Finding Passion and Meaning
© 2022 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, September/October issue, 2022
One of my coaching clients came to me because she was dissatisfied with her job. She was a well-paid lawyer, but she didn’t actually like being a lawyer. “So, what do you like?” I asked her. “Is there something you’re more passionate about?” “Painting,” she answered. “But I’m not very good at it. So nobody’s going to pay me to do that.” “Okay,” I replied. “But what kind of job or work could you imagine yourself doing that you’d be more excited about?” She was quiet for a few minutes, thinking. Then she shook her head with a discouraged shrug of her shoulders. “I have no idea,” she said.
Graduation speakers often regale young people with the importance of “following your passion.” But what if you don’t know what that is? How do you go about finding it? Granted, a lot of pilots and mechanics are in those jobs explicitly because they have a passion for that activity. That’s what inspired them to undergo the training and expense involved in gaining that expertise. But aviation is a broad industry, and many of us end up working in jobs that are more the result of stumbling into available opportunities than anything we envisioned or planned as our life’s dream, fulfilled.
So if we’re not already blissfully engaged in dream jobs we’re absolutely passionate about––work we’d do anyway, even if we weren’t getting paid for it––is there anything we can do about that? The short answer is … YES. ABSOLUTELY. And there are two different ways we can and should go about it.
The first has to do with discovering what might spark passion within us. It sounds pretty basic, but in order to discover, we have to explore. Live, and in person. We have to step outside of our comfort zones and routines and open ourselves up to new types of people and experiences that might––often much to our surprise––spark a vision or idea of what might really excite us to pursue. I never thought about being a pilot until a biplane flew overhead one May evening and I decided, “What the heck!” and went in search of a possible ride in it. That search led to my spending most of that summer’s Saturdays working on a collection of old airplanes in exchange for rides. And more than the rides themselves, it was realizing that I really loved that lifestyle: the people, the adventures, and the grab-hold-of-life-with-two-hands energy I felt in that world, that inspired me to get my license.
But if we have no idea what might interest us, how do we figure out where to start that exploring? To a large degree, it doesn’t even matter, as long as we work on expanding our experiences with an explorer’s mindset; evaluating how different things do or don’t resonate with us, and why. And then pondering if or how we might incorporate those things into a job or career. My biplane impulse pretty much came out of nowhere, and yet, it led me to a career and life overflowing with passion and reward. Sometimes, our impulses are actually born out of innate interests and inclinations we just haven’t recognized yet. On the other hand, it’s often helpful to start by thinking about aspects of our jobs or lives we already enjoy. If we know, for example, that we love being outdoors, or we love working with our hands, or what parts of our jobs we like best, that can help us brainstorm related activities or opportunities we might want to explore.
The second way to finding passion is less heralded, but it can be equally effective, and even more rewarding. And that is, we can go in search of passion’s quieter, deeper cousin: a sense of meaning. We all want to feel passion, but what we actually need to feel, in order to be happy, is a sense of meaning in our work and lives. What’s the difference? Passion doesn’t have to affect anyone but ourselves. We can be passionate about skiing, or tennis, or travel, just because we love doing it. Meaning, on the other hand, comes from doing something that: a) is aligned with our deepest values;, and b) we believe is important to, or positively impacts, someone or something beyond ourselves.
Seeking a sense of meaning, either as an alternative or as a first step toward finding our passions, has several advantages. As noted, it’s actually more critical to our happiness. But it’s also often easier to find. Most of us have a number of deeply held values, any or all of which can point us to work or activities that we’ll find meaningful. But meaning can also be found not only in what we do, but in how we do it.
If we’re working on curing cancer, achieving world peace, or feeding the hungry, seeing the meaning in our work is easy. And yet, the truth is, we have impact beyond ourselves no matter what our jobs are, by how we go about doing that work.
I had a high school English teacher named Mrs. Boersma who used to give out “Quality of the Day Raiser” awards to students who made the day better for their fellow classmates. It’s not a bad ideal to aspire to. If we value community or helping people, our jobs can become meaningful to us just by focusing on how we’re impacting the work of others, or those we interact with: being a great teammate, being supportive and non-critical, being reliable, accountable, and kind to those around us, and doing our best to solve people’s problems and make their jobs and days easier. All I have to do is think about all the times when someone was pompous, lazy, uncaring, arrogant or officious in an interaction with me, and how that ruined my whole day, to realize just how much meaningful impact I can have on the lives of people around me.
Beyond that, we can find meaning in what our jobs make possible: providing or caring for our families, or enabling us to do other meaningful things in our spare time. You can’t find passion just by reframing your perspective on what you’re doing. But a lot of times, you can find meaning that way.
But here’s the kicker, when it comes to meaning and passion. They are related. So if we feel as if our work is meaningful, however we get to that endpoint, that can lead us to feel passionate about doing it, even if it isn’t the full-throttle “Yee-haw!” kind of emotion we imagine when we envision what passion feels like. Passion, like love, comes in a wide variety of shades and colors. And the deeper hues of devotion and caring deeply about something can be just as rewarding, and far easier to balance with the other needs and responsibilities in our lives, as the neon reds and yellows of an adrenaline-powered ride.