The Peril of Following Your Passions Without Knowing Your Passions

By October 22, 2015HACKing Self-Awareness
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One of my most lucid memories as a high school student was feeling that I could be anything I wanted to be. An astronaut? Just work hard. A nuclear physicist? Just study hard. An investigative journalist? Just prepare hard. After all, throughout my childhood, my family, teachers, and counselors had reinforced this mentality deep within my soul. The career for which I was destined, I thought, was not so much up to chance, but rather a function of finding my desired career and then executing accordingly. It’s fair to say that I approached college with the words of William Ernest Henley deep in my heart: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

Holding this approach as one of my deepest convictions, I began my undergraduate career in the College of Education at Penn State. I endeavored to become a secondary education teacher for a variety of reasons, but none of which was more influential than the same advice spoon-fed to million of incoming college students: pick a career that will allow you to follow your passions. This advice sounds great in theory. Just pursue something you love to do, right? What could go wrong? Turns out—a lot.

For starters, I, much like everyone else I knew, had previously given little thought to my passions. Who had time for self-discovery when there were a million other things to do? Growing up I was preoccupied playing sports year round, hanging out with friends, working a part-time job, all the while trying to squeeze in time to complete my homework assignments and prepare for college. At the time, sacrificing sports, friends, paychecks, or grades for the sake of self-discovery seemed like a silly tradeoff to make. Nevertheless, despite knowing very little about what my passions were, I took the “follow your passion” advice, anyway.

That’s not to say I knew absolutely nothing about myself. I did know that I was (and still am) passionate about learning, teaching, and the self-actualization of others. To me, it made sense that these characteristics naturally led to a career in education—namely as a teacher.

The problem, however, was that my reasoning was very abstract. Sure I had spent the majority of my waking hours since I was five-years old inside a classroom. But I had absolutely no idea what it meant to be a teacher. Indeed, I had spent all my time on the student side of the desk, while giving little thought as to the implications of life on the teacher side of the desk.

Not surprisingly, during the course of my freshman year at college, I slowly began to realize that pursuing a major in secondary education was not a good fit for me. First, I found my education classes mildly interesting at best. I entered college to learn complex, thought-provoking ideas—ideas that challenged my own worldview. Instead, I learned how to communicate concepts to high school students that I had learned when I was in high school. As a result, I was not very engaged.

Furthermore, I couldn’t identify with many of my classmates. They just didn’t see the world the way I did. While many of them sought to teach their future students subjects like basic math, I sought to learn complex calculus for no reason other than I was naturally curious. While many of them sought to learn how students relate to one another, I sought to learn how I relate to the world. Conversations stayed at a superficial level. At no point did I meaningfully engage with a classmate where I left thinking, “Now this guy gets it.” Something was missing.

Although I sensed a void, the costs of being confined to a major unfit for me were rather minimal—at least, during my freshman year. After all, freshman year is filled with mostly all general education courses—courses which all students are required to take no matter their specific major. I knew that I had time to figure things out. So I deferred opting out of the College of Education until later.

Then came sophomore year. During sophomore year, I realized that, for better or for worse, I possessed an inner drive (and still do) that could not be contained within the four walls of a classroom. This drive, in large part, shaped my perception that college maintained this sense of endless possibility–you know, the “master of my fate, captain of my soul” mentality. Looking back now, I think this drive was the source of the disconnect I experienced while interacting with my peers.

This self-awareness revelation fueled another, more alarming revelation during my sophomore year: I noticed that my friends were enrolled in more and more classes within their respective majors. No longer was everyone taking introductory psychology together. My engineering friends were taking engineering courses. My business friends were taking finance and economics courses. I, however, was still taking education courses despite knowing that I would inevitably leave the education field.

With my classmates digging deeper into their respective majors, the costs of my indecision were no longer small. Instead of being discontent inside general education courses that I was compelled to take, anyway, I was now missing valuable career-building opportunities. For example, I missed the opportunity to complete an internship over the all-important sophomore summer. I missed opportunities to join clubs early and work my way into leadership positions.

It wasn’t until the beginning of junior year that I finally made the decision to switch from the College of Education into the College of Business—the last possible moment before Penn State’s policies prohibited students from changing majors. Carrying over my indecision to sophomore year meant that I remained stagnant while other classmates raced ahead of me.

If only I had more thoughtfully and more thoroughly considered what conventional wisdom haphazardly recommended: just follow your passions. In my naiveté, I had assumed that by following my passions—even though I had no idea what my passions were—everything would turn out all right. Instead, early out of the college gates, I had fallen behind my classmates. Today, over five years removed from my undergraduate graduation, I’m still trying to catch up.

Unlike me, you don’t have to play “catch up.” You don’t have to keep pace with the crowd, either. Indeed, with the right toolkit and the right approach, you can separate yourself from the crowd—all without doing additional, laborious work. You just have to know what to do. That’s why I’ve written this book.

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