To Find Your Passion, You Have To Face Your Fears

December 10, 2014 • 15 minute read • by Saeed


“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” 

– Joseph Campbell –

When he famously uttered the phrase “follow your bliss,” Campbell meant it as a sort of sacred call to action for the soul to pursue whatever makes it happy on the path to ultimate fulfillment and success.

Since this concept now occupies a more and more central role in my own research and work with clients, and since the idea of following your bliss (or passion) has been adopted and incorporated into our zeitgeist by such business luminaries as Steve Jobs (most famously at his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech), I felt it deserved closer examination.

As the conventional wisdom goes, follow your bliss and success will follow you. So let’s see what’s at the end of this yellow brick road.

Is Passion a Pink Unicorn?

Passion is defined by Merriam Webster as ‘a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.’ It is also associated with anger that ‘causes you to act in a dangerous way’ as well as a strong ‘romantic feeling.’

Thanks for nothing Webster.

Bliss is defined as ‘perfect happiness’ and ‘great joy.’ When blissful, you are thought to be ‘oblivious of everything else.’

Again, gracias por nada.

Interestingly though, this concept is akin to the concept of ‘Flow’ as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – one of the godfathers of the positive psychology movement. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi defines the concept as: a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is so fully immersed that they become oblivious to their surroundings and singularly focused on that task.

If you don’t know what that looks like, just watch a five year old at play. For adults, it is the state of optimal mental performance.

While the formal definitions of bliss and passion are differentiated and nuanced, it’s safe to assume that Jobs and Campbell likely used these terms interchangeably (as will I) to denote that you should pursue whatever rocks your boat. In truth, passion has an infinite variety of meanings, and for many, it simply means strong emotions of any kind. And while, it’s difficult to nail passion with a satisfying definition, it’s easier to ponder what it is not:

Passion is not passive.

Passion is not a quitter.

Passion is not disengaged.

Passion is not a bystander.

Passion is not love.

Passion is not happiness.

That last one should have given you cause for pause. It is clear that, whatever passion is, it emanates from inside and compels us to engage the worldoutside.

Regardless of the actual word chosen (or even its specific meaning), implicit in this idea is that each of us has a pre-determined journey, at the heart (or end) of which lies our passion and/or bliss. Therefore in life, we are being called to ‘discover’ that passion, and once discovered, to follow it. Then, and only then, will we be met with synchronicities and seemingly “lucky” moments that are guiding our path towards eventual (and inevitable) fulfillment and success.

That’s all good. Theoretically.

The problem is that it’s pretty hard to pursue something you are unsure about. The whole idea that you come pre-equipped with a passion for some particular thing and that it’s only a matter of finding it through introspection, is pre-deterministic at worst, assumptious at best and potentially highly damaging. It leads people to believe that one day an apple (no pun intended Mr. Jobs) will fall on their heads and they will have a moment of epiphany and know what their passion is.

And therefore they wait listless for that magic day to arrive.

If you can’t seem to find something you’d love doing, you’re not alone. Many of my coaching clients struggle with this question either because there is nothing they feel passionate about or there are multiple things they feel passionate about each competing for their attention. Here, it becomes not a problem of passion, but one of focus. I have known many others still who have become successful entrepreneurs in their own right but weren’t necessarily following their passion. It was after their foray into whatever venture, that their passion (s) became clear. Often, they had to face a central fear to move ahead. So to find your passion, you have to face your fears.

You Have To Fail In Order To Find Your Passion

Even on Campbell’s utopist journey, he reminds us that we will have tests, trials and “dragons” to face on our quest and that these dragons are really our inner fears working against us.

Fear, however, gets a very bad rap.

We are taught to fight, resist, avoid, suppress, deny, and medicate our fear away (or for that matter fear’s live-in relatives: anger, insecurity, and anxiety). We are taught that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” and that fear is “False Evidence Appearing Real.”

That’s a pretty catchy backronym with one problem: the appearing evidence is not always false.

Anthropologically speaking, fear is a primal response to danger. Fear is adaptive, functional and necessary for our protection. When we lived on the savanna and the threat we faced was becoming lunch for a lion, fear was the self-protection mechanism that shut down our prefrontal cortex and allowed the limbic system (which regulates emotion) to take over and protect us from these legitimate threats. The evidence of one hungry lion, was real enough and prompted a physiological response that we now know as “fight or flight.”

The result was that we lived to see another day. That’s a super-sweet beneficial byproduct of fear.

Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis goes further. In her theory she suggests that fear of snakes drove pre-human evolution. She posits that (because) snakes and primates share a long and intimate history, both groups were forced to evolve new strategies to survive. Primates developed improved vision and larger brains to detect and avoid the reptiles before they could strike. In other words, without fear our species may have never survived or, in turn, ever evolved.

Be it fear of snakes or fear of success, experts advocate exposure to, rather than avoidance of, fears. Exposure involves gradually and repeatedly going into feared situations until the fear begins to subside. Exposure involves not avoiding the fear that comes with uncertainty which often underpins the search for a great career.

