Everyone knows the saying "Do what you love, love what you do." But what if you don't know what you love to do? How do you figure out your passion?
Steven Kotler, New York Times–bestselling author, journalist, and executive director of the Flow Research Collective, is an expert on human performance, and he has a lot to say about curiosity and passion. One recurring concept:
Discovering the things you're curious about is one of the key stepping stones toward naming your passions.
To do this, Kotler suggests 1) making a specific list of all the things you're even vaguely curious about, 2) reviewing the list for areas of overlap, 3) devoting some time daily to exploring your overlapping interests (e.g., reading about the subject or practicing the skill), and 4) sharing your findings with others. This process not only uncovers things you're curious about, it also activates dopamine, which means "more motivation, and—over time—a bit of expertise."
I admit I didn't follow Kotler's steps to discover my passion before starting my freelance career, but I did do my best to follow my natural inclinations toward things that piqued my interest and avoid forcing myself to do things I didn't really care about.
I knew I enjoyed reading and admired the power of the written word, so I pursued a BA in English—despite not knowing what I was going to do with my degree.
I knew I enjoyed books more than magazines or other forms of media, so I looked for internships and jobs in publishing—despite not knowing what department I would be best suited for.
I knew I enjoyed reading books about personal development and how people create, break, and stick to habits, so I limited my career scope to nonfiction book publishing—despite not having any specialized training.
And on and on until one day I woke up and realized I had accumulated genuine expertise in a unique specialty.
Considering you can't/don't/won't know everything all the time, it's safe to say some trial and error is necessary to discover your passion, and then to build upon it and create a successful career. I relied heavily on trial and error while breaking into the publishing industry, first as a full-time employee, then as a freelance copy editor and proofreader. It worked out for me, but I would have saved a lot of time and energy had I explored my overlapping points of curiosity beforehand.
By determining early on what you're most curious about, you give yourself the chance not only to avoid distractions down the road, but also to work with your natural tendencies rather than against them. So, try Kotler's exercise at least once, and be honest with yourself. Then, I would add, consider what you are not curious about. I believe this list is equally as important as the first.
For example: You write out a list of all the things you're curious about, which includes copy editing, biographies, and health and fitness. What points of overlap are there between these three seemingly unrelated things? Well, you could easily explore opportunities to copy edit biographies about health and fitness experts.
You make a plan to research best-selling books in this category, buy the most highly rated title from your local bookstore, and read one chapter from it every day. (This is an excellent way to explore overlap without exhausting yourself.) But you quickly find that health and fitness is a huge category, and the top three best-selling biographies are about a doctor, a chef, and a bodybuilder, respectively.
You could use trial and error to figure out which of these you're most interested in, or you could take a moment to reflect: Am I equally as curious about each of these topics? No. Am I seriously turned off by medical speak and physiology? Yes.
Instead of wasting time on either of the other books, you decide to follow your curiosity and read the second-place best-seller, the biography about a chef. You enjoy reading it, you're focused on its content, and it's hard to put down. This is exactly the kind of reaction—one of curiosity and intense interest—you'll have when you work with your interests rather than against them; this is how you start to love what you do.
When you stop to consider what you're not interested in, and vow never to do those things—regardless of what others might think or what you're being offered in exchange—you cast a vote of confidence in favor of your inner voice, your eventual specialty, your passion. Focus on the things that interest you, know the things that don't, and you'll find yourself doing more of what you love every day.