The pursuit of passion (part II)

May 23, 2014, 1:38 a.m.

This is the second part of a two-part op-ed. The previous installment ran on Thursday; you can read it here.

So far, I have been writing under one major premise: that everyone should have a passion. As high school seniors, we had to show that we were “passionate” about certain topics—topics that we would pursue throughout the rest of our lives—in order to gain merit in the eyes of Stanford University. Now that we are here, the overwhelming narrative is that Stanford is the time and place to pursue that passion that we displayed, and if you made it here without having a passion, Stanford is the place to find one. One student that I talked with put it simply, “The narrative is a little too strong—everyone should have a passion and if you don’t, you’ve failed.”

This fixation on passion is evident in the way we label our peers in our dorms, especially in freshmen year. We refer our peers as “the Olympian,” “the math genius,” “the startup guy.” Those of us who don’t have a “thing” desperately try to find that x-factor. So we join a myriad of clubs and activities, overcommitting as a method of soul-searching.

The problem with this narrative is that there is an expectation that our “passion” is our identity. It turns this ardent pursuit into a necessity, the controlling component of who we are. But while a passion can indeed be a part of our identity, it was never meant to be the core of who we are. After all, though we like to think that passions are forever, they come and go, change and morph.

Additionally, our very motivation driving the pursuit of the passion ebbs and flows. As Stanford behavior design expert B.J. Fogg explains, motivation is like a wave, with high and low points. I have several friends who are Olympic athletes, and one of them pointed out that some days she absolutely loves her sport, and some days she struggles to find the enjoyment she so regularly experiences.

Sometimes these low points extend from days into long periods of life, but this shouldn’t have any effect on our core identity. Who we are as a person—the key experiences and decisions that shape us as humans—still remains, even as our passions change. We can’t find our identity in something that changes as rapidly as our interests, goals and dreams.

Furthermore, for those of us who don’t have a passion, the narrative leaves us asking, “So, who are we? Where do we fit in?” Freshman year can be exceptionally overwhelming as we attempt to find our special niche—our identity—so that we fit in. The idea that everyone at Stanford has their “thing” pushes us to pursue passion relentlessly. But we forget that passion isn’t a necessity. Passion is a privilege. There are some people in the world who are privileged enough to have found out what they love and have been given an opportunity to pursue it to endless bounds, but for most humans, these opportunities simply don’t exist. Can we really say, then, that everyone ought to pursue their passion no matter what?

We are fortunate to be at Stanford, where we have the opportunity to explore various areas of interest. Maybe we’ll discover our true passion while we are here, maybe we won’t. But it is critical that we remember that passion is not a sine qua non—it’s okay if our passion doesn’t result in a career. It’s okay if we don’t know what we want to study. It’s even okay if we never find a passion. Stanford should be four years of excited exploration and experimentation, not four years of stress about not having a “thing.” Your identity is not your passion—you are so much more than that.

In response to Steve Jobs, I don’t think that you need to find what you love in order to do great work. While doing what you love is a romantic idea, it discredits great work that is done outside of passion, which occurs every second all around the world. You can be successful and happy outside of doing what you love. Instead of actively searching for what you love and not being content until you find it, enjoy what you are already doing and try new things, not for the sake of finding passion, but out of curiosity.

If you’re fortunate enough, passion will develop organically. Jobs and Wozniak found their infatuation for developing and distributing personal technology through tinkering with computers when they were young. Rather than distracting from technology, their curiosity added to it. Jobs went to typography classes at Reed out of interest. Later, his typography knowledge proved instrumental in the development of digital typefaces.

Typography wasn’t Jobs’ dream, but he produced something great as a result. My point is: Enjoy Stanford and the many opportunities here without stressing about finding your passion. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” The frenetic quest for passion is making us unsatisfied and unhappy and it’s time that we reimagine that otherwise noble pursuit.

Contact Jason van der Merwe at [email protected].

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