Passion Project: 3 Exercises To Discover What Drives You In Life

by Tony Sheng
Life really begins when you discover that you can do anything you want. — William J Reilly, 'How to Avoid Work.'

Not knowing what we’re passionate about is a strange symptom of the modern world.

I didn’t think much of it until I heard Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, talk about his experience, asking this question to students on his college book tour:

We visited 86 universities on this tour last year and I’d talk to college students about what they were into, what their thing was, what their passion was, and I heard from a surprising number of them, ‘I don’t really know. I don’t know where to look.’

We grow up at the intersection of a contradiction. On the one hand, our teachers and parents tell us to do what we’re told and try to make pragmatic, sensible decisions.

On the other hand, virtually every commencement speaker’s singular message is some version of “follow your passion.”

It’s a very uncomfortable question for students to answer. If you respond with something related to your major, but don’t actually feel passion for it, you feel like a phony.

If you respond with a hobby, you invite internal scrutiny of why you are not spending more time doing something about which you're passionate. The same thing happens after graduating, but with jobs instead of majors.

If you’re sick of not having a good answer, try these three exercises that helped me:

Channel your younger self

Hopes, wishes, dreams and desires all came easier to us when we were young children. The world felt wide open and we met it with awe, exhilarated by the possibilities and eager to play with our surroundings.

But, over time, our parents, teachers and coaches told us to stop dreaming and to start getting real, to sit still in class instead of doodling, to listen quietly instead of asking questions and to finish assignments instead of exploring the world.

Write down the activities you enjoyed most as a kid for 15 or 20 minutes and see if there are any patterns. Whatever you discover should provide a window into what processes bring you joy.

Imagine having $1 billion

Imagine I gave you a billion dollars today. After you’ve paid of all your debts and had some fun with your newfound riches, how would you spend it to make the world a better place? You’re only allowed to pick one thing.

Spend 30 minutes writing about how you’d spend that money. How is the world different after you’ve made that change?

This is founder of the X PRIZE, Peter Diamandis’,favorite question to ask people who don’t know what their passion is.

The reason he loves it, is that we often think about what we want to accomplish with our lives in very abstract and intangible ways.

In his opinion, the tangible impact that you’d like to see in the world is one of the clearest gateways to your passion.

This approach tackles the question of passion from the perspective of impact. How do you want to change the world? Maybe you won’t ever get a billion dollars, but you can start to chip away at that problem that you tried to solve with it today.

Plan out your last day on earth

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. — Mark Twain

Sit down and imagine that you just heard unexpectedly that you only have 24 hours to live. The reason why doesn’t matter.

Describe how you would spend your day.

You’re free to do whatever you’d like except for one thing: You have to spend one of those hours writing your own obituary (you’ll actually sit down and write it in the exercise immediately following this one).

Feel free to use as much detail as you’d like, but try to at least describe your day, hour by hour.

Tough exercise, right? Culturally, we like to avoid thinking about death. We expect to get our full 80+ years of life, so we live like we can afford to procrastinate our self-actualization until that last year.

This exercise is meant to help prioritize what is important to you and what is not, hopefully revealing things that you can remove from your life that are distracting you from your passion.

If you successfully complete the exercises, you know what processes you enjoy and to what impact you want to apply them. You’ll also have an idea of some things you can clear from your path.

These questions won’t resonate for everyone, but hopefully, they get you a little closer to understanding what about this life calls out to you.

Tony Sheng writes at tonysheng.com. He quit his tech job to help people do more of what they love through projects like his podcast, "Why We Work."

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