The intersection of Interest and Passion

Recently a student of mine challenged the assertion of finding and following your passion.  He had seen a Ted talk by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, where in it Mr. Rowe challenges what he refers to as the sacred cow of following your passion.  “Follow your dreams and go broke” Mr. Rowe jokes.  During the presentation Mr. Rowe cites several success examples; a Las Vegas pig farmer who collects food scraps from casinos to feed his pigs, and a dairy farmer who makes biodegradable flower pots from cow dung who both are well balanced, happy, successful people who would laugh at the notion that they followed their passion.  While Mr. Rowe is most likely correct that collecting food scraps and transforming cow dung is not someone’s passion, it does present for me a deeper question of the difference between interest and passion.  I believe that we have confused the terms interest and passion, often mistakenly using them interchangeably.

Interest is driven by multiple factors of experiences, perception, background, socioeconomics etc.  We, as humans are able to use the neo-cortex, often referred to as the thinking part of our brain that houses language skills, to explain these interests.  We typically have a story associated with an event, an experience or background explaining how we got involved in a particular discipline.  Maybe that is what our parents did, a teacher who inspired us or some other influential figure in our life.  Maybe we had some experience, positive or traumatic, that moved us to be involved in a particular cause or movement.  Perhaps this was the opportunity available that was a means to provide basic needs of food and shelter; i.e. pays the bills.

In contrast, Passion is driven by something much more innate to our being, influenced by personality that studies suggest is determined by brain structure itself.  The limbic region of the brain houses the emotions and often is referred to the feeling and reacting part of the brain responsible for anger, happiness, love, etc.  This region of the brain is not responsible for language and thus we struggle to explain the passion of why we love someone, or enjoy a particular hobby.  We say things like; it is a gut feeling or it is just sense I have.  However, we recognize that there is something giving us energy or exciting us in some indescribable way.

I am reminded of a coaching client who was an avid and self described “exercise nut”.  He had grown up in a household where sports and exercise were highly valued.  He was a star athlete focused on sports and conditioning, and when his playing days in college came to an end he struggled to find his path.  By virtue of his experiences and circumstances he fell into coaching sports and personal fitness training.  Neither was particularly fulfilling nor was he particularly successful by his standards.  However, well meaning people continued to encourage him, after all ….sport and exercise was his “passion”.  After completing a personality and aptitude assessment he embarked on discovery coaching journey.  It did not take long to uncover the discontentment he was feeling.  Although he had great interest in sports and exercise, he did not have the passion for relating to and teaching others.  These activities were draining him of his energy and excitement, and negatively affecting his interest in sports and exercise.  Further discussion led to discover that he very much enjoyed taking things apart and understanding how they worked.  He often was tinkering with various items in his apartment repairing or improving functionality.  He was drawing energy, recharging himself, from these activities and didn’t even realize, or at least had not been able to articulate to himself or others, how this was happening.  Through the coaching sessions he was able to create a plan to seek opportunities for education and employment to work with the design and functionality of exercise equipment.  This intersection of his interest of sports and exercise, along with his passion of deliberative and analytical activities related to how things work, now provides excitement energizing and motivating his daily life.

It is my assertion that when you have an intersection of both interest and passion, synchronizing the use of both parts of the brain, is when you can be most fulfilled and successful (whatever success is to you).  This is what creates the happy, well balanced, successful people Mr. Rowe describes in his Ted talk who found gratification in their dirty job, and the self described “exercise nut” who adjusted his perspective.  Recognizing your interests and correlating them to your innate passions enable planning, taking action and obtaining satisfaction and contentment.

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