The process of not only finding your passion—but also pursuing it—is a gestalt with many interconnected qualities. For most leaders I’ve worked with, that process encompasses seven stages:
1. Get Quiet Enough to Hear Your Passion Calling You
from which life emerged. Silence is our deepest nature,
2. Have Courage to Heed the Call
Once you hear the call of your passion, tremendous courage is required to heed that call. It requires that you face fears, losses, challenges, and failures. The cultivation of your courage comes as you face difficult questions: What am I willing to give up in order to pursue my passion? What am I losing by not pursuing my passion? Am I burned out? Am I courageous enough to risk the security of the known and pursue my passion, finding my gifts and giving them fully to the world?
3. Face and Befriend Your Fears
Courage guides us to the third stage of passion, where we are asked to face and befriend our fears. Most of us want to run from our fears. Paradoxically, it is by going toward our fears that we move toward our passion. We are not asked to overcome or resolve our fears completely. Rather, we are asked to befriend them. Fear is a necessary ingredient to passion. Indeed, it is part of what keeps the fire hot.
Often the fears that keep us from claiming our passion are deeply hidden and unconscious:
- Fear of disobeying an idealized father figure
- Fear of disobeying a patriarchal organization or culture
- Fear of betraying our mother who didn’t follow her passion
- Fear of displeasing or threatening our lover or spouse
- Fear of the inner critic who tells you that you are worthless and can’t follow your passion, that you don’t have what it takes, that you’re not enough
- Fear of confronting the litany of excuses that blocks your real passion; fear of failure, disappointment, not enough money, not enough time, not enough staff, not enough
These fears are inevitable. We need to go toward them in order to uncover them, talk about them, and transform them with mentors, counselors, or trusted colleagues. We need to use them as part of the fuel that fires our passion.
The seeds of your passion are born in silence. —Gail Straub
4. Face & Befriend the Unknown
Like all mythic quests, the journey to passion also requires us to face and befriend the unknown. To find our passion we often have to leave the familiar before we know exactly where we are going.
Most poetry, music, and art that moves us deeply is in some way about going to the edge and leaping empty-handed into the vast unknown. In the deep waters of the unfamiliar, creativity and passion live and thrive. Imagine risking what is familiar and safe in your work so that you might find what is passionate.
5. Revisit Your Earliest Passion
The blueprint for passion is set early for most of us. That blueprint shows up where we felt our greatest sense of belonging as children—in the natural world, with books, music, dressing up, building things, organizing tree house clubs, or finding new and dangerous adventures. My sister, for example, was forever in the creek behind our house. Only in mud and plants, with frogs and snakes for company, was she completely at home. Today she has found her passion as a wetlands ecologist—not such a far cry from her play in our childhood creek. Another friend enjoyed her greatest moments of belonging while listening to her grandmother tell stories. It was the deep listening that totally engaged her. Today she is a talented therapist, healing people through her gift of listening deeply to their stories.
6. Remember What Is Essential in Life
At the deepest level our passion is in close relationship with what is essential in life. Ironically, finding and living your passion have a close relationship to the questions you will ask at the end of your life: Did I love well? How have I touched the people at work, at home, and in my community? Have I given my best? Who, what, and how you love is inextricably bound to your passion.
This is what Gibran was talking about when he said, “To love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit, and to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.”
In working as a hospice volunteer, I’ve had the privilege of helping people review their lives before they die. Again and again, what was essential to most people centered around doing what they really loved, giving their best to life, and loving well. Recently I coached a minister who was working with firemen and rescue workers on the front lines at Ground Zero in New York City. He was struggling to understand the relationship between the indomitable passion he saw in the rescue workers and the unfathomable death all around them. In our dialogue it became clear that the death around them had brought out their very best. It had made them realize how short and precious life is, how important it is to give our best and not to hold back. Perhaps this is what September 11 asked of all of us.
7. Start a Passion Journal
Finally I want to switch from the sublime to the pragmatic and mention the final stage—starting a passion journal. In the spirit of Julia Cameron’s wonderful book The Artist’s Way, a passion journal is a simple diary in which each day you record one thing that generates passion. This can be something specifically related to your work, such as having lunch with a mentor or colleague who inspires you; or it can be something more general that ignites your creativity, such as arranging a vase of flowers, listening to music you love, taking out the hidden-away box of watercolors, or walking in a beautiful place. A daily journal entry exercises your passion muscles and gives you the flexibility to move out beyond familiar boundaries into the unknown.
Excerpted from Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership. Copyright © 2011 by Gail Straub.