Almost one year ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing high school students interested in attending my alma mater, Northwestern University. It is an incredible privilege to speak with these students, as I know that my assessment may influence their future collegiate decisions. I tag teamed many of the interviews with my now friend and fellow alumni, Greg. We were in awe of the intelligent and compassionate students we talked with during those hours, and talked between breaks about how we might help these students. Because it is my nature, I tended to ask the students about their passions and sprinkle in a bit of wisdom wherever possible. :)

I remember those days as a high school student, feeling like everything in the world was riding on test scores and admission letters. It is a difficult and exciting time. And at no time is encouragement needed more. Getting a rejection letter from your first choice school can really feel like the end of the world!

After those interviews last year, I received just two emails of follow-up (after over ten interviews) from the students. But those two emails were from two of the most incredible students — let’s call them Anthony and Shari ;) — I spoke with, so I was delighted to receive them! An amazing thing happened…for the last year, Anthony and Shari have continued to keep in touch as they have started their collegiate journey! In fact, I was able to walk Northwestern’s campus with Shari during her first semester! Though I haven’t done the same at Harvard yet with Anthony, it’s on the agenda :)

I received a recent holiday note (kind, as always) from Anthony asking me how I found my passion and what advice I would give on how to get there. His email touched me at the core! After thinking about it all morning, it brought to mind people that have approached me after my discussion/book signing events and told me, I don’t know what I want. Indeed, I often say that the hardest thing in the world is figuring out what you want. Because once you know what you want, you can figure out how to get there.

So after giving the question a bit of thought, I’m going to take a crack at answering it here, on this post. This one’s for you, Anthony! ;)

how to figure out what you want

Determining what you really want is very difficult because it is a moving target. To take a simple example from my morning, in one moment you may want to go to the gym, but in the next you may feel deeply moved to write all of your thank you cards for the holidays. Haha Of course, you can do both, but you just can’t do them at the same time. So how do you figure out which one to do first? In my case, I left the house for the gym, but realized I forgot to take out the trash. Once I was back in the house, my urge to write the cards (and perhaps put off the gym haha) was so strong that I sat down and wrote the cards. And now I’m writing this post (something I want to do), but I still plan to take out the trash and go to the gym…haha!

So okay, how does that relate to your college major? Essentially, there will always be things that you need to do for your health and wellness like going to the gym and taking out the trash. Think of these as the foundational courses that you have to get through during your freshman/sophomore years. These are often weed out courses that very few students actually enjoy. (As an Industrial Engineering major, this was Calculus 3 and Physics for me!) They can make your question your sanity and decision about your major. These courses usually have nothing to do with your passion haha. I honestly didn’t love my major until I started taking classes like Entrepreneurship and Negotiation in my junior/senior years. Later I realized that those foundational courses helped me to learn how to problem solve and create study teams to make it through.The weed out courses helped to establish community through mutual suffering haha  

Remember: Developing your skill, even in a passion area, is not always going to be fun. Writers get writer’s block, athletes don’t always want to practice, and scientists sometimes don’t want to run the experiment again.

But then you have elective courses that you want to do. These are classes that you really look forward to and make you think about making career changes. For me, these were classes like Social Psychology and, to my surprise, Anthropology. However, even though I enjoyed these courses, I couldn’t really see myself pursuing either of these areas professionally. I wanted to help people solve problems. And with Engineering, I saw a clear pathway to do this through improving systems. (Ironically, this later involved in a more spiritual way, and I still see myself helping people to solve problems through their own evolving awareness…things don’t really change that much I suppose ;) Technically, I could have helped people to solve problems as a psychologist or anthropologist, but I never saw myself helping patients one by one. I wanted to help a lot of people at once.

So, my first advice is to reduce what you want to do into a sentence that does not include a job title. Example ways to start: “I want to help people to…” or “I want to create a company that will contribute…to the world.” or “I would like to start a nonprofit to eliminate…from the world.” or “I want to share my gift of…to bring people joy and happiness.” Start with this: What do you feel called to contribute to the world?

After you identify the first part of what you want to do, establish how you would like to do it. In my example above, I identified that I wanted to help people by improving systems. This could have been 1:1 counseling, nonprofit work, or through developing a new technology. To answer this, determine where you see yourself. In my example, I visualized having a person laying on the couch while taking notes (no thanks), writing grants for donations (not so much), or flying around the world to help companies make things better/faster/cheaper (at the time, ding ding!).

