The Courage to Choose and The Search for Passion

“Raise your hand if you have found your passion. Not the ‘This is what I want – I think’ kind of passion. I’m talking about something that calls you with all its force, something that shines clear and bright like the North Star.  Something that fills your life with joy and meaning and purpose.” I said to 80 young people at a Career Orientation event a few days ago. After a moment of silence, three hands rose up.

Many students and recent graduates came to orientation events with the hope of – I guess – being “oriented”. So let’s try to understand what it really means. The word “Orientation” was originated from “Orient” in mid 19th century, of which definition is to align or position (something) relative to the points of a compass or other specified positions. Imagine captain Jack Sparrow – the notorious pirate of the Caribbean – opens his magical compass. This compass doesn’t point north but to whatever his heart most desires. He will keep his ship, the magnificent Black Pearl, heading to where it points: The Fountain of Youth or the nearest port for some women and couple bottles of rum. That is orientation.

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So three things must happen for the so-called “orientation” process to be completed. Jack knows what his heart most desires. Jack’s compass points to a direction. Jack stirs the Black Pearl’s wheel to keep it on course. Without the first condition: “Jack knows what his heart most desires.” The other two steps will not happen. If Jack doesn’t know what his heart wants, he can sail the Black Pearl through thousands of full moons, and it will still be nothing more than a sea weed drifting in the mighty ocean, and himself nothing more than a sea-sick-resistant drunkard with very low hygiene.

The same sentiment was echoed beautifully in “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice, being lost in the wood, asks Cheshire Cat for help:

- Oh, no, no. I was just wondering if you could help me find my way. - Well that depends on where you want to get to. - Oh, it really doesn't matter, as long as... - Then it really doesn't matter which way you go.

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We are most of the time that Alice, lost in the wood. It really doesn’t matter as long as… the salary is good, the environment is fair, the industry is stable, the boss is friendly, the competition is benign, the tittle is flattering. But we don’t know if those conditions are there so we set off to ask people’s opinions. Then we get overwhelmed with different, sometimes contradictory opinions and information. And we decided to ask some more, maybe this next smart person could digest all the information, offer us some sane advice, or make a choice for us for the better. The more we seeks certainty from outside, the more we swirl and squint in a spiral made of confusion while our dreams are left untouched.

I know how it feels. I was a quivering mess of uncertainty-phobia myself. My breath paused when I came across a passage on the topic of intuition in “The Power of Imperfection” by Brene Brown:

“In my research, I found that what silences our intuitive voice is our need for certainty. Most of us are not very good at not knowing. We like sure things and guarantees so much that we don’t pay attention to the outcomes of our brain’s matching process.

For example, rather than respecting a strong internal instinct, we become fearful and look for assurances from others.

‘What do you think?’

‘Should I do it?’

‘Do you think it’s a good idea, or do you think I’ll regret it?’

‘What would you do?’

A typical response to these survey questions is, ‘I’m not sure what you should do. What does your gut say?’

And there it is. What does your gut say?

We shake our head and say, ‘I’m not sure’ when the real answer is, ‘I have no idea what my gut says; we haven’t spoken in years.’

When we start polling people, it’s often because we don’t trust our own knowing. It feels too shaky and too uncertain. We want assurances and folks with whom we can share the blame if things don’t pan out.”

When Steve Jobs decided to form Apple he didn’t touch his chin with his thump and forefinger and and think “Uhm…I’m not so sure about this but I’ll listen to my mother.” He did what his gut told him and didn’t give a damn about the rest.

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So I have learnt a trick: When I need to make a choice, and feeling unsure, I ask my gut for a date, we go to a quiet place – because her voice is so soft – and I calmly wait in silence and stillness until she says something. Sometimes, she tells me that she needs my help to find more information. Then I would go to read some books, Google, or talk to people I trust, or go to Career Orientation events for instance. After all that, I would listen to her again. Many times, she gave me the answer which made me think she had gone cookoo as I flipped the table. But I always ended up follow her anyhow.

Listen to your gut. Gather information from sources you trust if that’s what your gut asked for. And come back to your gut again. Be open, acknowledge and appreciate others’ advices. But don’t follow any. Come back to your gut. Your gut knows. You know.

Six months ago I had lunch with a successful business executive, whose energy enchants people wherever he goes. On the second floor of an old restaurant on Meent street, Rotterdam, we talked about career paths and life decisions. “Which plan are you having now?” He thought for a while and answered “I have learnt not to be wary about plans”. And he went on “When I need to make big decisions, I ask myself ‘What makes me excited?’”

There it is, what makes you excited? My gut’s answer to this question is often something terrifying. An the troll inside me will begin to whisper in my right ear what a jerk I am to attempt doing it or even thinking about it – about becoming a writer. And then in my head I see my mother frowning, then my friends smirking, strangers on the street rolling eyes. So I mediate, shut them down, snap it all out and make a choice anyhow.

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(Source: carolinegault.com via Elin on Pinterest)

What happens after that is not Happily Ever After. In the Career Orientation event I mentioned earlier, I told the participants to “Have the courage to make a choice. And also have the courage to change it.” The latter is important because we never know unless we try it, touch it, taste it. We don’t try it out mainly because of fear, did we? “What if we make the wrong choice? We will waste our youth or fail! ”

Firstly, sitting around not making choices is the best way to waste our youth. My experiences taught me that If I listen to my gut, it will take me to places, people, and lessons I needed. Success is not guaranteed. I failed before, miserably, terribly. The very failure that broke me open is also that one taught me the biggest lesson.

Secondly, our choices don’t always lead us to our passion either. I made a choice to pursue sales in AIESEC for two years. And  now I have decided that I will not work in sales. I can do sales well, but because I am an introvert, it takes away my energy. I know it may bring me a lot of money but it will not bring me happiness. So if you are lucky enough to meet your passion in your first few tries, wonderful! Stick with it, give yourself to it. But if you don’t, equally wonderful. Now you know what you don’t want. I think in life knowing what we don’t want is even more important than knowing what we want. When we realize that it’s not for us, we need to have the courage to gather our belongings, put on our backpack and go off to the wilderness to seek our true passion again. I know it might be quite tricky to realize but we are not elms, we can move.

There is no wrong choice, there are just choices left unmade.

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What about you?

Have you found your passion?

What makes you excited?

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On the topic of passion, read on other stories: How I Discovered the Artist in Me and Chose to be Who I am or Light House - Discovering and Following Our Passion