The Passionless Person’s Guide to Finding Passion

on July 5, 2011 | in What the F Should You Do With Your Life?, Work | by

Author and MIT graduate Cal Newport has great advice for identifying your “passion”: find a pursuit that passes the Saturday-morning test.

The Saturday-morning test is simple: if you were to wake up on a Saturday morning with no obligations, what would you spend your time doing? When you’ve found a pursuit that passes this test and that is “inseparable from your idea of relaxation,” then you’ve found a deep interest, something that’s worth pursuing and something from which you can build a fulfilling career.

Let’s face it, though— a few years ago, the only thing that passed my Saturday-morning test was nursing last night’s hangover while eating a delicious breakfast burrito from Los Beto’s. I’m not positive, but I really don’t think that qualifies as something that I could build a career from— at least, not unless my career path turned out to be a reality show like the Jersey Shore.

So what’s the secret? How can the “passionless” find their passion? Are deep interests available to all, or are they reserved for a select few who have had their sh** together from the start?

HOW DO YOU SPEND YOUR FREE TIME?

In the spring of 2000, Professor Linda Caldwell and her research team at Penn State University administered tests to a group of junior high school students–  tests that measured how students used their free time. The researchers found that all of the students in the study exhibited low levels of interest and passion— in other words, they hadn’t yet discovered pursuits that passed the Saturday-morning test.

A year later, however, the tests were administered to the same group of students, with results that were significantly different. Within the timeframe of a year, a subset of the students now had much higher levels of interest and lower levels of boredom. They had “gravitated toward things they really liked; they were more likely to take initiative and start new projects; and they were skilled at transforming free time into something productive or exciting.”

The only difference between the two subsets of students was this: those who became more “interest-prone” as described above had been taught how to use their free time productively, whereas the others had not.

Yes, folks, it’s really that simple: if you want to discover a deep interest or “passion,” then all you need to do is carve out abundant free time and learn to use it properly. Read this as: anyone can develop a deep interest— even YOU.

HOW TO MAKE EFFECTIVE USE OF YOUR FREE TIME

During your free time, Caldwell says, “you need to be exposed to many things— you should expose yourself even though you might not know if you’ll be interested: find out about and attend events on the local college campus and in your community, and ask yourself, ‘Did I enjoy this?’”

The main takeaway here is this: your “passion” or your career path is not something that you can select just by going through a pre-existing list, determining what looks interesting, and then meticulously selecting your pursuit. This is the way most people operate, and yet they often end up unhappy in their chosen pursuits.

Instead, in order to discover a true deep interest, you need to immerse yourself. You need to go out and actually expose yourself to many, many things— things that you may have no idea beforehand whether they will interest you or not. Then, when one of these things does capture your interest, you should continue to follow up on it and see where it leads you. Quite often, it will lead you toward something that you never could have predicted in the first place— not by “brainstorming,” not by choosing from a list, and not by taking a strengths assessment.

For example, consider a student that Newport mentions in his book, Olivia. Olivia learned through her parents that their next-door neighbor was a marine biologist who studied lobsters. On a whim, she asked if she could volunteer at the neighbor’s lab during the summer for free— he said yes, and she began helping out with menial tasks. The following summer he offered her a paid position, and her duties were upgraded to helping study the migration patterns of horseshoe crabs. For Olivia, she found that this pursuit passed the Saturday-morning test: her idea of relaxation became inseparable from reading biology books and studying horseshoe crabs.

Now here’s the thing: if Olivia had simply looked down a list of “interests” or career paths to pursue, she never could have imagined that she’d be interested in studying horseshoe crabs— and even if she HAD somehow known this, she would have had no idea where to start in order to pursue this interest.

Instead, she started by using her free time and initiative to explore the opportunities already at hand, and she followed up on the opportunity when she found that it captured her interest.

After several years of struggling to find the right pursuits (I studied psychology and then accounting in college, and then I skipped from job to job to job), I accidentally began using Newport’s method. Since 2008, I have been using my free time to explore the following subjects that caught my interest (as well as  many others which did not catch my interest and which I therefore abandoned):

  • I regularly read blogs like Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You to be Rich and Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity.
  • Through blogs like this, I stumbled upon online marketing leaders like Seth Godin, whose ideas I became interested in. I followed up on this interest by reading Godin’s books and by branching out to similar authors and thinkers.
  • I also became deeply interested in different areas of psychology and spirituality that I had been exposed to in college, and I also continued to read about and to explore these topics during my free time.

Finally, I it dawned on me that perhaps blogging was one way to bring together all the separate interests that I had begun to accumulate. I followed up on this idea and began writing my own blog.

Blogging hasn’t yet led me toward a career path, per se, but it has led me to what I believe is a deep interest— and with time, there are certainly many ways I can use my developing skills to branch out into lucrative pursuits. When I wake up on Saturday mornings, this is one of the first things I want to do, which is a heck of a lot more than I could’ve said for myself a few years ago.

In the three short months since I began, my blogging pursuit has led me to (1) land a spot as a columnist for the Boise State newspaper (first issue coming soon!), and (2) attend the WDS Conference where I have met many wonderful and similarly inclined people, and (3) develop many valuable skills that I had studied, but not practiced, in the past. As I continue to branch out and to pursue related opportunities, who knows where I’ll be led. It will most certainly be somewhere that I never could have dreamt up from the get-go.

The hard thing about Newport’s method is just that: it takes time, and it’s not always evident where the path may lead.

In the end, though, I think it’s worth it. Use your free time to explore the opportunities around you, and be patient enough to let them lead you toward your passion.

# # #

You are totally going to laugh at me, but the wisdom quoted in this post is from Cal Newport’s book, “How to Become a High School Superstar,” which teaches students how to develop a deep interests and pursue related pursuits that will get them noticed and accepted into college. Here’s the secret, though: this book isn’t just for high school students, and it doesn’t just apply to getting into college. It’s for anyone who wants to pursue an interesting life and to stand out in their pursuits. Highly recommended.

[Image credit: Untitled blue]

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  • Wow, horseshoe crabs. Three cheers for Olivia! I’m going to seriously consider what I do in my free time (aside from read, which I do in every free second) to try and find more passions.

    • therese

      Good, Helena! Let me know how it turns out :)

  • Alana

    I love this! Thank you!

  • Kenny

    I really enjoyed this post! I’ll have to keep my eyes and ears open for new opportunities to learn new things. Thanks again

  • djddj

    I spend my free time staring at a dead TV thinking about how I have no life

  • Lex

    Uhh the paradox of choice…

  • Zack Owens

    I spend my free time browsing facebook. Not because it’s fun or interesting but because it’s the most mindless activity I can do while they try to think of anything to interest them.

  • Jon Stafford

    If I wake up on a Saturday morning with no obligations, I go back to sleep. I have tried exposing myself to a wide variety of things. In fact, my whole life has been casting from one thing to the next, trying to find something that interests or excites me. So far I have found nothing. Sure, some things are less onerous than others, and I am fortunate to have a job that I don’t utterly despise, but I don’t love it, and if I didn’t have to make a living I wouldn’t do it. What I like most is being DONE, in other words, not having any work or obligations left to fulfill. When I am involved in a task, all I can think is that I want to be done. I derive no pleasure or satisfaction from completing a task, even if it’s done well; I’m just glad to be done. I don’t have any hobbies or interests, not for lack of trying, but because nothing interests me for long. I rarely even finish a book. The things I enjoy the most are sleeping and watching TV. Those are my only answers to the Saturday morning test. That’s my passion: not having responsibilities. Anyone hiring?

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