Find a mission, not a passion

Find a mission, not a passion

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tl;dr
  • Passions aren’t fixed, they’re cultivated. Don’t expect a luscious garden without having spread the manure.
  • If you’re <25 years old, be wary of doubling down pre-existing passions.
  • You can probably accelerate the process of cultivating passions by learning & exploring early on.
  • Lots of passions make for terrible, soul-crushing careers. So make sure to think about the other factors of job satisfaction.
  • Refactor your passions.
    • Introspect on why you might be interested in something and break it down.
    • E.g. “I’m passionate about being a doctor” might become “I want to help people”.
  • Goals are more robust approach than passions. So find a mission.
  • A neglected, but rewarding mission is helping other people as much as you can.

We may have reached peak “follow your passion” advice.

Source: 4 week moving average, adapted from
Source: 4 week moving average, adapted from Google Trends data

This is a good thing.

Most people don’t have a fixed passion, and for those that do, having a single passion is just as likely to restrict your options as it is to lead to satisfaction.

You don’t need to find your passion to be happy

It’s okay not to have a passion

If you are still at school, or have just finished, you probably haven’t been given a lot of time to develop passions. School work is demanding, and aimed at preparing you for exams. There isn’t much room for development of your own interests, let alone passions.

You don’t need a passion to figure out what your next steps should be after you leave school.

As we’ll argue, figuring out what is meaningful to you, or what matters to you is far more important.

You probably shouldn’t have found your passion before university

An extremely small fraction of 20 year olds (and, tbh, most adults) have a robust sense of self — their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and skills and anti-skills.

Often, you can spend the first few years after you graduate uni actually trying (not studying - there’s a difference!) a bunch of stuff and learning a lot about what you like.

If you think you have already developed your life’s passion, you’ve probably settled too early; passions take time to develop.

Passions are developed, not innate

The phrasing of “finding your passion” makes it seem like a passion is a single, fixed object that you can discover by searching really hard. This is false.

Passions are developed. Many people who are passionate about their work would never have guessed at what they would end up in (including the authors).

The evidence you get about your passions can be pretty shaky

Most of us have decided that we are bad at something: maths, writing or memorising perhaps.

But when was the last time you checked whether that was true? Do you know for sure that your dislike of maths at school means you shouldn’t take a course that contains statistics at university? Or that the shoddy history essays you wrote when you were 16 mean you should avoid studying any essay subjects in the future?

You could grow to love many kinds of activities which you have previously disliked; cutting yourself off from that possibility could be a really big mistake.

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Nerdy aside:
A study supporting this that probably won’t replicate
  • We could mention a kinda famous study showing that a “fixed theory [of passion] was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people’s existing interests”.
  • But we won’t mention that because it’s not very likely to replicate. Other entries in the ‘growth’ series didn’t survive the replication crisis very well.
  • So instead, we’ll just cite it with apophasis.

Careers can crush a passion

If you love to do something in your spare time, like painting, writing or making music, you should consider twice whether you would want to be paid to do it.

When a hobby becomes a job, the joy can be drained out of the hobby:

Source:
Source: 80,000 Hours

The point is not that all jobs are draining, but that your experience of your passion so far has been intensified by it being on your own terms and rare.

Once it becomes linked to deadlines and your daily routine, the magic might be stripped away. This doesn’t conclusively prove that you shouldn’t follow your creative passion, but it suggests that you should open your scope to a wider range of careers.

Careers people already feel passionate about often suck

When 1000s of passionate people are lining up to be an actor, journalist or musician, there is less incentive for people to make those jobs comfortable, secure or well paid.

You can spend years working unpaid roles to prove yourself, and still not secure the job. And if you do, you’ll know that there are 1000s of people waiting to take your place if you slip up.

Find a mission, not a passion

Instead of searching for your One True Passion™ , you should find a mission that matters to you.

You can think of your mission as a goal in life that you are passionate about. This doesn’t tie you down to a specific way of reaching the goal (so you won’t have to stake everything on an early dream like being a musician or journalist), but it can give you a lot of guidance in your career.

Examples:

  • Raising a happy family
  • Expanding humankind’s knowledge of the universe
  • Becoming the best at something
  • Making lots of money

Or:

  • Helping others in the ways that made the most difference

There are people who pull off a combination of all of the above. And you probably shouldn’t choose one mission at the expense of all the other missions that matter to you.

Making impact your mission can be highly rewarding

We’ve found the last goal on the list – helping others as much as you can – to be a highly rewarding mission.

We felt that:

  1. We cared about helping people
  2. Helping more people was better than fewer, all else being equal
  3. We only had one real shot at helping (namely, our one life on earth)
  4. There were things we could do that might matter a lot, and some that wouldn’t
  5. We had to prioritise

We were fortunate enough to discover a community of people working hard together to discover the ways to best help the world and doing it - the effective altruism community.

We’ve met good friends, learnt a lot from sharp colleagues, and probably had more impact than we would have if we were thinking about this on our own.

TBH, it can be bloody hard when you don’t make a goal you set, and it keeps us up at night when it’s not going well.

But having a big goal gives us something to reorient towards when we’ve achieved a setback. If you always wanted to be a lawyer, and you hear you’ve been rejected from law school, what are you to do? You need to go completely back to the drawing board. If instead, your aim was to help others, while it’d still likely hurt a lot, you could think of other ways to get to your goal.

We are glad that we chose this ambitious goal, even though it can be very challenging. If we didn’t aim so high, we would always know that we turned down a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the world for the better.

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