In Search of Passion: Of Sniffing and Following the White Rabbit

What would you do if money were no object?

We posed this question to 20 young people in the room in a recent Knowmads event. While too often, the society had made them puzzle over the opposite question: “What can I do to make money?” Now they were pondering this peculiar idea that nobody had ever given to them before. “If money were no object” was a liberating scenario. This lid them up.

“I love cooking. If money were no object, I would cook, have a restaurant, and travel. “ “I love designing, making beautiful things. When I create something of my own, I’m very happy.” The girls answered with enthusiasm in their voice, their eyes shone. My heart lifted. These girls already had a small fire kindling inside. They should feel very lucky.

However, there were other girls who looked rather confused by the question. “I have normal hobbies like reading or writing… I like playing the piano but I’m not so good at it.” A girl hesitantly said. There wasn’t much energy in her voice and her eyes. I asked her gently: “is there anything that makes you feel so great while doing it?” “I like said, I have these hobbies…” She replied.

I understood what that means. Her fire hadn’t been kindled. She had things she enjoyed spending time doing. But they are all lukewarm. There was nothing really cooking, nothing burning in there. It wasn’t just her. I saw similar thing in all the groups. Girls or boys shaking their head, feeling somewhat embarrassed when it was their turn to answer the question, muttered: “I don’t know yet… I’m not clear about what I love doing...”

This reminded me of the boy in a Story Telling session I held in a youth conference in Singapore. “Today I saw many others talking about their passion. But… I don’t even have a dream!” He trembled and cried. I wonder how many other young people feel the same.

What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like? What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?


These questions belong to an epic lecture of the British philosopher Alan Watts. They are uncomfortably liberating. Uncomfortable because questions like these trip people naked. And for many of us, should we fail to answer them, they reveal ruthlessly how boring the state of our life is, and how badly we have squandered it. So boring and so badly squandered that we have no clue what we desire, what makes us itch.

“Follow Your Passion” motto works for people who are suppressing their passion. But is bewildering for those who haven’t the slightest idea what their passion is. When everything is lukewarm, but nothing is burning.

Instant Passion

It’s overwhelming how many young people have asked me this question: “What is the turning point for you to discover your passion?” I can read the assumption behind this question: there is a thing they can do, a shortcut, to discover their passion in a snap. Like driving through Mc Donalds and order a piece of passion. Instant Passion. Here you go! Enjoy! Bye bye! Now you can just do that, and be happy for the rest of your life.

I don’t know about others. But for me it is very clear that there is no such thing. No waking up one fine morning feeling on top of the world: “I got it! I know what my passion is!” This doesn’t exist.

“Keep looking. Don’t settle.” is arguably Steve Jobs’ most popular, overused, and wildly misunderstood statement. What Jobs really meant was to keep looking for what you really love, don’t ever settle until you find it. This is a search, an adventure, an exploration, a long journey.

From where can we start this journey? We start exactly from where we are. Dreams do not come at you screaming in between your eyebrows. You have sniff for it. Like a Basset Hound sniffing the trace of a white rabbit. You follow that trace, one sniff at a time.


Of Sniffing and Tracing the White Rabbit

I love the story of Steven Spielberg. He once said: “I dream for a living.” When being asked how he discovered his dream to make film. He said at the beginning he hadn’t the slightest idea. One day his dad took him to the cinema and little Steven for the first time saw two trains ran into each other. He got obsessed with train crash. He became an “electric train nut”. Of course, as re-create the own train explosion, he broke lots of his toys – which did not please his father. So Steven got the idea of filming the train crash so that he could watch it all the time without causing any damage. That was his first movie. But still, he had no idea. Once his team at school needed to make this little project and they created a short video with Steven “directing”.  The day showed it to the small audience, the reaction got Steven goose bumps. He found it. Steven Spielberg found the path that have led him to be the Steven Spielberg we all know. That path would have been lost, had he not sniffed the trace of the white rabbit, and simply followed, wholeheartedly, with undivided attention.*

It is really very simple. There is no way to sit there and think yourself out of passionlessness. You can’t wait for it to come. You must do. You must stand up and experience.

Do whatever that piques your interest. You don’t need to feel burning about it. Feeling interested is enough. And not just do, you do your best. Whole heartedly. Devotedly. Most of us have  problem at doing our best because we are too distracted and disoriented. Distracted by your mobile phone, Facebook life, social life, entertainments. Disoriented by the expectations of other people. Let say now you like playing the piano. But your parents want you to spend more time studying diploma. Your friends want you to hangout with them at the cinema. Your girlfriend want you to take her out for shopping. Too much noises. You end up cancelling your time playing the piano. No wonder why you can’t do your best. Only when you do your best you can feel your best. Only when you pay attention, you are sensitive enough to realize your passion.


Do something that brings you to the edge of your comfort zone. Don’t sit on your sofa and watch 10 episodes of your favorite TV series in the name of “follow my passion”! Sign-up for a creative class, begin an open online course about piano playing, create a non-compromising schedule of 2 hours practice per day, or join a local club of people who share same interest. Anything that  you feel very excited and slightly nervous about! Nervousness is a good sign. Your system is resisting it because it is not used to it. That means you are flirting with your personal limits. 

Do something simple. Something you can do today. Many of us thought our dreams need to be valid. Travel the world is a dream. Gardening isn’t cool enough. But most of those who said they would travel the world never did. It’s not about changing your life. Life is very grand, your little will isn’t enough to change it. Life happens with or without you. It’s not about chasing after outrageous life experiences for the sake of it. Every single life experience is worth experiencing. It’s about changing how you life your life and changing how much of you is experiencing it. Start from exactly where you are. Garden. Cook. Draw. Read. Dance. Let go of  what others think. Sniff.

Do it, pay attention to the whisper. “Dream does not come at you screaming,” said Steven Spielberg, “it whispers.” Writing has whispered in my ears ever since I were 5 years old. But I’d been too distracted and disoriented to hear this whisper. One morning in the middle of my sabbatical break when the noises had finally stopped,  I asked myself “If I did not know of others’ expectations, If I let go of my need to be an achiever, what would I do?” “Writing” I was whispered to. 

I began to write I did not said to myself “OMG I’ve found it. This is my passion. This is something I will do for the rest of my life!” I did not know it would become my passion. I simply allow myself to do what I love. Like a flower blossoms for its own joy. I wrote. Wrote more. Wrote thousands of hours. One sniff at a time. And my words and sentences blossomed. And I found Wonderland.

* Steven Spielberg’s speech at the Academy of Achievement