At the height of his fame, Steve Mcqueen was the highest paid actor of his time (and the King of Cool). He pursued acting because that’s where he found women and money (not passion – that he found on motorcycles) and it is reported that he lived in constant fear that one day the public would find out that he was a fraud and that it would all be taken away from him. The anxiety felt by many successful people suggests that early in their lives they were not sure they had found their passion, they had many failures and even when they had found success, they continued to struggle with insecurity, anxiety and fear. In other words, they had to fail many times over, before they found their success or their passion. Passion, like success, was something they pursued and worked towards. They had drive.

By turning towards rather than away from our fears, we create the opportunity to transform them from a stagnating force to one that is single-minded and transformative. Exposing ourselves to our personal demons is the best way to move past them. It’s a pre-requisite to removing the clutter that keeps our passion from remaining undiscovered. Perhaps the reason you haven’t done xyz is because you haven’t faced your fear about it.

At the end of the day, it becomes like the fabled Cherokee story of the Two Wolves. And the question to be pondered becomes: which wolf do you want to feed?

Know Thyself

Today, our quotidian threats are less life threatening than those our ancestors met on the African Savanna. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of loss. Nonetheless, they still prompt our fight-or-flight response. Fortunately, we have evolved enough as a species to better understand the complexity of our emotions, and know that reacting without thinking, doesn’t serve us well. Instead, combining cognition with strategy, we take the time to reflect which gives us the opportunity to make a more considered choice about how to respond. In other words, it’s in the course of evolution that we have learned to ‘check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.’

How do we learn to learn?

The term meta-cognition – defined as “thinking about thinking”- has become de rigueur in educational psychology over the last couple of decades. Most of us think our thoughts are accurate. We trust our own thinking so much that we do not think to question our own thoughts or thought process. When acquiring knowledge, you’ve pushed the play button on your cognitive abilities. When actively using the knowledge you’ve acquired in a strategic manner to ensure that a goal is met, you are in full meta-cognition mode. That is to say, the process of learning how you learn, leads not only to acquiring knowledge but also to how to use that knowledge.

Bobby Fischer was insanely passionate about chess. However, he was very ‘objective’ about evaluating his position while playing. As a matter of fact, that objectivity, or the ability to step outside of himself and observe himself playing, was one of his greatest virtues as a chess player.

Integrating Passion with Profession

Campbell and Jobs seem to assign ‘bliss’ and ‘passion’ to a realm of esoteric romanticism. Passion, however, is less esoteric and more pragmatic than that. In truth, passion comes from the Latin word ‘pati,’ meaning to suffer or endure. Passion requires us to forego, to sacrifice, and to endure in the face of failure and rejection.

Passion is diligence.

Passion is mastery.

Passion is perseverance.

Passion is pursuit.

Passion is intention.

Passion is curiosity.

Passion is action.

Passion is focus.

Passion is rigor.

Passion is discipline.

Passion is drive.

Passion is the third pig in the famed children’s story, the one who built the brick house. Passion is about how sharp you keep your tools, how well you recognize your worth, and how you work systematically to make yourself (or your product) invaluable.

In identifying flow, Csikszentmihalyi hypothesized that flow is possible in any circumstance as long as three conditions are met: clear goals, feedback loops, and self-confidence. He went further to posit that people with very specific personality traits such as curiosity, persistence, and intrinsic motivation may be better able to achieve flow. Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety. Being in a state of apathy is characterized when challenges are low and one’s skill level is low producing a general lack of interest in the task at hand.

So being challenged and developing the skills to meet the challenge is a prerequisite for flow. But importantly, with practice, mindset and the right circumstances, flow can be achieved anywhere, anytime. Even at work!

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell, argues that to be really good at something, to be great at something requires significant investment of time. He uses The Beatles and Bill Gates as examples for what he calls the “10,000-Hour Rule”. The Beatles performed in seedy clubs in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times between 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time (therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule), before making a big splash on the music scene of the time. Microsoft founder Bill Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it. That is mastery. That is passion at work.

In other words, passion equals hard work and perseverance because that’s what allows you to be good at something. In turn, this allows you to create environments of trust and open communication; synergizing people; supporting and nurturing teams and colleagues; creating operational efficiencies and effectiveness; positively impacting growth, productivity, innovation, and profitability.

It may be that passion and bliss await us at the end of the yellow brick road of our careers after a long journey of discovery. But overnight successes, free rides and apples falling off trees belong to the realm of fantasy and mythology. The real journey of passion is replete with determination, hard work, self-knowledge and self-confrontation.To find your passion, you have to face your fears and work your tail off. Passion is ‘discoverable.’ But this journey is marked by focus, discipline, and rigor; not happenstance. It is the journey of the Jedi Warrior. It is the journey of the wisest pig and the one that builds the strongest house. I would argue that passion is not inherent to be discovered but emergent to be explored.

To find your passion, you have to stop chasing unicorns and start slaying dragons.

Oh yeah, and put a sign on the door: No Wolves Allowed!

Good luck.

©2014 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A

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