Joseph Campbell, the great American scholar and mythographer, used to advise his students to "follow your bliss." If you do, Campbell assured them, doors will open. His point was not that some mysterious, supernatural power will intervene on your behalf but that if you find and pursue a passion (as opposed to an obligation), you will do so with energy, enthusiasm and focus. Indeed, some argue that we ought to re-think our whole approach to education, helping the child to discover such passion instead of stuffing his head with information he will soon forget.
Before looking at the subject in more detail, it must be stressed that your passion is just that – your passion. It must come right out of the heart of you. In other words, do not fake it. Do not pretend to enjoy something just because you think it is cool or hope that others will like you more. They won't! No one likes a fake, and no one respects those too weak to follow their own path. On the other hand, your friends may mock your love of bird-watching or Harry Potter, but stick to it and they will grudgingly respect you.
Indeed, any therapist will tell you that authenticity, meaning the strength to assert your own, true self, is vital to good mental health. Maturity involves breaking away from the herd and establishing such a self. Of course, some are strong enough to do this from the start, but most spend adolescence trying to fit in: pretending to like music they hate, playing sports they find dull, and hanging out with people they dislike. One of the great pleasures of ageing is that you care less and less what others think of you. At last you can listen to classical music or take up ballet without fearing the rejection and mockery of school bullies and college cliques.
Begin by recalling childhood. What did you love doing as a child? Think of those golden days before hormones, spots, and adolescent insecurity. In general, children are left alone to explore the things they like. Once you hit your teens, on the other hand, certain things are expected of you. And of course pressure builds to do homework, revise for exams, choose a college degree, pick a career, etc.
What did you naturally gravitate towards? What did you love at around 10 or 11-years-old? Though people change a great deal over the course of their lives, such changes are superficial. Your essential temperament or personality type remains unaltered. And the same is true of intellect and emotional intelligence. Sensitive introverts, with an instinctive love of art and nature, do not become pragmatic, literal-minded extroverts.
Ask your friends if they have ever rediscovered a childhood passion. Most are distracted first by relationships, then career, and ultimately children. When people reach their 50s or 60s, however, they will often unearth the guitar or fishing rods they treasured at 11 or 12. Others will go back to butterfly collecting or martial arts.
Another related exercise is to imagine yourself 20 or 30 years in the future looking back at yourself now. Picture yourself in extreme old age, completely free of all social anxiety or self-consciousness. What would you tell yourself now? What is holding you back from joining the local choir or taking up archery?
Work is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to discovering and pursuing your passion. First, it eats up huge amounts of time. It also preoccupies people even during their leisure time, especially when they run their own business. And of course there is the matter of sheer exhaustion. Do not mistake your work for your passion. Many people do this to help them cope, convincing themselves they love a career they secretly loathe. Teaching offers a good example. Oscar Wilde famously observed that "those who can, do, those who can't, teach," and it is certainly true that many drama teachers secretly long to be actors, just as many science teachers wish they were researchers in a laboratory.
Above all, do not allow your job to become your identity – to swallow you up and consume you. You do your job because you need to, but you do your passion because you have to, because you couldn't bear life without it. And remember, a passion does not have to bring you money, recognition, or fame; you don't even need to be good at it.
In searching for a new passion, you could try listing every job or career you loathe. Now imagine a guardian angel could grant you any job in the world, for which you'd be paid the same as you earn right now. What would it be? Think of someone whose career you really envy. That could be anyone, from your brother-in-law to a famous celebrity. Consider why you chose them. In this way, you may find an interest you never knew you had.
If you are still finding it difficult to identify your passion, try a different approach. Think of a few things you are OK at and enjoy. Make a list of them. Now see whether any of these skills could be combined. So, for example, let's say you love language and have written a few serious poems. No matter how hard you try, you just don't seem able to produce anything good. But you also love stand-up comedy and Monty Python and pride yourself on your sense of humor. Why not try combining them? Drop the serious poetry and start writing light, comic verse instead.
Look at those successful in business. They often achieve this success by combining several talents. An obvious example would be Steve Jobs, who was not an outstanding designer or engineer, nor an exceptional salesman or businessman. However, he was good enough at all these things to produce something special. Or take a sports star like David Beckham. As a player he was unexceptional. Another Soccer legend, George Best, once observed, "he can't kick with his left foot, can't head a ball, and can't tackle – apart from that he's alright." But Beckham rose to captain the English soccer team.
Nothing will hold you back more than fear. Adults often hesitate to try something new from a fear of looking foolish. Others simply fear failure. Many have never quite shaken an adolescent dread of rejection. This possibly explains the awful habit adults have of living through their children. You have probably heard friends or family inform a child that, "I have booked you piano lessons. You are so lucky – I never had the chance when I was young." The child will, quite rightly, be thinking "but you have the chance now!" Consider the things you have tried to steer your children into. Are these things you secretly long to try yourself?
Make a pact to spend a year living without fear. Try everything. Say yes to everything. Remember, you can easily develop a passion for something you had previously dreaded or loathed. Imagine a man in his fifties. The kids have left home and he is lost and bored. All his life he's prided himself on his tough, macho reputation. One day his wife suggests they take up ballroom dancing. He cannot imagine anything worse. Eventually he is persuaded, but he begs his wife not to tell his buddies down the bar. Within six months he could not care less – it has become an all-consuming passion.
You are unlikely to find your passion overnight. Instead of waiting for a "Eureka!" moment, be prepared to take your time. And be prepared to experiment, to try things you could never imagine yourself doing in a million years. It is no good dismissing everything as boring. As the saying goes, if you find life boring it is probably because you are boring.