The myth of the singular path

Conventional wisdom tells us, something to the effect of, “the way to achieve a happy, fulfilling and meaningful life is to find and live your ‘true’ passion”. This idea is fundamental to a variety of newly (ish) formed philosophical approaches to living, everything from the non-conformist, “Do What You Love (DWYL)” movement to digital nomadism.

This wisdom is helpful only if you subscribe to the belief that a ‘true’ passion exists.

But, what if it doesn’t exist?

In this article, I’d like to explore the idea that the singular path, and passion for that matter, is a myth; consider the unintended consequences of our current narrative; and suggest an alternative to the “find your ‘ true’ passion” guidance.

We glamorize the idea of finding our passion

Justine Musk brilliantly described the exercise of finding one’s passion like dealing with a cute and feisty pet. She stated, “at some point you learn that passion is not your bliss (or your bitch). It’s not anything so tame as what you might like or enjoy. It might bring no enjoyment at all…”.

Does anyone else feel as though our definition and chronic overuse of the term “passion” has caused it to become diluted, murky? While I have no qualms with people pursuing their hopes, dreams and dare I say, passions, I take issue with how society defines and views the approach of finding one’s passion.

The idea of passion finding is glamorized. It’s that elusive something that makes us feel whole, feel zen and feel challenged just enough. Because living your passion shouldn’t be too hard, right?

As readily as we applaud those who have the privilege and ability to find and live out their passion, we must be equally sensitive to the reality for the average human being in today’s world: our current definition and view of passion is inaccessible to the average person, for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: social inequities, vast socioeconomic disparities, oppression, gender and racial discrimination.

That said, let’s check ourselves before we are on the giving and/or receiving end of the “find your ‘true’ passion” guidance, and challenge the current definition and view by considering:

  • As it stands today, the journey of finding one’s passion is often reserved for those individuals of social or economic privilege.

 

  • The exercise of finding one’s passion can be labor and resource intensive, both emotionally and physically exhausting at times.

 

  • Could the guidance of finding one’s passion be mistakenly used as a substitution for finding out who you really are? Owning your identity?

First, be a critical observer

Before we hastily support movements like DWYL, digital nomadism, etc., let’s slow down and first become critical observers.

Reading Miya Tokumitsu, author of “Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness”, challenged my own perspective about the DWYL movement.

She writes, “DWYL is the ultimate individualist myth, one that normalizes a world in which most people have jobs that are barely this side of tolerable, because if we are special enough, hardworking enough, and love the work enough, we will make our way to the top. Those who didn’t make it didn’t love the work enough. Or just plain weren’t special enough. DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but it is an act of love. It’s the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

I’ll pause to let that paragraph sink in.

Especially in the digital age, where the ease of liking, re-tweeting and content sharing has the ability to turn an opinion piece into a full-fledged social movement virtually overnight, we have a responsibility to carefully vet before we share.

I confess that I, too, have fallen victim to the luster of such ideologies, especially those promoted by many of the revered entrepreneurial gods, without first considering how my own buy-in impacts the broader population. Before buying in, we must ask ourselves the hard questions, like:

  • Does my participation unhealthfully change my views about the way other people choose to live and work?
  • Does my participation risk developing a superiority complex?

An alternative to finding your “true passion”

The outcomes of “find your ‘true’ passion” counsel are mixed. At best, we may be inspired to entertain new interests, professional and personal. At worst, it’s anxiety inducing and leaves even the most well-adjusted people to question whether or not their life is “enough”.

Hm, so what’s an alternative?

The Odyssey Plan is an interesting option. Using a design thinking approach, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans developed The Odyssey Plan as a tool as a means to map out the multiple ways in which your life could unfold. This framework challenges black and white thinking and invites possibility rather than agonizing over the “right” or “wrong” choice, which is neither helpful nor productive.

How to use the Odyssey Plan

For starters, here’s a copy of the worksheet:

The first path in the document is the life you already live or the one that you have committed to as of now. The second path is the life you’d create if the opportunity to live the first life were suddenly gone. The third path is the life you’d live if money and image didn’t matter.

Here are the steps to filling out the worksheet:

1. Give each path a six-word title

2. Write down three questions about each version of your life

3. Rank each life path by: whether you have the resources to fulfill it; how much you like it; how confident you are in it; and whether it fits with your general perspectives on life and work

Once completed, it’s important to note that the purpose of the exercise isn’t to choose one path immediately, it’s to see what the alternatives are and sketch them out.

Burnett and Evans recommend sharing your Odyssey Plan alternatives with a group of three to six friends. Ideally, everyone fills out the sheet and shares.

When you are listening to others share their plans, be sure not to critique or even advise. Just reflect or ask the person sharing to tell you more about one of the points. The goal is to realize that there are many different paths and lives within you. There’s no one, right answer. Burnett and Evans write, “We all contain enough energy and talents and interest to live many different types of lives, all of which could be authentic and interesting and productive. Asking which life is best is asking a silly question; it’s like asking whether it’s better to have hands or feet.”

What’s Next

If you decompose this thing we all have in common, life, that is, at it’s core, it’s a series of micro decisions that compound into days, weeks, months and years that pass.

Each small scale decision we make will ultimately lead us down different paths, each of which can bring happiness, fulfillment and meaning.  We just need to accept that there are many paths. And often times, the paths may look radically different.

By changing the way we define and view passion finding; create a stronger sense of accountability for our involvement in the current narrative; and seek alternatives to the conventional “find your passion” guidance, we not only honor our own truth but the truths of others.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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