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Lost: My Passion. Please Help!

The issue of the day with student-athletes on campus (especially those with injuries or graduating/leaving sport) seems to be "what is my passion or purpose? It was always my sport? What if I don't have any of that passion or purpose now? Where can I find it? help!!!"

Such a great and pertinent set of queries from loyal reader, Judy. Particularly given that passion allegedly is one of the main constructs underpinning grit according to Angela Duckworth, author of the book Grit. How the hell can I even break a sweat on a gritty journey if I don’t even know what I am passionate about?

Let’s start at the beginning. There are a few things to unpack from Judy’s questions.

What if I don't have any of that passion or purpose now? Where can I find it? help!!!

The idea of “life being easier if you pursue your passion” is so commonly thrown around we can feel somehow lacking if we don’t have a passion to pursue. As if there’s something wrong with us.

The book, Grit, talks to this point. Rather than following our passion—which most of us would do if we had one to follow—Duckworth suggests fostering a passion. Because, as it turns out, even those folks we hear about who appear to have just followed their passions often did a hell of a lot of sampling along the way before honing in on what it is they really wanted to do.

The other issue embedded in these questions is one of unrealistic expectations. The myth (let’s call it Myth #1) that one’s passion—if it’s even findable or knowable—will be completely and utterly fulfilling. Duckworth quotes Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology from Swarthmore College who notes, It’s really the same problem a lot of young people have in finding a romantic partner. They want somebody who’s really attractive, smart, kind, empathetic, thoughtful, and funny. Try telling a twenty-one-year-old that you can’t find a person who is absolutely the best in every way. They don’t listen. They’re holding out for perfection.

No partner (and no career) is perfect. Every elite athlete understands that the sport career they are so “passionate” about has downsides and rough patches. Some athletes come into their career as super talents who get the rude slap in the face when, as they move up the ladder, they discover that they have to actually train to stay with their competition. Others suffer from crippling performance anxiety or throw up before matches. Still others hate the daily grind of sameness.

Myth #2 is that finding your passion—like falling in love—is like a thunderbolt. Maybe it is…but more often, it is not. I recall having to choose a research focus in graduate school. As a counseling psychology student at the University of Illinois, the choices were between “counseling process” and “vocational psychology.” At a loss, I picked the latter, even though I found even the feel of the word “vocational” to sit awkwardly in my mouth. One could say that I backed into vocational psychology rather than it finding me. And yet, once I started "dating" it, I was hooked. Turns out that vocational psychology is the of finding and nurturing a career. I literally "rear-ended" into one of my passions…helping others--athletes and otherwise--find their career of choice.

It was always my sport!

Embedded in this statement is the implication that, because I had this passion but know its shelf-life is limited, I’ve used up my passion allocation. Or I don’t deserve another shot at something or can’t imagine—already—anything else ever taking its place.

All of these statements are self-limiting beliefs of one kind or another. Putting it another way, these are stories our minds tell us. Not only are they all inventions we made up, they also set us up for suffering. In exactly the same way that the person who is rejected by someone they really cared for thinks, no way will I ever meet someone as great as [person who rejected me.] While we can’t stop our minds from telling these stories, we don’t have to buy into them, either.

So, what’s a suffering student-athlete seeking passion to do?

1. Know that our interests—the seeds of our passions—are not found through introspection, nor can they be forced. They are only stimulated by interacting with the outside world. In the spirit of experimentation. If you are an athlete, think back to the process of finding your sport. It was likely a process of some elimination - and a process of falling in love over time.

2. Get curious. Having experienced that strong interest or passion, say in your sport, go below the surface. What IS it about your sport that you love so much (if you are one of those people who are in love with it)? No one loves everything about their sport, but what is it that you find most compelling about it? It could be the satisfaction of learning something difficult to master. Or is it really the thrill of the competition? Is it in the winning? Or maybe it's the love of a close-knit team?

By really getting to the root of what lights you up, you get more intel about those aspects of your sport that could be important to carry forward in your search for the next thing. Noting that what you learn could be more about the process, not the subject matter. That is, athletes who love competing may find their thrill in a career, like sales, that allows them to compete every day. Athletes who love learning would go elsewhere, say to a career field that stretches them to innovate. Athletes who get their kicks being part of a surprise, will be likely to find happiness in a work team environment.

3. Be open, and sample often. David Epstein, in his excellent book, Range, takes apart the myth that experts get that way by specialising early. While of course there are celebrated exceptions to that rule, by far the majority of people range far and wide, sampling here and there, often in places that on the surface don’t make much sense. Dipping in and out, not fearing the idea of quitting something that doesn’t fit. Epstein’s reporting on the contrast between the careers of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer should be required reading for anyone skeptical about this messaging.

Don’t be afraid to range. To try things. Seek opportunities to work in different spaces. To see what is cool…(or awful) once you’re there. This is especially true when we are young and before we have responsibilities that require us to make and keep a sustainable income in support of family and a mortgage.

Let me know what you think!


P.S. In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on achieving the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at

P.P.S. For more information about me and my programs, here's a link to my website!

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