Find Your Passion and Let it Kill You

Should your passion become your career?

“My dear, Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you you're all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.” — Charles Buckowski.

If I could have a conversation with Charles Buckowski today, I’d probably suggest reframing his epic phrase to: “let what you love find you” before it gets the chance to kill you. Hearing the phrase “follow your passion.” from parents and enthusiastic sixth-grade teachers gave me an early onset of existential angst. The thing is, many of us sixth graders didn’t know what we were passionate about. Hell, I’m still not 100% sure.

Instead of choosing a career based on what you love, couldn’t our careers become a conduit for passion? If so, how can we make sure we design the right conditions for passion to arise?

Old assumption: Let what you love kill you. Reframe: Let it find you first.


Practicality versus passion

Some research suggests that transforming hobbies into work could undermine your enjoyment of these activities, as your interest gets sapped by the pursuit of external rewards like compensation.

For instance, my boyfriend loves to cook. He’s so passionate about it that when I gave him a first edition Julia Child “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” he shed tears of joy. Cooking is something he shares with family and friends, and he lives for those little “Mmmhm” moments in the privacy of his kitchen. He couldn’t fathom churning out 50 versions of the same dish, from 6 am to closing time. “I wouldn’t have any time left to go to the beach,” he says when I asked him about it.

When it comes to choosing a career, he would rather go to Harvard than the Cordon Bleu. The bottom line is that passion is an important factor to consider when choosing a job. But for most people, passion comes after they try something new, not before. It’s not about finding what you are passionate about; it’s about creating the right conditions to develop a passion. Careers can be the perfect soil to nurture a budding passion if we choose well, and it all starts with our approach to decision-making.

Old assumption: How can I make my passion my career? Reframe: How can my career be a conduit for my passion?


3 methods for applying design thinking to your career choice.

“Passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.” — Bill Burnett, Design Your Life Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, helps people choose the right career or transition career by applying design thinking insights. According to him, designers don’t think their way forward. They build their way forward by trying new things. You are basically prototyping different career options until you find your match. Here are 3 design thinking tools to help you optimize design for a meaningful and financially viable career.

1. Re-state the problem.

Many people spend a lot of time working on the wrong problem. For instance, trying to succeed in a field you actually don’t like just because you’re already in it. If you focus on your bad grades instead of focusing on the underlying problem that you don’t like what you’re studying, you’ll never try other things that could be a better fit. Designers make sure they are working on the right problem before moving on with anything else. Step back, examine your biases and open up to new solutions you hadn’t thought about yet.

2. List your options, sort through them, and choose.

Most minds can only choose effectively between 3 to 5 options, according to Dan Ariely, professor of Behavioural economics at Duke University. One of the reasons you may feel stuck is the length of your list and your approach to choosing. It’s important to realize that having too many options is like having none at all. Make a list of all your potential career paths and start crossing out some options to realize whether or not you had a preference in the first place. Trust your gut feeling. “When an option grows up it becomes a choice.” — Bill Burnett.

3. Design to learn, not to succeed.

We’ve all been stung by the sound of NO. We’ve all allowed ourselves to be temporarily defined by another person’s decision to reject us, even when it’s not personal. Fear of failure can immobilize us at the moment of making big life choices. But if you design experiences to optimize learning outcomes, there is no risk of losing in the first place.

Author and entrepreneur Jia Jiang decided to face his life-long fear of rejection because he knew his fear was holding him back. In a recent TED Talk, he shared his journey to face his fear of “no” by committing to 100 days of straight rejection. His requests (which almost always generated an emphatic “no”) ranged from requesting a “burger refill” at a restaurant to requesting to plant flowers in a stranger’s backyard. However, Jiang’s experiment allowed him to learn that sometimes a no can be turned into a yes. Jiang had always wanted to teach but was convinced that he lacked the credentials. He finally mustered the courage to approach a professor at the University of Texas and was rejected multiple times. However, he persisted, and eventually, the professor gave him a slot in the class. Sometimes you can fulfill a life’s dream simply by asking.

You can put this into practice in your own life by using the internet to find and reach out to people you want to meet and set up conversations to learn about what they do. Talk to people who you are genuinely interested in meeting instead of focusing on getting a job from them. Change your mindset from asking for a job that you know nothing about to being curious about an organization's nature and work.

If bringing up the career topic feels right, you can say something like this: “The more I learn about _________ (insert organization name), the more fascinating it becomes. What steps would be involved in exploring how someone like me could become a part of this organization?”

“Let what you love find you.”

Passion doesn’t grow through the ground floor like a weed, it won’t just pop up by magic if you don't water it. Finding your passion starts with nurturing the soil from which it will grow. Insights from the field of design thinking show that we can design the conditions for passion to arise by choosing the right career. When it comes to making this daunting choice, curiosity and a bias-to-action can go a long way in helping you face your fear of rejection and find your niche.

We need to be brave enough to put ourselves out there and let our passion find us. “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” — Aristotle

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