Why You Can’t Find Your Passion, and What to Do Instead
In his book, The Motivation Myth, Jeff Haden suggests that the way most people view motivation is actually backwards.
“I’m going to learn how to play you.”
He was looking at the guitar he just pulled out of his closet. He didn’t know it then, but that day would set the course of his life towards becoming one of the best guitarists in the world. At that moment, however, had no grand goals. All he wanted was to learn to play guitar.
So he started learning. It was a struggle at first, but he kept at it, and eventually he was able to play a few things. This accomplishment gave him a burst of motivation, which pushed him to continue learning. His learning then produced more results, which spurred him to get even better. The tiny accomplishments began to pile up until his guitar became the only thing he could think about.
In time, Kirk Hammett would become the lead guitarist for Metallica and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, the 11th greatest guitarist of all time. As Hammett himself describes it: “All it really takes is a desire to keep on doing it. Finding a passion comes from sticking with it, and that is easy when you work hard to keep getting better. And before long, you realize you’ve gotten passionate about the passion.”
In The Motivation Myth Jeff Haden explains how the popular misconception about motivation is preventing us from achieving our full potential. According to Haden, the way many of us view motivation is backwards. We think that we need motivation to begin working on an ambitious goal, so we keep searching for our “passion”—some activity that we think we’ll like so much that we’ll be motivated to work on it through all the setbacks and challenges.
Haden suggests the reverse: motivation is a product of action, the result of learning and succeeding at something. Motivation isn’t the fuel that keeps us going. On the contrary, getting better at something and seeing the results of our struggles is actually what fuels motivation. Our initial success makes us more motivated to continue, which in turn leads to more success and more motivation.
Instead of fruitlessly looking for an activity we are “passionate” about, we should focus on finding something we are simply interested in, and then set up a process we can follow to get better at it. It’s the process of growth that will fuel our motivation by continually making us better at our work. The feeling of improvement, the feeling of accomplishment, is what motivates us to go further. And this can only happen after we start.
Also, the satisfaction we get from achieving any single goal is fleeting. You’ll feel happy the moment you achieve it, but that feeling will quickly fade. To get lasting fulfillment we must experience a continuous process of growth—a perpetual stream of accomplishments. Here’s how Haden suggests we go about it…
1. Set a big goal, then forget about it
First, pick an ambitious, inspiring goal, something that will stretch you, not merely something that you think is achievable.
Next, forget about the goal. Do this by breaking it down into smaller targets and shifting your focus on them. If you’ve never run a marathon and that is your goal, it doesn’t make sense to keep comparing your daily progress to your final goal—the distance from here to there is too big—instead, compare how far you can run today with yesterday, and keep working on improving that. You want to keep the goal in mind, but the focus should be on the progress you’re making, not how far you still have to go.
Haden also suggests that you shouldn’t tell others about your big goal. Research shows that sharing “an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention … gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”1 In other words: sharing your aspirations with others gives you a feeling of accomplishment without doing those things. This saps away the motivation to work on the goal since a portion of the reward has already been experienced.
If you really want to share your goal, share your process instead: i.e. not “I’m going to run a marathon,” but “I run every day,” not “I’m going to write a book,” but “I write every day.” Link your identity to the work rather than the outcome.
2. Focus on the process
Design a process you will follow to achieve your goal. It doesn’t have to be perfect—just something plausible. The process will change and evolve as you work, so don’t waste time trying to get it right from the start.
The process must be specific, that is, it must include the exact actions you plan to take, and when you plan to take them, e.g. not “run every day,” but “run 5 miles on Monday at 7 a.m.” Haden suggests that best goals are measurable, e.g. not “lose weight,” but “lose 30 pounds.” Measurable goals can be broken down into daily chunks to form a process, and your progress can be tracked. There’s no ambiguity with measurable goals: you either achieve them, or you don’t. Even if the overall goal is qualitative, you can almost always find a metric you can use to track progress.
Jerry Seinfeld achieved his successful career in comedy by developing a consistent work ethic. He made a simple rule for himself: every day he would write jokes. Not great jokes, not good jokes, just jokes. He then crossed out the date on his wall calendar on the days he wrote. Writing on multiple days in a row produced an unbroken chain on the calendar, which pushed him to keep it going. The longer the chain gets, the more motivated you are to maintain it.
When he started writing for Inc. magazine, Haden followed these principles to achieve success. He was already an experienced writer, but, because he wrote in the capacity of a ghost writer, he didn’t receive any credit for his work. He wanted to change that, to make his name known.
Haden approached his writing at Inc. systematically. He wasn’t just going to write a few pieces and see where that got him—no, he set himself an ambitious goal of getting his articles over a million views per month, something no other writer at Inc. had achieved till that point.
After having set his goal, Haden forgot about it and focused on the process. What were the actions he needed to take to get there? Obviously, he had to write the articles, which he did, without fail. He built relationships by starting conversations with people who shared his work. He networked, finding interesting people for his interviews. He kept tinkering with his headlines, testing which ones attracted more clicks. He kept evaluating his content, looking at what resonated most with his readers.
Here’s what happened. The first month he did about 35,000 page views. The following month this grew to nearly 100,000 page views. The third month: 300,000. The fourth his views reached nearly 900,000. The fifth month he did 2.1 million page views. Afterwards he continued to average 1.5 million views per month.
Haden achieved his goal because all of his actions were tied to a single metric: page views. The more he worked, the higher the number rose. He could see which actions were producing results, and which weren’t, and focused on what worked. His growing experience in writing articles and headlines directly translated into higher page views, and this fueled his motivation to keep going. Even though the initial goal was almost arbitrary, the process of achieving it became Haden’s passion. He had become “passionate about the passion.”
You cannot find your passion by simply looking for it, waiting to stumble upon an activity that you’ll never get tired of. Instead, passion is a product of success, it’s something that must be developed through work. Find something you are interested in, and follow a process to get better at it. As Nietzsche once said about truth,2 one could say about passion: passion isn’t something out there, that might be found or discovered—but something that must be created.
Gollwitzer et al., “When Intentions Go Public,” 612
“Truth is not something out there, that might be found or discovered—but something that must be created.” —Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power