We’ve all seen the trite phrase plastered across college brochures or the self-help guides at the cash register at Barnes and Noble: “Find your passion.” The concept of a passion is an essential element of what most people think of as the good life; living well, many believe, means finding something that you truly love and then pursuing it. For some people, this process comes easily. They start piano lessons at the age of five or begin doing math in first grade and realize almost immediately that they genuinely love what they are doing.

But finding a passion doesn’t seem to happen that effortlessly for everyone. For those of us who didn’t stick with our piano lessons after childhood and never found math particularly enthralling, having a passion was a much less certain thing. Many tend to view the college experience as a potential remedy to this problem. Students arrive their freshman year with lofty dreams of finding what it is that they genuinely love to do, be it through academics or extracurriculars.

When I arrived at Wesleyan, I did so with this hope of solidifying what it is that I truly love to study, or, in other terms, my academic “passion.” But this process wasn’t as seamless as I’d hoped. As my freshman year progressed and I became more certain that studying the humanities was, in fact, something I felt passionate about, every time I had trouble with a paper or was less than excited about a reading, I would question whether this was truly my passion. If it wasn’t completely perfect and constantly exhilarating, then how could I be certain that it was what I was meant to be doing? I started to question how I had arrived at this passion at all. Was it possible that I had made the wrong choices or taken the wrong classes and thus missed out on my true passion? If I’d gotten into that creative writing class or kept up with piano when I was seven, would my passion be something entirely different?

But I’ve recently started to understand that instead of being genuine causes for concern, my thoughts may actually be signs that our collective admiration of passion is leading us down a dangerous path. The concept of passion itself, of finding something that gives meaning and joy to our lives, is a beautiful one. But the narrow ways in which we tend to define passion should be looked at more critically. The word “passion” seems to bring with it several implications. First, “finding a passion” seems to imply that we don’t actively choose whatever this passion might be. When I try to envision the process of finding a passion, I think of something almost otherworldly, some sort of magical spark that makes its way into our souls as we work or read or play a sport. All of a sudden we just know, almost on a spiritual level: This is what I was meant to do. And this spiritual sort of experience seems to imply a guarantee of perfection: If finding your passion stems out of this life-altering, magical moment, then all of your future associations with this passion must be absolutely flawless.

Of course, these idealized notions of passion are entirely unrealistic. But this does not minimize the importance or the excitement of finding our passions. In reality, the process of finding a passion is often not a passive surrender to some spark. Instead, all that we really have to aid us in finding a passion is our own conscious choice. The process begins with chance, with which activities and experiences we happen to be exposed to at different stages in our lives, and then, with these experiences as our foundation, we simply use our mental faculties and make a choice. But this does not minimize the excitement of the process.

Sitting around and waiting for a passion to set in is pointless; that spark of certainty might appear to us one day, or it never will, and that is okay. We can take pride in making a choice based on what we want to do, what we feel we’re suited to do, what we think will make us happy, regardless of whether or not this decision comes with a magical feeling of certainty. We can never be fully certain that our choice is the absolute right one, but having the courage to choose a path anyway, in spite of that uncertainty, is an act that we ought to be proud of.

And even if a magical sense of certainty does accompany our initial decision, we cannot expect this feeling to last forever. Pursuing a passion takes hard work, and the initial level of excitement that comes with finding what it is we love to study or do will likely ebb and flow along the way. But sticking with whatever it is that we have chosen to pursue, even when the process becomes challenging, is the only way for us to grow and learn as much as possible within whatever field we have chosen.

Most importantly, not being certain at all of what it is we’re “meant to do” should not be a cause for fear. This uncertainty is indeed scary, but it is also a part of the excitement of being young. We should expect our passions to grow and to change, and even to alter entirely, and we must accept that we do not always have total control of where our paths might lead. We come to college with the hope of finding our passion, and we tend to equate the results of this search with our very identity. We define ourselves and the directions that our lives will take by a set of labels: what we major in, which extracurriculars we participate in, what our tentative post-Wesleyan plans might be. But we do not have to define who we are by one particular goal or path that we are pursuing. Our passions can be multiple, they can be ever changing, and we can even feel free to alter them entirely as new experiences and ideas come into our lives, in college and beyond. This open road of opportunity can be terrifying, but even so, we must remember that we are at a stage in our lives —perhaps one of the only stages —in which absolutely anything is possible, and we ought to find some magic in that.

  • Taisa

    great article!

  • Aaron

    This reminded me of Meryl Streep’s character in “Adaptation”, where she really longs to feel the passion for something like the orchid expert has. I have always been a bit envious of those who seem to get maximum enjoyment from some passion of theirs because it would be nice to have such a reliable, permanent source of joy to tap at all times. I think you make a good point that trying to find a passion is problematic, because if it isn’t something that’s felt just intrinsically and organically, then trying to find it is probably not possible. The late scholar Joseph Campbell advised his students to “follow your bliss”. I do think it’s wonderful when one is “engaged” in some kind of passion, for example, we’ve all observed co-workers or classmates that are unenthused and go about their duties in a boring, perfunctory manner, and it’s not only sad, but something to passionately avoid, and can really drain the joy out of life, whereas, when we are in the presence of someone genuinely following their bliss, it is very pleasant, energizing, and is something to emulate if possible. I think a passion can by anything, however mundane or simple, like baking, or cooking. I remember a Buddhist lesson about how to wash dishes, not exactly a romantic, fun task, and that is to try to be in the moment, and if it must be done, do it with passion and in the very best way possible, and then even the simplest daily tasks can actually be elevated to that desirable state of mind that is longed for, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, she always had the power and what she wanted, but she just didn’t realize it.