I worked with a client recently who faced a very common and somewhat tricky challenge when it comes to making a career change.
John (whose name I’ve changed for this post) had been in software development for 20 years when he approached me for help figuring out what type of work might be a better fit for him.
He didn’t hate his job, and it provided well for his family, but he was increasingly feeling like it wasn’t a good fit for him. He wanted to find work that he cared more about, and that was a better match for his interests.
The problem was, he wasn’t sure what his interests (or true passions) were. That is to say, he wasn’t sure which of his many interests were ultimately worth pursuing.
But to fully understand John’s conundrum, we need to go back to the beginning. And getting help, as most of us know, is hardly ever the beginning of any story…
Discovering a world of passion
The story of John’s career change actually starts in Sweden.
When he was 30 years old, John went on an audacious solo trip across Europe. It was while facing the challenges of travel and rediscovering self confidence after a divorce that he found out he was capable of far more than he’d thought.
He also realized that there was a whole world out there waiting to be discovered.
He began getting out of his comfort zone more and more as he explored various passions he hadn’t even known he’d had—things like cycling, painting, and even acting.
His explorations contributed to greater self-confidence, brought more joy and excitement into his life, and even led him to meet a new woman he would later marry and start a family with.
The downside to being passionate
The good news was, John had a lot of passions. The bad news was, John had a lot of passions.
John had a rich life after work filled with lots of activities that he enjoyed, and he had even started his own business leading fun science experiments at birthday parties on the weekends when he realized how much he loved entertaining and educating kids.
The trouble was, as John found more passions outside of work, he grew more dissatisfied with the lack of fulfillment he felt from 9-5. He began to realize that his work in software had little to do with his greatest talents and joys, and he had the growing sense that something better was possible.
At the same time, he had no clarity about which of his various interests was worth pursuing. They were diverse, seemingly unrelated, and none was calling to him clearly.
What’s more, John’s passions were not just plentiful; they were also inconsistent. He tended to get very excited about one particular activity and pursue it avidly, only to lose his interest in it some time later. Even his business was no longer exciting him the way it had when he’d started it.
When we met, John felt lost, unsure of whether he could ever choose one thing to work on, and doubtful whether any passion could sustain him long-term.
The key to overcoming John’s challenge was to stay with things longer than he would normally have liked so that he could observe what came up when he did.
He stuck with his business, for example, and continued to engage with it even though it no longer felt exciting and shiny. He paid attention to how he felt when he did so—emotionally, and in his body—and found that many aspects of his business still energized him, but he got the urge to quit when things didn’t go as he’d hoped and doubts began to arise.
He also realized that he had been too focused on conducting business operations he wasn’t even sure were worth pursuing and listening to the advice of other business owners instead of answering the questions “What do I want?” and “Why am I doing this?”
When John realized this, he began to see his business as a learning experiment, a way to find answers to those questions. And he started to be able to separate out when he wanted to stop doing something because it was getting challenging versus when he wanted to quit something because it didn’t feel right to him.
He began to be able to stay with the discomfort of the challenges and found that when he did, his interests were more consistent than he thought.
The power of observation
At the same time, John paid more attention to his emotional and somatic reactions in his daily life (through meditation, he was able to quiet his “monkey brain”). With careful observation, he found that one set of passions did, in fact, rise above the others.
What he discovered is that his body lit up the most when he was entertaining people. He wasn’t so excited about the scientific aspect of his business, but the part where he brought joy to children consistently energized him. He observed the same thing happening anytime he was entertaining others. He began to accept that his purpose lay in helping others experience joy, feel better about themselves, and learn through laughter.
John began to experiment and explore to find job ideas that would both provide for his family and involve what he loved most about entertaining. He realized that he could start offering clowning to the birthday parties he served in his business, and he was thrilled to discover that he could put many of his entertaining skills to use in the field of corporate team building.
He’s currently exploring each of these ideas, and is excited about both possibilities.
John still has challenges he needs to overcome. But the amazing thing is, he feels good about choosing one of his many interests to pursue, and he’s confident that his passion for it will last.
And he’s finally enjoying the process of exploring his next steps, now that he’s realized that his many passions aren’t a problem and he can overcome any challenge if he just stays with it long enough.
The moral of the story
Having a lot of passions isn’t a problem. Nowhere is it written that you have to choose one thing and one thing only to do the rest of your life.
I recently wrote a post that offers options for those of us who are multi-passionate, and it shares some benefits of moving around frequently.
If you’re not sure which interests to pursue, try observing them carefully. Pay attention to how your body responds when you engage with each one, and start to look for patterns in what lights you up. Also get curious about what makes you want to deepen your involvement with your passions and what exactly triggers you to want to run for the hills.
The only problem with passions is when we refuse to commit to them because we worry they won’t satisfy us long-term. That’s when we bounce back and forth, uncertain and confused, unwilling to pursue one long enough to find out the truth.
The key, then, is to choose to explore a passion long enough to get more information about it. It doesn’t matter so much which one you start with, since this is one of those times when a wrong turn can actually be the shortest distance between two points. As long as you commit to deepening your experience with something and observing what happens when you do, you’ll find your way to what you love most.
Don’t be afraid to take action before you’re certain—this isn’t something you can figure out in your head. The only way to know if something is worth committing to is by committing to it—for now, at least, or long enough for you to deepen into it and learn what it has to teach.