfortable because I’ve always felt like there must be something seriously wrong with me because I’ve never found anything I’m comfortable calling “my passion”. It’s a huge understatement to say it was refreshing to hear Jane Pauley admit she was never able to name her passion. And of course, it got me thinking more about my embarrassment about admitting the same thing.

In defense of myself – and others who’ve silently sat by, hoping no one will discover that they have nothing they can point to as their passion – I think there are a couple of reasons it’s done a number on us. First is the fact that it’s been touted by so many, so often, and for so long that it’s treated like conventional wisdom. Indeed, the idea that if you find your passion, success will follow has gained such common currency, people make it sound like a career/life syllogism (think: A=B, B=C, so A=C). Of course, I realize the intention behind the idea is good – it’s meant to motivate people to find meaning in their life – but unfortunately, the effect isn’t as universally good as the intent.

Another reason I think some of us have never felt comfortable labelling something as our passion is because of the enormity of the word itself. Surely it should be reserved for something truly special. And does not being able to name something as your passion mean there’s no passion in your life? Perish the thought…  So you can see how, for some of us, “What’s your passion?” is a loaded question.

It’s funny, long ago I realized that one-size-fits-all clothes aren’t necessarily a good thing. Sure, they may fit every figure, but they certainly don’t flatter every figure without a heck of a lot of individual tailoring. I guess it wasn’t until this week that I realized that the same goes for advice that’s essentially one-size-fits all: it might apply to our life in some general sense, but it’s up to each of us to tailor it, or better yet, go for custom made.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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