The reality is that your professional pursuit is going to take many hours of your life. So work on visualizing your ideal lifestyle. It is not always a simple answer because passions are a complex thing. It is not always about what  you like to do. You also have to like how (think developing new formula in lab or designing new product) and where (would you prefer working from home, an office, shared space, outside?) you’re doing it. The “who” matters too, but that is not always something within your control haha. (If you can, find people that vibe with your spirit and inspire you!)

identifying other interests

Another way to back into your passions is to identify your other interests. What types of magazines and books do you buy? What channels/shows do you watch on TV? What types of activities do you pursue on a volunteer basis that you enjoy? What do you like to do on vacation? When you travel, how do you spend your time?

I’ll use myself as an example. Two magazines come to mind that I read/enjoy…The Harvard Business Review and design magazines like Wallpaper and Choi’s Gallery (which I think is now out of print…sadly!). Entrepreneurism has always been a big interest, and I like how HBR articles deep dive in a particular area to help re-imagine how something is done from a business perspective. I keep their magazines. I like flipping through Wallpaper and Choi’s Gallery for inspiration. I like seeing the cool design happening in the world. These are not necessarily my primary interests, but they start forming a picture as to how I might connect my dots of interest. What are your magazines telling you?

My books are more telling. They fall into four basic categories: Spiritual, Business, Mystery (Fiction), and Art/Photography. I love to read but I rarely detour from these four areas. It is difficult for me to read an autobiography, for example. A book on Zen or Taoism, I’ll pick up right away and start reading in the book store. If I become interested in a certain business topic (most recently, branding), I’ll buy the most interesting books and highlight them as I read to become informed. Mystery books are undoubtedly linked to my passion for problem solving, and I’ll stay up until 3am to figure out “whodunnit”! I love having Art/Photography books all around to skim through for inspiration and beauty.

From a television perspective, the recipe is simple. I tend to like crime mysteries (especially with a bit of humor) and basketball. Shows like Castle, NCIS, and Law&Order are easy for me to binge watch on Netflix haha Perhaps sports speak to my competitive side? And it’s fun to cheer for others putting their passions on display :)

As for the other questions, I love to volunteer to help children in need, and when I travel, I love befriending locals and making connections with people. I do a fair amount of relaxing on vacation, but I like to also have a few adrenaline fueled adventures and nights of live music too!

So, if you add that all up for me, you get something like this: entrepreneurism + design + art + zen +problem solving + mystery + help children + relaxing + adventures!

It is difficult to pick one passion out of that, right? But how about if we phrase it like this: started publishing company + wrote book to incorporate zen+art (while traveling around the world) to help inspire others + volunteers with homeless children + partnered with local comic book company to donate additional comic books and toys to homeless children + a little bit of added mystery and adventure ;)

It fits, right?! But it is all in how you connect the dots. There are endless possibilities and the choice is always yours to make. There is always room to change the combination and come up with another solution!

connecting your dots

My path to discover my areas of passion has had many twists and turns…and I’m sure there will be many more! The skills that I gained along the way have helped to provide the foundation to help me make my next steps. There is no wrong answer. Each experience provides guidance and direction to help you make your next choice.

So as you are deciding how to connect your dots, embrace the understanding that you don’t have to know exactly how it is going to turn out. My advice would be to pick something that you enjoy that will provide the most solid foundation for all of the things you’d like to do. For me, that was engineering. It was flexible enough to give me the freedom to go into a lot of different directions…including business, another passion area. At the time, I wasn’t aware that writing was an area of passion…or that I’d one day write a book! But studying English would have felt too limiting for me when my interests were more strongly in other areas. There is always room for hobbies, or as I like to call them, passion projects ;)

Figuring out what you want becomes a life long journey. So you should do everything you can to follow your bliss, while understanding that every moment will not necessarily feel like a vacation. Allow yourself room to develop your skills so that you can later use them in a variety of ways. Enjoy the journey…for the journey really is your life ;)

One day, you will realize that everything will line up perfectly and understand that everything that happened could not have happened any other way ;) I have total faith that everything will be perfect!

So many blessings to you and I’m excited to see you continue to share your gifts with the world!


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Photo source: Mountain Climbing